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