Beijing (AFP) - A Beijing court on Thursday heard a landmark case on "gay conversion" treatment, while outside the courtroom an activist in a nurse's uniform knelt over a patient, wielding a giant needle.
"Homosexuality doesn't need to be cured!" chanted supporters. "Haidian Court, oppose conversion therapy!"
Homosexuality was de-classified as a mental disorder in China in 2001 but widespread intolerance toward gays and lesbians remains, and activists hailed the unprecedented case as a significant step forward.
The plaintiff, who is gay and has given his name only as Xiao Zhen, says the Xinyu Piaoxiang clinic in Chongqing traumatised him when he was electro-shocked after being told to have sexual thoughts involving men.
He is also taking action against China's top Internet search engine, Baidu, for running advertisements by the facility.
Those who come out to friends and family in China often face significant pressure to undergo sexuality "treatment" or marry a partner of the opposite sex.
"It's the first case about anti-conversion therapy in China," said Xiao Tie, 28, executive director of the Beijing LGBT Centre, which is backing the legal action.
"In China, most people who undergo 'conversion therapy' do so because they are pressured by their family. Parents, once they realise their child is gay, urge him or her to go to a psychiatric hospital or undergo treatment," she said.
Most people who claim that they have been successfully "converted" by the therapy only say so in order to stop the distressing treatments, she added.
Conversion therapy has more than a century of history around the world, but has fallen out of favour with medical authorities.
Nonetheless the lucrative industry persists in countries from Singapore to Britain and the United States -- where reports of electro-shock use have added to momentum for a ban.
- 'Not scientific' -
The Beijing court is expected to rule on the case within a month.
Zhang Rui, 21, who is in charge of the Beijing LGBT Centre's psychological counselling programme, said advocates hope the action will help change Chinese public perceptions of gays as suffering from mental illness.
"We're here to tell even more people that conversion therapy is not scientific," she said. "Homosexuality can't be 'cured'."
Homosexuality was a crime in China until 1997, and while attitudes in cities have relaxed in recent years, gay rights advocates walk a tightrope in the country.
Outside the court on Thursday, Beijing police allowed about a dozen protesters to demonstrate unhindered.
But LGBT groups in China are barred from registering as official non-governmental organisations (NGO), and activists often take a low-profile approach to promoting events lest the authorities decide to crack down.
Last May, a 19-year-old gay rights campaigner in the central province of Hunan was arrested for organising a 100-person protest that police described as "illegal".
Earlier this year, an advocate in the same province made headlines when he announced he was suing officials for denying his request to establish a gay-rights NGO.
Several participants in Thursday's demonstration told AFP that they had been detained by Beijing authorities in recent months for their actions.
Among those outside the Haidian court was a 60-year-old man surnamed Ling, who flew to the capital from central China's Jiangxi province to attend.
"My son is also gay," said Ling, who heads a trade union and whose son came out to him four years ago. "It's not an illness. ... There's no way to change it. So, we accept him."