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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 is lesbian and 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.

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