Beijing Court Accepts Case Requiring China's Censors to Justify Ban of Gay Content

Gay Pride China - Getty - H 2018

A court said it will hear a Shanghai man's legal challenge to a 2017 rule banning Chinese streaming-video services from carrying content that depicts gay relationships.

A Beijing court on Wednesday said that it will hear a case requiring China's media regulator to justify a recent classification of homosexuality as "abnormal."

Fan Chunlin, a 30-year-old man from Shanghai, filed a lawsuit Wednesday with Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court demanding that China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) clarify the policy basis for a regulation introduced last summer banning depictions of homosexuality from online video platforms. The court accepted Fan's case and is now required to hold hearings and issue a decision within six months, the plaintiff's lawyer, Tang Xiangqian, told local state media.

Fan's suit came in response to a new set of guidelines issued in June 2017 banning internet content providers from carrying programs that "present abnormal sexual lifestyles or behavior," including homosexuality. Altogether, 84 topics were banned by the rule, with other taboo subjects including portrayals of Chinese imperialism, "unhealthy" views towards money and sexual violence.

Fan made a formal request to SAPPRFT in June 2017 asking the regulatory body to disclose the legal basis of the ban's description of homosexuality as "abnormal." After the regulator replied by saying that the request did not fall under the scope for public information disclosure, he decided to pursue action through the courts.

Yanzi Peng, founder of LGBT Rights Advocacy of China, which has been supporting Fan and his lawyer, says he is not optimistic about the outcome of the case.

"We expect to lose somehow, because this is a national government department [we are challenging]," he says. "But we still wanted to file the case because we have to show the position from our community and to tell society that we are not abnormal."

China is estimated to be home to around 70 million people in the LGBTQ community, according to the state-backed Global Times newspaper. Violence is relatively rare in China, but in a survey conducted by the UN Development Program in 2017, more than half of the 30,000 LGBTQ Chinese polled said they had been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

Depictions of gay relationships have been banned on Chinese television for at least a decade, but the fast-growing streaming-video sector emerged so quickly in recent years that censors were caught playing catch-up, leaving the online space as something of a gray zone for a time. The rules issued in July were aimed at bringing the internet more in line with the draconian guidelines governing broadcast TV.

The official handling of gay content in Chinese cinemas and online has indeed often been erratic. Regulators have shown their discomfort with the subject on numerous occasions, blocking the theatrical release of Brokeback Mountain in 2006, for example, despite the star status of Taiwanese director Ang Lee in the country, and cutting Michael Fassbender's much-touted gay kiss (with himself) from the release of Fox's Alien: Covenant last year. 

Meanwhile, the widely celebrated fleeting "gay moment" in Disney's live-action Beauty and the Beast was allowed to run uncensored in Chinese cinemas in 2017. In that case, Beijing authorities even highlighted their tolerance, with The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, tweeting: "Controversial gay moment kept in Disney's #BeautyAndTheBeast ... requires no guidance for minor audience."

"This regulation is very important, because it's not just one film or program," says Peng of Fan's case. "It's a rule for all film and TV content on the internet. If this kind of regulation isn't challenged, it means that discrimination against homosexuality is officially OK in China."