BEIJING — A judge on Wednesday ruled against a gay couple who had sought the right to marry, in China’s first court case addressing same-sex unions.
Sun Wenlin and Hu Mingliang had filed a lawsuit against a civil affairs bureau in Changsha, Hunan province, in southern China, after the office refused to grant them the right to marry when they tried to register in June.
In a surprising move, a district court accepted the case early this year, the first time a Chinese court had agreed to hear such a lawsuit. An initial hearing scheduled for January was postponed. The court held a hearing Wednesday, and the judge issued a ruling a few hours later. News of the ruling began circulating on social media shortly afterward.
Sun said in an interview that he and Hu planned to appeal. They will have to do so in the next 15 days, according to Chinese law.
Sun said he had argued that he and Hu should be allowed to marry since the law did not explicitly ban same-sex marriage.
“We said this at the hearing, but they just kept repeating articles that mention ‘a man and a woman,’ ” he said, referring to the civil affairs bureau.
The bureau cited three articles from China’s marriage law and two from the official marriage registration regulation, he said, with four mentioning “a man and a woman” and one stating that a civil affairs bureau may refuse applications if it believes a couple is not qualified to marry.
“But the fact that marriage between a man and a woman is legal does not suggest that marriage between two men is illegal,” he said. “This is illogical. I asked them to name one article that explicitly bans marriage between two men, but they never answered my question directly.”
The court also ruled that the couple would have to cover the litigation fee of 50 renminbi, or $7.70, by themselves.
The case has galvanized some gay rights advocates in China. Photographs and video taken in Changsha showed many people gathering outside the courthouse in the morning to support Sun and Hu.
The case has also received considerable attention on Chinese social media as a test of the authorities’ attitude toward same-sex marriage. Internet users said that although the result was unsurprising, the couple had achieved a big step.
“In this era, being able to knock open the court’s door is already a victory. Keep going,” a user with the handle Garden on the Roof wrote on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
Sun said he and Hu were “definitely disappointed.”
“But after seeing so many people are paying attention to this case, we feel very hopeful,” he added.
Li Yinhe, a Chinese sexologist who has backed same-sex marriage, said the ruling was expected. Even if the couple appealed, she said, the court was unlikely to eventually accept their argument.
“Many other countries that have since allowed same-sex marriage didn’t explicitly ban same-sex marriage before, either,” she said.
The phone of the civil affairs bureau rang unanswered on Wednesday afternoon.
Some Chinese state-run news organizations had reported on the case over the winter, including the English-language edition of Global Times, a prominent and populist state-run newspaper. The Twitter account of People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, posted news of the ruling on Wednesday, using a photograph of the couple holding hands while crossing a street.
“Whether I want to marry or not, it should be my right to decide,” Sun, 27, said in an interview with The New York Times in January.
Sun told his family that he is gay when he was 14 and has been a vocal supporter of gay rights. For eight months, he ran a teahouse in southern Changsha where he gave weekly talks on sexuality and identity.
Hu, 37, a security guard, met Sun through a chat group in 2014. They said they did not spend a day apart after their first meeting. They tried to register their marriage on the first anniversary of their relationship.
A lawyer for the couple filed the lawsuit Dec. 16. Court employees initially refused to accept the paperwork. But on Jan. 5, the court said it was accepting the case.
The couple said a pair of police officers visited them in December, telling them that a married couple had an important duty to have children. The parties spoke for 40 minutes. The officers told the couple they were not acting on behalf of the court.
“Around the world, in other places, gay people have joined forces to fight for their rights,” Sun said in the interview in January. “They can get married and no longer face discrimination. Inside China, we still live a life like this. We can’t get married, and we suffer discrimination.”