Last summer, the office of lawyer Tang Xiangqian received an unusual case: a kindergarten teacher had been fired after sharing online an article about an LGBT social event.
It was Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018, when the teacher — whose name has been withheld to protect his anonymity — shared a news story about a gay community gathering in China on his personal account on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app.
The director of the Qingdao kindergarten was furious on seeing the teacher in the photographs, and ordered his immediate dismissal. He was not allowed to return to work the next day.
The director thought the teacher was propagating "gay ideology" that would affect the children, and that parents would not want to send their children to the kindergarten, lawyer Tang told EFE in his office in Beijing. After the teacher repeatedly demanded compensation from the center, and in the absence of a contract, finally a Chinese court of arbitration ordered the director to pay the teacher 36,000 yuan (around $5,200) in damages.
But there was no further action — neither civil or penal — against the kindergarten director, who was protected due to the absence of a Chinese legislation that penalizes discrimination against the LGBT community, which includes around 70 million people in the country.
Tang said the teacher loved his job and was sad when he was fired. He eventually found a similar position in another daycare center but had to leave the city.
This case was the first example in China of a teacher who took his school to court after being fired over his sexual orientation, said the lawyer, in a country where the LGBT community suffers "invisible discrimination".
"One can't see this discrimination at first glance. Nobody would directly fire you for being gay, but they would find any other reason to do so," Tang said.
The lawyer said when cases such as that of the Qingdao kindergarten appear in the media, they increase the visibility of LGBT people in China, where they do not have sufficient protection due to the lack of legal avenues to safeguard the community.
China legalized same-sex sexual activity in 1997 and homosexuality was removed from the health ministry’s list of mental illnesses in 2001, but discriminatory practices towards the community have continued as the government has failed to offer any support.
A survey carried out in 2014 among 30,000 members of the LGBT community in China by the United Nations Development Program, revealed that around half felt discriminated against due to their sexual orientation.
The perception is strengthened by the attitude of the Chinese government, whose audiovisual regulator in mid-2017 included homosexuality on a list of prohibited subjects on the internet for showing "abnormal" lifestyles and behavior, a decision which Tang challenged in court.
Although the lawyer and his client, Shanghai-based Fan Chunlin, lost various lawsuits against the regulator, authorities finally removed it from the banned list.
Tang said they have fought more than 10 cases, and lost most of them.
Not all news is bad for the community. Millennials have a much better understanding of LGBT people, along with people with higher education, Tang said.
However, traditions and conventional morality continue to weigh on society in China, where teachings of the philosopher Confucius (551 AD to 479 AD) still shape the ethos of a large part of the population.
Tang said Confucian thinking affects attitudes towards gay people, as it emphasizes the importance of creating a (traditional) family.
However, landmark events such as the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in neighboring Taiwan have a "positive effect" on other Asian countries, Tang said, adding that maybe this could accelerate reforms in Chinese legislation.
"In the short term, I don't believe any law would be established to protect the LGBT people (here), but I believe if social efforts are sustained, laws protecting their rights could become a reality in a few years," the lawyer said.