The gay couple fighting for the right to marry in China

Sun Wenlin (left) and his partner Hu Mingliang stand in front of the Changsha Furong District People's Court on January 5, 2016, the day the court accepted their suit against the marriage registry.

Story highlights

  • Sun Wenlin brought the first gay marriage case to court in China
  • The court hearing was scheduled Thursday but has been delayed
  • LGBT community has made gains in social acceptance in last 20 years but stigma remains

Beijing (CNN)Sun Wenlin has known he was gay since he was 12.

He came out to parents and friends two years later. Now 27, he met his partner Hu Mingliang, a security guard, in 2014.
Inspired by the 2014 British movie "Pride," Sun decided the time was right to settle down with Hu, whom he met online.
    "After we saw the movie, I asked him, 'Shall we get married?' He said: 'Yes. Let's.'"
    On June, 23, 2015 -- their one-year anniversary and three days before the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to extend same-sex marriage rights across all 50 states -- the couple went to their local registry office in southern China's Hunan Province and tried to officially tie the knot.
    The registry denied their application, insisting only heterosexual couples could marry.

    Unprecedented court case

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    Furious, Sun sued the registry for refusing their application to marry in December 2015.
    To his lawyer Shi Fulong's surprise, the Changsha Furong District People's Court accepted the case in early January.
    Sun and Hu became the first gay couple in China legally fighting for the right to marry.
    The court hearing had been scheduled for Thursday but on Tuesday they were notified it would be delayed. Friends and supporters had already made the journey to Changsha -- more than 900 miles (1,500 km) from Beijing.
    The court confirmed the case was delayed by declined to give further details. Calls to the registry office went unanswered.
    "I just feel too powerless," Sun said. "They just wanted to drag it out, because no matter what the result would be, they wouldn't know how to react."
    Sun says he wants the benefits that married heterosexual couples enjoy.
    "Even if we were the only gay couple in the world, we should be allowed to marry!" he told CNN.
    "It's the basic human right and I ought to enjoy it."
    Shi, the lawyer, said he isn't too optimistic about the outcome, but it was significant because put the idea of gay marriage in the spotlight.
    Sun, however, is determined to win. He said he would keep appealing if they lost the case.
    "If we lost, that means China overtly discriminates against gay people on the legal level."
    China's current Marriage Law says marriages are based on the free choice of partners, "on monogamy and on equality between man and woman."
    "The law doesn't say that same-sex marriages are illegal," Sun argues.
    "So I should enjoy the right. It's just the government doesn't allow it to happen."

    Progress

    In 2001, homosexuality was removed from an official list of mental illnesses for clinical treatment in China. This followed a 1997 decision to decriminalize it.
    In the last two decades, China's LGBT community has made gains in social acceptance.
    Young gay and lesbian activists are increasingly pushing for more rights and recognition, taking heart from June's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court decision to extend same-sex marriage rights across all 50 states.
    Last July, activist Li Tingting and her partner Teresa Xu held an informal wedding ceremony in Beijing to push for same sex unions.
    Teresa Xu, left, and Li Tingting, right, share a moment outside a beauty salon, where the two were preparing for their wedding.
    Li told CNN that marriage is the uppermost concern within the Chinese LGBT community, and it would alleviate many of the issues facing gay people, namely divided finances, care of children and social benefits.
    Although she herself didn't try to go to the local registry to be official, Li praised Sun for his courage and said she supported him.
    "The case itself is much more meaningful than the result," Li said. "He has stepped forward trying to open the dialogue with authorities by legal means."
    In August, lesbian college student Chen Qiuyan brought an unprecedented court case against China's Ministry of Education over school textbooks that stigmatize gays and lesbians.
    Although her case ended up being withdrawn, Chen managed to discuss the issue with ministry level officials and her case inspired other college students to report text books that made similar claims.
    Chinese student Chen Qiuyan holds a rainbow flag in front of an intermediate court in the southern Chinese city Guangzhou on July 29, 2015.

    'We're not freaks'

    Despite advances, the social stigma remains.
    According to a 2015 survey by U.S. research group Pew, 61% of China's population said that homosexuality was unacceptable.
    No Asian nations are on the 22-strong list of countries that have legalized same-sex marriage.
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    Under pressure to carry on the family line, many Chinese gays and lesbians enter into "fake marriages" -- gay men marrying straight women or lesbian women marrying straight men.
    There are at least 16 million women married to gay men in China, according to local media reports.
    Sun told CNN he hoped that this court case would open public debate about gay people and their interests and welfare in China.
    But he admits that China has a long way to go in terms of getting equal treatment.
    "My hope is that when people see gays or lesbians holding hands on the street, they wouldn't see them as freaks or curiously look back," he says.
    "We are just as average as everybody else."