In a major reversal of previous policy, psychiatrists in this country of 1.3 billion people have decided to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disease.
New guidelines to be issued next month by the Chinese Psychiatric Assn. will drop all references to homosexuality as a pathological condition, said Chen Yanfang, vice chairman of the association's standing committee.
The revised standards state that homosexual behavior is not to be considered abnormal by definition. While they suggest that same-sex desires can be a "mental disorder" for people unhappy with their orientation, those who are fine with being gay have no need of psychiatric help, Chen said.
The changes represent a remarkable turnaround for China's mental health establishment and bring the country closer in line with most Western nations, which removed homosexuality from their list of mental illnesses decades ago.
Advocates hailed the new guidelines as a harbinger of greater tolerance for gays and lesbians in a society that is traditionally conservative regarding sexual matters.
"This is progress--a leap forward for the gay community," said Roger Meng, who manages a gay-oriented Web site in Guangzhou, in southern China. "Historically, we've never had anything on the books that we could turn to [for support]."
As recently as 1994, in a handbook listing types of psychoses, the psychiatric association adamantly stated its opposition to World Health Organization standards calling for acceptance of homosexuality.
"Society was not so tolerant or open" then, Chen acknowledged.
But five years of study by a task force assigned to overhaul China's classifications of mental illness led to the new approach, which was unanimously approved by the psychiatric association's standing committee last month.
Part of the task force's research included contact with the American Psychiatric Assn., which urged the Chinese group to change its stance. The APA struck homosexuality from its own list of mental diseases in 1973, in a landmark step in the fight against discrimination against gays and lesbians in the U.S.
Guidelines Reflect Those of U.S. in 1973
The Chinese crafted guidelines similar to the APA's 1973 decision, which included a caveat about homosexuality as a psychological "disturbance" for people unhappy with their orientation. Chen said such people should be given "behavioral therapy" to change their feelings if they seek it.
Chinese mental health professionals balked at adopting the APA's updated, more liberal 1986 policy, which scrapped reservations about homosexuality as a disorder altogether.
"China has its traditions," Chen said. "This is a sensitive topic for people of different cultures. . . . The U.S. is a purely Western culture."
But, he added, his organization is trying to foster a more tolerant atmosphere for gays and lesbians.
Small Communities of Gays Are Growing
For now, most homosexuals in China live under the radar, either by themselves or in small but growing underground communities. Nearly every major city along China's prosperous eastern coastline has at least one gay bar. So does Beijing, the Chinese capital, where fashionably dressed young men--and a fewer number of women--pack a smoky gay club in an alleyway right off the city's trendy row of bars.
In Guangzhou, gays have two watering holes to choose from, one of which features regular drag and karaoke shows. Such meeting places are particularly important in China, where private space is hard to find and most young people are expected to live with their parents until they get married.
"Unlike in America, a lot of people feel greater pressure because they don't have the economic means to be independent," said Meng, 27, the Web site manager.
His site is one of about 250 gay-oriented Web sites in China. As in many other countries, the Internet has revolutionized gay life by giving homosexuals an easy, often anonymous way to find others of like mind.
Homosexuality is technically not illegal in China, although up until 1997 authorities would sometimes seize homosexuals under the catchall charge of "hooliganism," which has been eliminated. Gay bars still are occasionally raided or shut down, but more rarely, members of the gay community say.
For the most part, the Communist government has been willing to allow gays their social spaces as long as they do not overtly challenge the regime. Western-style political activism is not an option for any Chinese, not just gays and lesbians.
"The government keeps one eye open and one eye closed. They think, 'OK, we know you're there, but we won't bother you' " as long as you don't bother us, Meng said.
Confucian Society Still Poses Limits
Battles for acceptance occur on a smaller scale.
Only a tiny minority of gays and lesbians have dared come out to their families. The rest fear condemnation in a Confucian society that considers not having children the greatest sin a son or daughter can commit against his or her parents.
Changing such deeply ingrained attitudes will take years, activists say.
Key to that will be publicizing news of the Chinese Psychiatric Assn.'s revised standards. All of the association's several thousand members are to receive a copy of the new handbook on mental diseases, but advocates say that the message needs to spread throughout society, especially among doctors, teachers and others in positions of authority.
It is highly doubtful that the government will commit resources to spreading the news, leaving that to the Internet and any media outlets that gays and lesbians can persuade to lend a sympathetic ear.
A small flurry of media attention occurred late last year after a pop singer, Mao Ning, was stabbed in an attack by a young male companion. Mainstream newspapers like the Beijing Youth Daily published breathless accounts, couching the relationship between the two men in language that plainly indicated it was a homosexual affair.
Internet chat rooms--mostly frequented by China's affluent urban youth--brimmed with comments about the incident. Many voiced support for sexual diversity.
"Morality is changing and developing," one said. "Our ancestors told us that people's desire for happiness is subconscious, so you cannot criticize gays as immoral for pursuing their own happiness."
In December, a popular TV talk show originating in Hunan province and broadcast nationwide invited gay people on to the set to talk about their experiences--a first for Chinese television.
It was media exposure for gay issues that Meng never thought possible.
"For so long, nobody ever paid attention," he said. "Things are changing with amazing speed."
Anthony Kuhn in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.