Chai Cheng was a closeted flight attendant at China Southern Airlines, living out his childhood dream. But after a viral clip in 2019 outed him, it cost him everything.
Feeling indignant, he was determined to sue his former company for the unfair dismissal.wage losses.
But in a Weixin post by Beijing-based LGBTQ+ rights organisation Tongyu on January 17, 2023, it was revealed that Chai’s discrimination lawsuit had been officially dismissed by the Shenzhen Court in March 2022.
Outed and ostracised by China Southern Airlines
Dear Straight People,
During his five-year tenure at China Southern, Chai kept his sexuality private for fear of drawing unwanted attention.
He recalled times where coworkers would mock more ‘effeminate’ gay flight attendants.
But in October 2019, he was forced into the spotlight when elevator footage in a private apartment complex went viral online of Chai kissing a male China Southern pilot.
While the pilot publicly claimed he was being sexually harassed by Chai, additional security footage and chat logs revealed they shared a consensual intimate relationship.
Chai was grounded by the company.
He was taken aside by a senior manager, who told him that homosexuality was against their ‘socialist core values’ and to remain silent on the topic.
Even though he complied with his superior’s orders, his managers told him in April 2020 they would not be renewing his contract for ‘obvious reasons.’
I went from being an outstanding employee to someone they wanted to have nothing to do with simply because of my sexual orientation. That’s wrong…and anyone could be the next victim.”Chai
The battle begins in court
Backed by lawyer Zhong Xialu, Chai decided to file a labour dispute for $9,000 in lost wages, due to not receiving any flight shifts after the scandal.
At trial, China Southern defended their decision to ground Chai for fear of him being unable to perform his duties and potentially upsetting passengers who recognised him from the video.
While a 2008 law prohibits employment discrimination in China based on ‘gender’, this is often contradicted by media policies that define homosexuality as a violation of public morals. This immediately puts LGBTQ+ workers at an unfair disadvantage.
Few have made it to court after being unfairly fired. Even fewer have convinced courts that they were discriminated against.
Zhong sees this lack of legal protection as the root cause of Chai’s case.
“China Southern is a state-owned behemoth. Their corporate decisions represent the stance of mainstream employers. LGBTQ employees often take it for granted that they have to stay in the closet to survive and function in such workplaces.
Through this case, we’re trying to tell them that it’s the employers who are in the wrong – and employees shouldn’t feel compelled to put up with a company’s wrong policy.”Lawyer Zhong Xialu to CNN
One defeat won’t end the fight
After moving to Beijing to start afresh, Chai struggled to find a job with his tainted reputation, until he found work at a healthcare provider in February 2021.
But both his professional and personal life have been upended: he will never be able to work at a Chinese airline ever again, nor has it been easy to find a relationship.
Though they were legally obligated to complete the case within six months, it took nearly two years after the trial for the Shenzhen court to issue their judgement. Chai’s lawyers inquired about the delay, but their questions went unanswered.
Undeterred, Chai is appealing his loss. While the final fate of his case remains unknown, Chai believes the momentum of his story will help further their cause in the long term.
“I gave up a career that I’ve felt passionate about since childhood. But I needed this fight. Whether it’s to improve the laws, protect our rights, or promote social equality and openness–someone needs to push it forward.”Chai Cheng
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