October 1999

Press declares homosexuality abnormal




The story first appeared in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, headlined "Court declares homosexuality abnormal". 

The story was then carried, with only slight editing, in Singapore's Straits Times on 14 October 1999.

14 Oct 1999
Straits Times

Homosexuality abnormal, court in Beijing rules

In a landmark decision, a Beijing court has described homosexuality as abnormal and unacceptable to the public. Xuanwu District Court gave the verdict on Sept 30 in a case in which Mr Xu Yanguang sued author Fang Gang, 31, and a Jilin publishing firm for 60,000 yuan (S$11,500) for psychological damage and loss.

[the rest of the Straits Times article was virtually identical to the South China Morning Post article.]

Most people skim through newspaper articles; they don't stop to think and analyse the stories. Headlines and opening paragraphs make the chief impression. In this instance, readers would be left with the "fact" that a Chinese court has made a definitive ruling (a "landmark decision") that homosexuality was abnormal. As the second sentence in the SCMP report said, the verdict "ruled on the nature of homosexuality" (my emphasis).

A careful reading of the story would indicate that the court did no such thing. Not having the entire verdict, we cannot be sure what exactly the judge intended to say, but there was a clue contained within the press report, which contradicted the headlines.

The judge was quoted to have said, "Homosexuality in China today is considered as abnormal sexual behaviour and is not acceptable to the public." Note carefully the three words that I have put in bold: 'China', 'today' and 'considered'. In my opinion, a correct reading would be that she was ruling on the current social climate, not on homosexuality. She was saying that public opinion in a certain place (China), at a certain time (today) believed ('considered') that homosexuality was abnormal. She didn't make any judgement whether homosexuality per se was abnormal.

This would be consistent with the nature of the court case. It was a civil suit, not a criminal prosecution. Xu Yanguang, the plaintiff was asking the court for damages from Fang Gang, for hurting his reputation and causing loss. Reputation hinges on social climate. The court therefore had to make a judgement as to the prevailing social climate, and then see how the plaintiff had been disgraced and psychologically or financially injured, within the context of the society in which he lived.

In this case, it appeared from the details in the report that the court found that Chinese society today was homophobic, and that when the defendant Fang alluded to Xu being homosexual without any proof, Fang caused injury to Xu, who deserved compensation from the defendant for whipping up homophobia against him.

Isn't this lightyears away from the headlines, "Court declares homosexuality abnormal" in SCMP and "Homosexuality abnormal, court in Beijing rules" in ST?

* * * * * 

Just in case this subtle, but important, distinction is still difficult to grasp, let me give you another example: Imagine a society that is heavily infused with machismo -- men cannot ever do housework, or be seen in the kitchen. Roberto writes a book alleging that Felipe was seen wearing an apron and washing a saucepan (gasp!). Felipe becomes the butt of jokes and is fired from his job. Felipe sues Roberto. Roberto is asked to prove that what he wrote was true. He is unable to prove this. What is a judge to do?

So the judge rules that, yes, machismo is deeply embedded in that society, and Roberto damaged Felipe's reputation, without substantiation. Therefore Felipe should be awarded damages. The judge does not have to rule whether housework in itself is right or wrong, good or bad, just that their society, at that point in time, is full of bias against men doing it.

But then, in reporting the case, a newspaper headline says "Housework is abnormal behaviour, court rules". And machismo is vindicated.


South China Morning Post
Court declares homosexuality abnormal
MARK O'NEILL in Beijing

In a landmark decision, a Beijing court has described homosexuality as abnormal and unacceptable to the public. It is the first time a mainland court has ruled on the nature of homosexuality.

While most mainlanders regard homosexuality as distasteful or even immoral, there has been no legal description of the act. Xuanwu District Court delivered a verdict on September 30 in a case in which Xu Yanguang sued author Fang Gang and a Jilin publishing firm for 60,000 yuan (HK$55,000) for psychological damage and losses after he was alluded to in a book.

Fang's Homosexuals in China, published in April 1995, describes a 1993 St Valentine's Day party in Beijing attended by about 50 homosexuals and gay sympathisers, and five Chinese and foreign reporters. The book, which sold 70,000 copies, did not name Mr Xu but described him as the manager of a dance hall in which the party was held, saying he was a homosexual and a volunteer for a gay telephone hotline [1].

The court judgment said: "Homosexuality in China today is considered as abnormal sexual behaviour and is not acceptable to the public.

"Therefore, by describing the plaintiff as a homosexual without any proof, Fang Gang brought depression and psychological pain to him [Mr Xu] and affected his life and work, infringing his reputation."

The judge, Zhang Lihua, a woman in her 30s, found in favour of Mr Xu, awarding him 9,000 yuan damages, 7,000 to be paid by Fang and 2,000 by the Jilin People's Publishing House.

She ordered the two defendants to pay 1,800 yuan of the 2,390 yuan in legal costs. Fang was also ordered to publish a written apology approved by her in the Legal Daily, the newspaper of the Justice Ministry.

Mr Xu said as a result of the book's publication, he had become subject to suspicion and criticism by his friends and family. His fiancée of one year refused to marry him and no one wanted to have any dealings with him. He said he had been unable to find a job or live a normal life.

Fang said he was considering an appeal, which he must lodge by Friday. "My lawyer wants to appeal," said Fang, 31. "I feel the judgment is unfair. It is for doctors, not judges, to say if homosexuality is abnormal.

"The court says that it is considered abnormal, but by whom - all 1.2 billion Chinese? The most authoritative definition is by the World Health Organisation which has removed it from its list of illnesses."


Coming back to the Beijing case, this is another instance where the press through carelessness serves up discriminatory attitudes towards gay people even when the story does not merit it.

Well, at least the South China Morning Post and the Straits Times carried a long enough report for us to see what the judge actually said, and to see the inaccurate slant they took in their headlines. The New Paper, our afternoon tabloid that believes in keeping stories short and sharp, reduced the story to a newsbite (see box right).

If you just depended on the New Paper story, then it's pitch black. Gays are out! With headlines like that, readers absorb the idea that homosexuality is beyond the pale. It is perfectly legitimate to chase gay persons away, bully them, and the courts will sanction all this.

* * * * *


14 Oct 1999
The New Paper

Gays are out

A court in Beijing has ruled that homosexuality is abnormal and unacceptable. Mr Xu Yanguang sued author Fang Gang, 31, and his publisher. The book, Fang's Homosexuals in China, alluded to Mr Xu as the homosexual manager of a dance hall where a gay party was held. His friends and family shunned him and his fiancee left him.


You might wonder whether I might not have been reading too much subtlety from one quoted sentence of the judge's verdict. China is not famous for its judicial system, and there are a lot of homophobic people in that country, judges among them, surely.

But China can be a surprising place, and it is not beyond (some) judges to act in a principled way. Read this separate story from Chengdu, in Sichuan province, also from the South China Morning Post:

I mention the Chengdu case only as an aside. 

Another version of the same story, circulating on the internet:

Gay brothel owners released in China

Prosecutors in southwestern China have dropped charges against two men who ran a brothel for gay men because they can't find a law that forbids such a business, Agence France-Presse reports. The owners of the Red Bat teahouse in Chengdu were arrested August 28, when the brothel was raided by police. Although police were able to document that sex was being paid for, city prosecutors could not determine if homosexual sex counts as prostitution. "In the absence of new legislation or clear legal interpretation, the two people should not be punished," said the unnamed lawyer.

What I wish to underline in this essay about the Beijing case is this: the case was argued in a country not famous for gay freedoms nor a liberal mindset, yet it appears the judgement came out quite nuanced and neutral. It was the press reports in Hong Kong and Singapore that coloured the story into a homophobic one, turning grey into black.

© Yawning Bread 





14 Oct 1999
South China Morning Post

Gay brothel pair evade charges

Prosecutors in Chengdu have had to drop charges against two men found running a brothel for homosexuals because of a lack of existing legislation, a newspaper reported yesterday.

"The Jingniu District Procuratorate approved the arrest of the owner and cashier of the Red Bat teahouse on August 28, on charges of organising and providing premises for prostitution," the China Business Times reported.

But it said the prosecutors in Sichuan's provincial capital were unsure of how to proceed with charges, despite the fact they had raided the teahouse and collected evidence that sexual services were being provided and paid for. They were unable to decide if gay sex counted as prostitution, so they sent the case back to the police, who released the men. [2]



  1. There was an error of fact in the report. Xu was a volunteer with an AIDS helpline in 1992-1993, not a gay hotline. Yes, yes, I know: people still confuse gayness with AIDS! -- source: Wan Yanhai, founder and co-ordinator of the helpline.
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  2. In the article The Pimp and the Cabby, I pointed out that in Singapore too, male-male sex with payment is not recognised by our laws as prostitution.
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