A modern tragedy: Pressure on Chinese gays to marry

This is not a new topic. But it’s not one you normally see in your US newspaper, and I was surprised to see a syndicated article on it today in the front section of my local rag, the Arizona Republic. It was a topic I was all too familiar with.

They think that Yu Xiaofei, with her cropped black hair and dark-rimmed glasses, looks too much like a tomboy, and they think that Jiang Yifei’s distaste for children is suspicious.

So what are these young Chinese women to do? They’re 24, out of college, employed, living at home – and they’re in love with each other and desperate to find a way to stay together.

“The most important thing is that we cannot hurt our parents,” Yu said. “They put a lot on us.”

That means finding two men in a similar predicament. Their plan is simple. Yu and Jiang will find a gay male couple, arrange a living situation and lay down some ground rules. Then, they’ll pair off with the men and get married, just as their parents expect them to do.

They still have time, and they’re using it to take in every last kiss and touch before these gestures become even more complicated than they already are. Still, their proposed arrangement is no grand tragedy for the pair – it’s practical.

Beneath it all are the Confucian family values that still underpin Chinese society: As a son or daughter, it’s your duty to maintain and carry on the family line by having children.

“We have to – that’s tradition,” said Jiang, who sports long caramel-colored hair and clinking bangle bracelets. “That’s what (our parents) think we should do.”

The story does not have a comforting ending. Yes, in Shanghai and maybe some other big cities it’s possible to live a relatively open life. But for those without the means to get there and live there, there are few good options. China is more liberal and open now than ever before, but social stigma remains a powerful force.

Few topics about China have disturbed and fascinated me as much as the tragic situation most gay Chinese face due to family pressure to marry. I actually debated writing an extended article or even a book about it during my last few months in China but gave up the idea for the simple reason that there wasn’t enough to write about – nearly everyone I interviewed about it had the same story and the same point of view: We have to get married. We cannot disappoint our parents. The few that decided never to marry were aware they were putting their family to shame. They felt bad about it but decided they couldn’t lead a double life, one that would inevitably cause terrible suffering to the woman they married. I respected them for this. But this forced them to be totally dishonest with their parents. To keep up the act, they developed a script to dodge the questions about when they were getting married. It, too, was an act of deception. To the day their parents passed away, they would have to lie to them.

Before this blog had any readers, I wrote a post back in 2002, when life for gays in China was much, much different. I described their lives as a plight. The social safety net then was less wide than it is today, and things have improved a thousandfold. But still, there is an element of plight to the lives of most gays in China. The pressure to marry makes it virtually inevitable.

One of the most common and, to the Western mindset, most bizarre arguments I heard from gay friends I knew in China was that this was a temporary situation, as if they were “going through a phase”: When it is time for me to marry I will. I will love my wife and I will have children and I will never be gay again. I didn’t argue back, or say I thought this was impossible. I tried to ask questions, like, “Do you really think you can simply change your sexuality the way you would a light bulb? Do you think this would be fair to your wife, to hide from her such a key a part of yourself?” The response was usually the same. I will become straight.

Again, if you are in Beijing or Shanghai it’s easy to get a very skewed perspective of this situation. I remember talking on the phone to a friend in Hefei who was sobbing hysterically; he had nothing in his life but loneliness. “Why did I have to be born in Hefei? Why couldn’t I have been born in Beijing?” I cannot put into words the misery of this conversation. It was nothing less than seeing one’s life as a death sentence, as torture, as a life without a future.

I gave up the idea of writing at length about this for two reasons: experts like Li Yinhe were much more qualified to do this sort of thing than I, with my intermediate-level Chinese, and because of the uniformity of the responses I heard – too similar to sustain a lengthy analysis. Not all were hysterical or hopeless, like my friend in Hefei. But nearly all the responses boiled down to this: we have no choice but to marry, to do something we know is wrong, that goes against who we are, and that sentences us to a life of duplicity, desperation and unfulfilled dreams. And yes, it’s better than it used to be and it’s better in the big cities. But for the vast majority of gay men and women in China, life promises to be a well of loneliness.

By nature, anyone who is gay needs to come to terms with shame. The shame of bullying, of knowing they are different, of having to create a double life, of knowing they are disappointing their parents. Despite the idiotic arguments of Focus on the Family and moralists on the far right, no one ever chooses to be gay. No one chooses bullying, deception, stigmatization and pain. So being gay is hard enough as it is, no matter how liberal your society. But to be gay in China is a unique tragedy, especially for those who can’t afford to live and study overseas or to live in a city like Shanghai.

As the article says, maybe there will be some years of freedom, a short time in the life of gays in China when they can be themselves, before the time arrives when they need to marry.

Yu Jing said that despite the hardships she’s suffered with her parents – watching her father cry, her mother screaming at her – it’s these youthful days without weighty expectations that she’ll recall throughout her life.

“I think it’s worth (dating girls),” she said. “Maybe five years later I’ll be a very normal person in this society, but I can still remember my past.”

How terrible, to have only a memory of a brief, happy time when you were free to be yourself – until the day comes when night falls like a hammer, and for the rest of your life you are sentenced to live a lie.

There is so much I love about Chinese culture. The fixed notion of family and face before all else is not one of those things.

Update: If this topic interests you, you absolutely must read this piece from several weeks ago by my friend Zhang Yajun