A judge in central China ruled against a gay couple in China's first-ever same-sex marriage case Wednesday, effectively hobbling a case that has electrified the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists.
The plaintiff, Sun Wenlin, a 27-year-old Hunan native, sued a civil affairs bureau in Changsha, the capital of central China's Hunan province, for refusing him the right to marry his 37-year-old boyfriend, Hu Mingliang, last June.
The Changsha Furong District People's Court agreed to hear the case earlier this year, sparking a flurry of sympathetic coverage in China's staid state-run media and galvanizing the country's nascent gay rights movement.
"If we win the case, it would be an unprecedented achievement for China's LGBT community," Sun said in a phone interview before the hearing. "If we lose the case, it's still better than if we did nothing. If you don't knock on the door, the door will be closed to you forever. But once you knock on the door, you can knock on it for a second and third time, and there's a chance the door will finally open someday."
Several hundred people gathered outside the court to voice support for the couple, according to the Associated Press. The judge issued a ruling after only a few hours. Sun has said that he plans to appeal.
"The relevant regulations and law clearly stated the subject of marriage refers to a man and a woman who meet the legal conditions of marriage," the court said in an online statement. "Sun Wenlin and Hu Mingliang are both men, therefore their application doesn't comply with the marriage regulations and law. The grounds of Sun Wenlin's and Hu Mingliang's appeal cannot be established. In summary, the court dismissed their litigation requests according to the law."
Sun had argued that China's marriage law does not specifically prohibit same-sex marriages.
Last June, officials "showed me that term number five [of the law] stipulates that marriage shall be granted if woman and man both desire it," he said. "But I think they misinterpreted the legal term. The term puts emphasis on the consensus of both sides, instead of the different sexes."
Although Beijing stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental illness in 2001, it still carries a strong social stigma — openly gay couples are rare, clinics offering gay-straight "conversion therapy" are widespread, and parents put so much pressure on their children to marry that scores of lesbian women and gay men wed each other to present an image of normalcy.
In May, China's media watchdog banned depictions of gay couples on television.
Sun said police pressured him to drop the case by arguing that "marriage is for reproduction."
"But I told them, reproduction is not my plan and I have the freedom to not reproduce," he said. "The police then didn't come to me again."
Yingzhi Yang and Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.