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China Court Rules Against Forced Conversion Therapy

Ruling Should Prompt Banning of Practice to Change Sexual Orientation

Activists raise a rainbow flag as they march during a demonstration to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Changsha, Hunan province May 17, 2013. © 2013 Reuters

Last week, in an unprecedented case, a court in China ruled against a public hospital that had forced a gay man into so-called conversion therapy. This ruling was the first of its kind – against a public institution in China.

The plaintiff, known only as Yu, was admitted to the No. 2 Zhumadian Hospital – a psychiatric facility – in Henan Province by his wife and relatives. He was forced to take medication and receive injections in an effort to change his sexual orientation. The court ordered the hospital to issue a public apology in local newspapers and pay Yu 5,000 RMB (US$375) in compensation.

While the verdict is significant, the ruling is narrow. The court ruled Yu’s rights were infringed by his being admitted to an institution against his will when he posed no danger to himself or others. This left the underlying issue unaddressed: that forced conversion therapy is a form of discrimination based on sexual orientation. And Yu’s compelled treatment is not unique – gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in China have told Human Rights Watch of similar experiences where they were subject to verbal humiliation, forced medication, and even electroshock in public hospitals.

China de-criminalized homosexuality in 1997, and the Chinese Society of Psychiatry declassified homosexuality as mental illness or disorder in 2001. But authorities have yet to take the next step of imposing anti-discrimination laws and practices. In 2014, a young gay man in Beijing sued a private clinic where he had voluntarily undertaken conversion therapy. The court sided with the man, and ordered the clinic to pay compensation equivalent to the costs incurred by the plaintiff. The court framed the case as a consumer rights issue based on allegations of false advertising and ineffective treatment, but nonetheless reiterated that homosexuality is not a mental disease.

China’s 2013 Mental Health Law prohibits admission of involuntary patients unless they pose a danger to themselves or others. The law also prohibits admitting or treating individuals without mental disease as patients. This new court decision should give an impetus to Chinese authorities to enforce the law and address the forcible admission of patients into mental institutes. The government acknowledges that homosexuality is neither a crime nor a mental disorder – but making that a reality requires among other steps banning forced conversion therapy.

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