A Beijing court has agreed to hear a student’s lawsuit against the Ministry of Education over textbooks that describe homosexuality as a mental disorder.
In 2001, the Chinese Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality and bisexuality from the list of illnesses in its diagnostic manual, the “Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders.” This came after China decriminalized consensual homosexual acts in 1997.
So Chen Qiuyan, 20, a communications student at Sun Yat-sen University in the southern city of Guangzhou, said she was shocked last year to discover textbooks in the college library that continued to define homosexuality as a sickness. In one psychology text, published in 2013, she read: “Sexual orientation disorder is a sexual psychological disorder that involves being sexually attracted to abnormal objects. It includes pedophilia, zoophilia, necrophilia and homosexuality.”
At the time, Ms. Chen was trying to determine whether she was a lesbian. Concerned that online information might be unreliable, she sought out academic sources in the library. But what she found only deepened her identity crisis.
“I thought textbooks must be authoritative,” Ms. Chen said by telephone from Guangzhou. “After reading them, I was terrified. I was even more afraid to admit that I’m gay.”
She borrowed five psychology textbooks. All were published after 2001, and all classified homosexuality as an illness, Ms. Chen said. Some recommended treatments that included “aversion therapy,” involving electric shocks or emetic drugs.
The books were published by the Guangdong Higher Education Publishing House, a textbook company overseen by the provincial Education Department.
After consulting counselors and participating in same-sex support groups, Ms. Chen decided that the books were wrong. That feeling deepened when she came across a 2014 survey by the Gay and Lesbian Campus Association in China, based in Guangzhou, that found that, of 31 psychology textbooks that were published in China after 2001 and mention homosexuality, 13 classified homosexuality as a disorder.
“Speaking from my personal experience, these textbooks would definitely upset gay students,” she said. “And I later learned that gay people across the country have been hurt by this kind of textbook.”
The lawsuit against the Ministry of Education, which asks that it disclose how it approves such textbooks, came after several unsuccessful attempts to have the books recalled. On March 19, Ms. Chen and 10 other students sent joint letters to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television and the Guangdong Province Education Department. She and four other students also demonstrated outside the department’s offices.
Ms. Chen said that the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television told her to direct her complaint to the Ministry of Education. The provincial Education Department referred her to the publishing house, which responded that the textbooks were written according to national standards and contained no errors.
In early May, Ms. Chen tried to sue the publishing house to withdraw the books, but a court in Guangzhou refused to accept the case, saying that she “had no direct stakes in the publishing house’s act of publishing.” She filed an appeal, but it was rejected.
On May 14, Ms. Chen sent a letter to the Ministry of Education, asking that it disclose its procedures for approving such textbooks. Fifteen working days later, the time limit set by China’s Open Government Information regulations to respond to such requests, the ministry had not answered. So Ms. Chen sued the ministry and, on Aug. 14, the Beijing No.1 Intermediate Court accepted the case.
The Ministry of Education and the Guangdong Higher Education Publishing House both received faxed requests for comment this week. The ministry said on Thursday that it would call if it had a comment, and the publisher did not respond to the faxed request or calls.
Ms. Chen’s lawyer in Beijing, Wang Zhenyu, said the case was bound to have an impact on several levels.
“It will push the government to adhere to the regulations on open access to information and to exercise proper oversight over textbooks,” Mr. Wang said. “What’s more, it will spark discussions about the discrimination homosexuals still face.”