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CHANGSHA, China – For years, Chen Tiantian could only read about the gay rights movement in faraway places. She knew that there were activists in Beijing and a vibrant community in Shanghai, and that in San Francisco, a distant mecca, gay pride parades took up entire streets.
But on Wednesday, the 20-year-old English major sat on the steps of a courthouse and spoke fervently about how the struggle for equality had arrived in her central Chinese hometown — and how she planned to take part.
"It's hard to believe, but we're right in the middle of this," said Chen, who came with several friends to support a local couple who had challenged the city's civil affairs bureau after they were denied a marriage certificate. "It's like I'm finally entering the struggle myself."
Though it was dismissed by the court in Changsha, China's first legal challenge to a law limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples has galvanized many of the hundreds of young Chinese gay rights supporters who gathered at the courthouse, some of them waving small rainbow flags. The hearing's sizable public turnout and coverage by usually conservative Chinese media appeared to reflect early signs of shifting social attitudes in China on the topic of sexual orientation.
The lawsuit that was dismissed was brought by 26-year-old Sun Wenlin against the civil affairs bureau for refusing to issue him and his partner, Hu Mingliang, a marriage registration certificate. The judge's ruling against the couple came down after a three-hour hearing — but that didn't dampen the mood of many of the hundreds of young Chinese who gathered outside the courthouse hoping for a chance to "witness history," in the words of one supporter.
Some supporters, who had traveled overnight from neighboring provinces to line up at 5 a.m. to attend the hearing, said they felt energized because having a gay marriage lawsuit argued in a Chinese court for the first time was a small but significant victory in itself. Unlike in most politically sensitive legal cases, security outside the courthouse was light and the atmosphere was relaxed.
More seasoned activists said they too had reason to be optimistic given a pickup in legal challenges, even if successes in court remained few and far between.
Chinese society and the government have generally frowned on nontraditional expressions of gender and sexuality, but awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues is rising.
China doesn't legally recognize same-sex marriage, and officials with the central government have said they do not see the law changing soon. It also remains unclear how far gay rights activism will be allowed to go under the current political climate in China, where lawyers groups and feminist activists have been jailed in recent months.
But many gay rights activists in China say they feel public attitudes are shifting substantially given the growing mainstream media coverage of LGBT issues.
In 2014, a Chinese court ruled that gay conversion treatments were illegal. Earlier this week, a labor arbitration panel in the southern province of Guizhou heard China's first transgender job discrimination case and is expected to make a ruling in the coming weeks.
Ying Xin, the director of the Beijing LGBT Center, said there was a sharp uptick in awareness of gay issues compared to 2009, when the group started doing street performance art in Beijing.
"This is a moment because of all the news coverage, and people are gaining exposure," Ying said, pointing out recent coverage of LGBT issues and lawsuits in domestic online and broadcast news outlets.
Central China Television, the state broadcaster, has covered gay issues on several occasions and sent a reporter Wednesday to interview Sun after the court decision.
As he left the courthouse amid applause and cries of "Hero," Sun, the plaintiff, told reporters and scores of supporters that he would continue to appeal until all of his legal options were exhausted.
"The bigger significance of this case is that it will let more people know about their rights," said Gou Gou, a Beijing-based lawyer from an informal group of legal professionals called the Rainbow Lawyers network. "But young people are the most passionate. This will hopefully direct them to become more involved with the right training."
For Chen, the English student, Wednesday's hearing seemed like an awakening. She attributed the Internet to her knowledge of LGBT issues, saying she had read voraciously about everything from the battle over same-sex marriage in the United States winding its way to the Supreme Court to news of homophobic attacks in Russia.
Chen said she had long wanted to join some sort of organization or cause but had no idea how to participate in Changsha, which had no organized gay community to speak of.
"I'm going to become active, but I'm just worried that as a college student we have no financial power to do anything real," Chen said. "But this case definitely gave a lot of people courage to stand up. For gay people in China to make that first step was really not easy."
For the past week, Sun and Hu have been tracked by two college students who are making independent documentaries about them. Yang Dangling, 22, who traveled from the eastern city of Nanjing with her camera, said LGBT student clubs were forming on campuses across the country in the past five to 10 years.
Despite a surge in their national profile, Sun and Hu have sought to maintain a low-key lifestyle in Changsha. Several months ago, police came to the house to urge Sun to drop his case, but left after he reiterated his determination to press on.
Sun said his parents have been fully supportive of his legal battle, while Hu's mother and father, who live in the Hunan countryside, are more conservative but have come to accept their son's sexual orientation.
The night before the hearing, Sun and Hu spoke to local reporters before settling down for 10 yuan ($2) bowls of rice and fried peppers in a nearby eatery, where they contemplated the progress of China's gay rights movement.
Sun insisted he didn't want to be a spokesman for all gay people in China, but only fight for his individual rights and set a legal precedent. Social attitudes can only change with economic development, he said.
Hu, the more soft-spoken of the two, interjected to rebut the notion. He recalled bringing Sun home to the countryside several months ago, where he introduced him to some old friends, who shrugged off the revelation that he was gay.
"These people knew me for 20 years," Hu said. "If you know someone who is gay, that changes your perspective. It just takes exposure."