Beijing (CNN)Former flight attendant Chai Cheng still has nightmares about the moment of passion that cost him everything.
In October 2019, footage was leaked online of Chai kissing a male pilot from the same airline -- China Southern, the country's largest carrier.
Both men were off duty, and the kiss -- which has since been viewed millions of times -- occurred in an elevator in a private apartment building in the southern city of Shenzhen.
As the clip spread online, Chai was quickly grounded by the company and eventually let go.
He is now suing the airline for lost wages, in a case that is seen as a test of China's stance on workplace discrimination.
Campaigners say Chai's dismissal highlights the perils faced by LGBTQ workers in China due to lack of legal protection -- and now they're calling for workplace equality laws.
On Chinese social media, Chai is often referred to as "the China Southern cabin boy." But in China's LGBTQ community, he has become a hero and an unlikely activist.
The 29-year-old said the episode has upended his life, both professionally and personally. He lost his dream job, and has struggled to start a new career or find a relationship.
"I sometimes wish I could rewind to the time before the incident," said Chai. "So I could just be an ordinary flight attendant."
CNN has sought comment from China Southern, a state-owned mega-carrier that flew more than 151 million passengers in 2019, on Chai's case and its corporate policy on LGBTQ employees, but has not received a response.
Against 'socialist core values'
Homosexuality is not illegal in China and it was officially removed from a list of mental disorders in 2001. But experts and activists say LGBTQ people still face persistent discrimination and prejudice.
Chai said he had kept his sexuality private during his five years working at China Southern for fear that it would damage his career prospects.
After the video of him kissing his coworker went viral, Chai said he was taken aside by a senior manager who told him that homosexuality was against "socialist core values," and asked him to remain silent on the topic.
Chai said he complied but in April 2020 his managers told him they would not be renewing his contract.
"They told me 'it was for obvious reasons,'" Chai said.
"But I didn't break any laws or corporate rules. I went from being an outstanding employee, recognized by the company with fast promotions, 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."
Peng Yanhui, who heads the China Rainbow Media Awards, an LGBTQ rights advocacy group, said companies rarely fire LGBTQ employees "explicitly" for being gay. "They use excuses -- and this case is no exception," he said.
The pilot in Chai's case wasn't fired by the airline, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, who is not authorized to speak on personnel matters. The source said a likely reason was that China's state airline companies often pay for their pilots' training, and because carriers are much more reluctant to forego that steep investment, pilots have significantly more job security.
In August 2020, Chai decided to sue China Southern over lost compensation as a result of the company's decision to ground him for six months following the appearance of the video. The suit isn't technically about discrimination but his lawyer said, if they win, it could pave the way for another legal case directly addressing that issue.
A 2008 law prohibits employment discrimination based on "gender," which has been interpreted by some lawyers to cover sexual orientation, but it doesn't seem to have been tested in court yet.
"China Southern is a state-owned behemoth," said Zhong Xialu, Chai's lawyer. "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," she added. "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."
Although Chai recorded some of his supervisor's homophobic remarks -- including calling homosexuality "abnormal" -- during their conversations, Zhong said the airline insisted in court that those represented personal opinions, not a corporate position.
In 2016, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and two local NGOs released a study on the acceptance of sexual minorities in China. Of the 28,000 LGBTQ participants, they found that 64% were "not sure" if they were accepted by their supervisors at work and 19% said they were rejected. Only 17% saying they were accepted.
The same survey found only 5% of respondents had come out to their family and friends, while the overwhelming majority chose to live in the closet.
Chai remembered times when coworkers mocked more effeminate gay flight attendants at China Southern -- he said he stayed quiet to avoid unwanted attention.
After he was outed by the video, he said many fellow gay employees retreated further back into the closet for fear of becoming targets themselves.
"Many people who used to hang out with me stopped interacting with me," he said. "Everyone is afraid."
Since 2016, Chinese censors have banned portrayals on TV and online of what they see as "abnormal sexual behaviors," including gay relationships. Most media and businesses in China have long stayed away from the subject to avoid running afoul of government restrictions.
With Chinese leader Xi Jinping increasingly stressing the ruling Communist Party's absolute control over every aspect of society, some analysts suspect a more direct link between the lack of LGBTQ rights and top officials' worldview.
Many of the country's current leaders grew up during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and '70s, when authorities attempted to purge any "non-socialist" elements -- including homosexuality -- from Chinese society.
"LGBTQ employees are still forced to live a lie in a place where they spend so much time," said Peng, the gay rights advocate. "It may be an executive's personal opinion that homosexuality is abnormal or immoral -- but if there is a workplace equality law, what that executive thinks won't matter anymore."
Zhong, the lawyer, also sees the lack of legal protection as the root cause to Chai's case. In the United States, employment discrimination based on one's sexual identity is now prohibited by federal law following a landmark Supreme Court ruling last year.
Jesse Liu, a 28-year-old Chinese national who has worked as a flight attendant at Texas-based American Airlines for five years, said Chai's plight underscores the vulnerability of LGBTQ workers in China.
After reading Chai's story, Liu, who is gay, left an angry comment on the official Instagram page of China Southern, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and had been rapidly expanding its global network before the pandemic.
"You're trying to be an international carrier, but the way you handled this incident is against every single human right value that international society is rooting for," he recalled what he had written. "As a gay passenger, I wouldn't want to spend any money flying your airline."
'I needed this fight'
Chai's lawyer, Zhong, takes a long view when it comes to China eventually enacting a workplace equality law.
"We are just at the stage of raising the issue," she said.
"Laws tend to lag behind issues. Bringing up an issue, prompting public debate and reaching some kind of consensus usually take place before laws are revised."
The 2016 UNDP study found less than 5% of the LGBTQ respondents in China reported that employee equality training was available at their workplaces, and less than 10% confirmed their companies had such regulations.
Compared with their straight coworkers, sexual and gender minorities also experienced lower job stability and a higher unemployment rate, the survey found.
After Chai lost his job at China Southern, he moved to Beijing to start anew, but kept hitting a wall in his job hunting when prospective bosses found out about his employment history. His personal life has also suffered. People often see him as a scandalous figure, he said.
Although Chai finally found work at a healthcare provider in February, he still dreams of flying. He said he is keenly aware of one devastating consequence of suing China Southern: No Chinese airline will ever hire him.
After a court hearing on his case last November, he is still waiting for a verdict.
"I gave up a career that I've felt passionate about since childhood," he said. "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."