LGBT Groups Call For Change in China's Schools, Colleges

Youngsters hold rainbow flags, a symbol for homosexuals, as they march on the street during an anti-discrimination parade in Changsha, central China's Hunan province, May 17, 2013. AFP
Dozens of grassroots Chinese rights activists have written to the the country's major educational institutions calling for equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students.

The activists, drawn from three major LGBT rights groups, called in an open letter for "corrections" to be made to teaching materials that might prompt discrimination, as well as for classes in gender diversity.

"We appeal to and encourage principals at all these universities to play a positive role in gender equality education, as well as to recognize these basic demands of [LGBT] students," the letter said.

The letter, signed by the Changsha-based China Same Sex Love (CSSL) group, the Beijing-based LGBT Rights Advocacy China, and Nanjing-based anti-discrimination group Justice for All, also called on staff and management teams at 112 Chinese universities to allow LGBT students to set up student societies and activity groups, something which isn't currently permitted.

The groups are also calling for better awareness and protection against the bullying of LGBT students in China's higher education system.

"When LGBT students are facing bullies, please guarantee their rights and offer them psychological support," the letter said.

It also called on universities and colleges to be "brave" and to make changes to regulations if they violate the rights of LGBT students.

Stigma persists

The move comes after a report from the Guangzhou-based Gay and Lesbian Campus Association revealed that, when homosexuality is mentioned in Chinese textbooks, 40 percent of the references define it as a mental illness.

"A university, as a place where culture and thought are fairly open, should cultivate hope and the future of the nation," the letter said.

"It should accept different voices and groups."

Bullying of LGBT students is rife from middle-school through to vocational colleges and universities across China, according to a May 2012 survey from the Aibai Culture and Education Center.

Three quarters of students surveyed said they faced verbal and physical abuse linked to their sexual orientation.

"We want the staff and principals of schools and colleges to protect the rights and interests of LGBT students," CSSL founder Xiang Xiaohan told RFA on Thursday.

"We want them to offer open access classes for students, in particular for heterosexual students...so that they have a more correct understanding of these minority groups," Xiang said.

"In many colleges, LGBT clubs and societies aren't accepted, although they are usually not explicitly banned in official documentation," he said.

"Instead, the staff will usually interfere [with their plans] ahead of time, with some unprecedented and lame excuse for refusing them."

More are coming out

More and more well-heeled urban Chinese have begun coming out in recent years, and while some find acceptance among their peers, social attitudes still strongly favor marriage and children.

Exactly how many Chinese would identify themselves as gay is still unknown, as social stigma associated with homosexuality remains widespread. Many choose to marry despite their orientation.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party treated homosexuality as a psychological problem for decades, removing it from an official list of mental disorders only in 2001.

Official statistics released in 2004 suggest that China is home to some 10 million people who identify as one of the LGBT minorities.

"We reckon that three in every hundred university students is probably LGBT," Xiang said.

A Beijing-based LGBT rights activist who gave only a nickname, Yanzi, said that coming out can be particularly tough for young people in Chinese universities.

"Some students will snigger at students who come out as gay or transgender behind their backs, and there have been cases of physical violence against them," Yanzi said.

"The situation is pretty serious, in particular because it's not recognized as such."

Diplomat, partner marry

The letter to the universities comes just days after a British diplomat caused an online stir by marrying his gay partner under British law in the Shanghai consulate.

Shanghai consul-general Brian Davidson wed his American partner, Scott Chang, on Saturday, creating a flurry of comment on China's hugely popular social media sites.

Photos of the newly wed couple, who were dressed in suits and bow ties, quickly went viral on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo, where comments were mostly positive from the service's generally younger, tech-savvy users.

Chen Yuan, founder of the Guangzhou Equal Opportunities Center, said one of the eventual aims of the LGBT rights movement is gay marriage and anti-discrimination legislation.

"Gay marriage is a pretty major goal," Chen said. "Not a single Asian country allows it yet, but in China there are no religious barriers."

"But there is still discrimination against sexual minorities, and it's very widespread."

Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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