By Megha Rajagopalan
BEIJING (Reuters) - This week's visit to China by Iceland's prime minister and her same-sex spouse has given rise to tentative hopes among gay Chinese that widespread news coverage could be a first step towards more openness about homosexuality at home.
It is not illegal to be gay in China. But it remains a largely taboo subject that baffles many in the world's most populous nation thanks two decades of prudish Communist rule, despite numerous homosexual references in classical Chinese literature.
Gay activists are hailing the visit by Iceland's premier and her wife as a rare chance to bring the issue into ordinary living rooms by means of television and state media.
Scenes of Johanna Sigurdardottir thanking Chinese premier Li Keqiang for the "friendly reception" her wife received on national broadcaster CCTV's notoriously stodgy evening news, and pictures with Sigurdardottir side-by-side with her playwright spouse Jonina Leosdottir, have virtually no precedent.
"This visit creates a quandary for China," said Ah Qiang, a gay rights advocate in the southern city of Guangzhou. "Everyone is looking to see how the official media will cover it. They have to at least admit that this is happening."
While large cities have thriving gay scenes, there are few people willing to be openly gay and police do occasionally harass gay venues and activists.
Social pressure is such that many gay men and women either marry people who know nothing of their partner's true sexuality, or have fake marriages to each other.
But many gay netizens said they were surprised by the reporting on the five-day visit to sign a free trade pact, including positive profiles of Sigurdardottir in state news sites, such as the People's Daily.
"When I heard her thanking Li Keqiang for the treatment her wife received, I thought that I misheard," commenter "K-ong-Y-ang" said on popular microblog Sina Weibo, referring to the CCTV footage, widely seen as a bellwether for official tolerance.
"The Icelandic prime minister thanked China for treating her wife well. This banal statement reflects the tolerance of today's China towards gays," wrote a Weibo user in the southwestern city of Guizhou, calling himself "New home in a new era."
Activists said that copious chatter about the upcoming visit on Weibo might have forced the government's hand. When German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle visited China with his same-sex partner in 2010, state media largely ignored it.
The government has largely ignored homosexuals and some social scientists say a lack of sex education in schools fuels hostile social attitudes towards gay men and women.
"Why is it that officials welcome gay people from foreign countries with a smiling face, but are harsh on Chinese gays in their words and actions?" wrote author Cao Junshu on Weibo.
Some said the visit could turn out to be an initial first step towards acceptance and the long road to same-sex marriage, by inspiring local gays and forcing officials to face up to changing social attitudes overseas.
"I await the day when gay couples can marry here and start families, that would be real respect," wrote one netizen.
(Editing by Elaine Lies and Ron Popeski)