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

The Discussion: 23 Comments

I have 4 openly gay Chinese friends – 2 men and 2 women – and they are each divorced. Two other male friends who exhibit certain flamboyantly gay characteristics are married with children.

June 28, 2010 @ 2:46 pm | Comment

I think you need to be careful with the “flamboyantly gay characteristics” descriptor. I know many completely heterosexual guys in China who you would think display such characteristics. They looked like gay characteristics to me, through my cultural filters. In China, they don’t seem gay at all. God knows how we seem to them. If they really are gay and are married and living a lie, it’s terribly sad, like so many American gays pre-Stonewall.

June 28, 2010 @ 2:51 pm | Comment

I can’t help but think of the difference in Thailand. In Bangkok, gay couples live openly and peacefully. Among my best friends there, an American and Thai national living together in an upscale neighborhood that resembles Marina del Rey. as happy as they’d be in the Bay Area (which is where my American friend comes from). There is an additional pressure on the Chinese gay, that of the only child. The parents are especially distraught that an only child won’t procreate.

In the first class I taught in Xiamen University, an obviously exceptional young man, curious, outgoing, well versed in Western culture and fluent in English appeared in my enormous class. He was studiously helpful in orienting me and would often walk me home. By the time I discovered he wasn’t on the roster, he’d confessed as much. His parents insisted he attend the IT college but they did not have English classes. So he found mine. (Eventually I got his college to credit him.)

He kept lending me gay themed DVDs and agonized over his crushed relationship, he was 19! He was also a Christian and conflicted about his beliefs. One day I just said to him “you are perfect just as you are.” And then we got to talking about growing up gay. In his whole life I was the only person he’d ever revealed it to except his former lover. This child was so lonely and emotionally battered. But somehow he pulled it off.

He’s well employed now and could leave Xiamen and live in Shanghai if he wanted to; he doesn’t. And we email from time to time. I’m assuming, as the frequency of the email diminishes that he’s fashioned a satisfactory lifestyle for himself. I’ll never forget what courage and desperation it took for him to reach out to a foreign woman like me.

June 28, 2010 @ 5:38 pm | Comment

@Richard – I know people of many countries on whom my Gaydar has apparently failed, this is nothing to do with China!

June 28, 2010 @ 9:47 pm | Comment

Thanks Ellen. That’s a beautiful story, and it’s maddening he had to go through so much pain. There’s still pain in America, as well. But getting help and finding a cimmunity here is easier. It took long enough, and I hope things keep improving in China. Unfortunately, the stigma-on-the-family mentality is not keeping up with the increased toleration.

FOARP, I don’t think it’s about gaydar. It’s that what we in the west consider “effeminate” is not necessarily seen that way among the Chinese, and other Asians. We had a long, drawn-out conversation about this in one of TPD’s most spirited threads some years ago. I find that in the US, when we see the flamboyance – the outfits and mannerisms, the purses and the way they carry themselves – there’s a much better chance that person is gay than in China, where what’s effeminate to us simply isn’t to them. But this is one of those third-rail topics because it is easily misunderstood. My point being, applying western filters won’t work when it comes to looking at a guy in China and deciding he’s gay.

June 28, 2010 @ 10:35 pm | Comment

To add to that, I don’t necessarily think it’s possible or even advisable to decide whether someone is “gay” simply by looking at them. Sometimes it may be quite obvious, but often simplistic stereotypes simply don’t hold. Furthermore, in the US and particularly in China one might often encounter people who aren’t even fully sure themselves. Anyway, that’s another side comment.
This makes me think of one post quite a while ago (but I would say in the last year or two) where you suggested that gay marriage might possibly pass in China before the US. Although I hold a different opinion about the possibility of such legislation (the recent response to the Shanghai film festival suggests even less openness than one would expect), this post suggests that the social pressures beyond legislative possibilities are quite massive. As a member of a “straight” marriage, the constant inquiry and urging about producing children suggests that long-term relationships are primarily affirmed within society by the creation of a child (and while not many will admit this, preferably a son). For people outside of the relationship, prior to the son, what’s the point? As such, I imagine that plenty will be left with no choice but to follow the path of the couples described above for quite some time.

June 29, 2010 @ 12:40 am | Comment

It’s that what we in the west consider “effeminate” is not necessarily seen that way among the Chinese, and other Asians.

Gotta agree with you there, Rich.

In ’02, the uni where I was teaching showed “Lord of the Rings” in the school theatre. The strong-jawed, steely-eyed very masculine Aragorn didn’t draw peep out of the girls in the audience (and Chinese movie audiences can make a lot of noise) but when the not so masculine (I won’t go as far to say effeminate) Legolas appeared for the first time the was a great girlish “哇” and a hell of a lot of chatter. I was new to China at the time and was rather surprised.

June 29, 2010 @ 9:41 am | Comment

Kevin, I agree with your observations about marriage and children, and the dilemma this poses for gays in China.

I don’t really think China will approve gay marriage before the US – at least not formally. But already, right now, I think most Chinese are actually more tolerant of gays than many in the US, as long as it’s not their blood relative who’s gay. This might not be due to any great liberal enlightenment or sense of universal brotherhood. It’s more like, “Who cares?” There’s none of that religious sanctimony, no BS about how an obscure reference in the Bible means Jesus hates gays, none of that self-righteous condemnation from the firebrand preacher who, once the congregation’s gone out for coffee, is rummaging through his stash of Justin Timberlake pictures and getting sleazy massages in the church’s basement. In this sense I find the Chinese mentality healthier than that of many Americans. It is tragic, however, that this all ends when it’s their son or daughter who’s gay.

June 29, 2010 @ 1:12 pm | Comment

“as long as it’s not their blood relative”
This (“blood relative”) is the key term. I appreciate the lack of erroneous references to “the Bible!”, but if one is not willing to face one’s own blood relative, what is one really willing to accept? If 100 years ago (or perhaps 50 years ago), I had “no problem” with “negroes” so long as they steered clear of my family, I would not really be that progressive or even for that matter thoughtful.
I tend to think that there is no need to revise the defintion of this term (progressive) just because quite a few Chinese residents cling to homophobic/ racist ideologies (which is worse, one might ask a friend, “Africans” or “gays”?). Much as on the political front, the only real option is to confront these issues head-on and make people begin to face human reality, which is never a bad thing. Filialiy is BS. If not, we’d still be doing the loyalty dance to Chairman Mao.

June 29, 2010 @ 4:30 pm | Comment

On the other hand, the topic of hypocricy with regard to “homosexuality” is worthy of further discussion, both in China and in the US. I might have mentioned this before, but did anyone see the film “Outrage”? A really important record of the dissonance between many politicans’ private lives and their public propaganda.

June 29, 2010 @ 4:35 pm | Comment

@Richard – I think the “looks like a duck, talks like a duck, is a duck” rule is just a true (or false) in China as elsewhere – and carries extra meaning in Chinese slang!. However, given the way in which many Chinese are cosseted to the point where some can reach early adulthood without even knowing the facts of life, it is not surprising that Chinese men are not subjected to the pressure to avoid behaving in a way that might be interpreted as gay that heterosexual western men are.

I do not know America and cannot comment on whether the US is more or less tolerant than China towards homosexuality, although obviously nowhere in China quite matches Castro Street and many are likely to be more similar to Notasulga, Alabama – although I would never presume to know what the prevailing attitude towards homosexuality in that great state is!

Coming from the UK, and having gone to university in Brighton, Britain’s gay capital, I know the UK to be a much more tolerant nation in its modern attitudes to homosexuality than China, although I believe that these attitudes have only really changed in the main since the mid-nineties, and the change in some cases was only superficial. That said, China is also changing slowly. Assuming it follows the same path as Taiwan, which had its first pride marches during the nineties, where gay clubs are still raided by the police and those people caught at the scene made to take AIDS tests (although employers can also insist on such tests, and deny employment to those who test positive), and where homosexual marriage has still not yet been legalised, such Change is likely to take a while.

June 29, 2010 @ 8:38 pm | Comment

I would be interested in reading a book with the individual stories of Chinese GLBT folks. Our cultures have much to share and learn from each other.

June 29, 2010 @ 9:54 pm | Comment

Wow, even I don’t understand my two posts above. Sorry, should get more sleep.

June 30, 2010 @ 8:40 am | Comment

Kevin, should I see the film Outrage? Never heard of it before.

Diane, I agree a book like that sounds interesting. And I actually started to work on it. My problem was the tedium of everyone having nearly the exact same story. Kind of like this: Guys from the countryside were totally confused about their sexuality in their hometowns, and only started being gay when they got to bigger cities. Guys born in Beijing and Shanghai, usually to wealthy parents who sent them to universities overseas, had recognized and accepted they were gay about the same way someone in a developed country would. Several had come out to their parents, and not a singe one intended to marry. The uniformity of the stories was fascinating in and of itself, but I couldn’t find enough interesting narratives to actually fill a book. If Li Yinhe ever wants to partner with me and write this together, I am available.

FOARP, I want to be clear that I am not saying China gushes with toleration. But when a bunch of gays got “married” in Tiananmen Square last year it was covered affectionately in China Daily complete with photos of the guys kissing and exchanging wedding rings, and no one in China made a big deal about it. And I think that’s great. Whether it would have been accepted and smiled upon the same was if they’d gotten married in the town square in a village in Ningxia is another story.

June 30, 2010 @ 9:27 am | Comment

– The pressure to conform to the norms are indeed much greater in the Eastern Asian societies (think South Korea as well as China) than in the west. It’s not just the issue of being gay. Other stuffs like marrying the woman whom the parents do not approve, or marrying a divorcee with kids, or not having a stable job, or even not obtaining good grades at school, among the others, would rouse similar reactions from the family.

– That being said, the “having no choice” clause sounds to me to be more like an alibi than reality. Pressure does exist but it’s the person who buckles to the pressure who ultimately should take the responsibility as well as enjoy the convenience. I’ve known many gay Chinese live their lives without having to marry the opposite sex. And I also know this Chinese gay guy, who came to the US at early age, had no family pressure to get married, on and off dated the same older white guy for many years but could not take his boyfriend’s infidelity anymore, in the end pressured himself into marrying a Chinese girl. Last month he showed me the pictures of his baby son. He sounded to me to be happier than ever I’ve known him, at least at that moment.

– “Life is beautiful”, a mainstream South Korea TV drama is showing at SBS at the the moment. The main characters include a gay couple, one of which is a divorcee who was caught by the mother-in-law then caused his own parents and siblings to suffer from the discrimination, the other was almost pressured into marrying a woman. The depiction was quite realistic, albeit through the rose-tinted glasses. Being a gay Chinese, I can totally related to them.

June 30, 2010 @ 10:33 am | Comment

That being said, the “having no choice” clause sounds to me to be more like an alibi than reality. Pressure does exist but it’s the person who buckles to the pressure who ultimately should take the responsibility as well as enjoy the convenience.

I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation with gay friends in China. They are absolutely adamant about it, especially the one who aren’t from Beijing or Shanghai families. I mean, there’s not even any argument. Few topics bring the “You don’t understand China”

As I said, those I know who traveled outside of China (and they, of course, have money and were probably born in one of the big cities) – those people seem to be in a separate universe from your average poor Chinese gay male or female. Urbane, educated and relatively wealthy, some of them come out completely. But they are by far the exception. I would have been fully ready to believe the “I know a friend…” argument that proves gays in China are out and happy and don’t need to get married – until I talked to the ones from the other side of the tracks. A very different picture emerges when you talk to people from different economic strata and different home environments.

June 30, 2010 @ 11:14 am | Comment

– Not all of my unmarried gay Chinese friends are from Beijing and Shanghai, well-educated, and well-off. I’ve also had such conversations for numerous times, usually anonymously on the gay Chinese bulletin boards, where those married guys tend to be more straightforward about their motives and situations.

– From my experience, the educational and economic background do not play the key role. The rural, poor, not so well educated people may rely even less on their family ties to survive. As soon as they find a job in one of the Foxconn like enterprises, their families have little saying on how they should live their lives. It’s usually what’s in their own mind that keeps them prisoners.

– The “having no choice” clause soon evolves into “not my fault” clause, then to “take no responsibility” clause, on things ranging from extramarital gay affairs, sexually abusing their spouses, to ugly family lives. It does not prevent them from being the tyrannies under their own roofs. The victim card has been played so often that the effects simply faded on me. As the Chinese saying goes, “可怜之人必有可恨之处”, or “pitiful person must somehow deserve it”. The same goes to people like Larry Craig etc.

June 30, 2010 @ 7:28 pm | Comment

“that proves gays in China are out and happy and don’t need to get married”

Actually most of the unmarried guys I know are not completely out. Instead they’re in the “don’t ask don’t tell” status. As you’ve mentioned before, Chinese society can be quite tolerant as long as you don’t throw the whole shebang in to people’s faces.

June 30, 2010 @ 7:35 pm | Comment


July 1, 2010 @ 9:18 am | Comment

Yes, “outrage” is a great movie. It covers the stories of Larry Craig and other similar Republicans who determinedly fight against any legislation promoting gay rights while at the same time leading a “secret” gay life. It’s a really compelling portrayal not only of hypocrisy in politics, but also of the complexity of human beings and the lives they lead. There is more info at outragethemovie.com

July 1, 2010 @ 10:26 am | Comment


And here’s a hilarious modern interpretation of the Dream of the Red Chamber that shows the current attitudes: in this new, so-called “high fidelity” TV drama version, Jia Lian asked his male servant to practice the fire cupping treatment on him, while the original text explicitly said Jia Lian used one of his handsome male servants to “relieve the fire”. We all know what that is, and the novel has never been shy to depict many of his male characters as bisexual. So is the play writer intentionally playing dumb or what? S/he may as well ignore these lines at all but choose not to.

This says volume of the overall attitude towards gay in China: people tolerate it, but prefer not to be poked on. No, it’s not all that hostile. Being gay I actually appreciate this. It’s much less confrontational and buys people the time to adjust back to the old-fashioned attitude as shown in the original text of the Dream of the Red Chamber: bisexual is considered part of the norm.

July 2, 2010 @ 10:14 am | Comment

Me: “Two other male friends who exhibit certain flamboyantly gay characteristics are married with children.”

Richard: “I think you need to be careful with the ‘flamboyantly gay characteristics’ descriptor. I know many completely heterosexual guys in China who you would think display such characteristics.”

Let me put it this way then: Two other still-closeted, gay male friends are married with children.

In the end, you’ll just have to take my word for it, I suppose. As for applying Western standards to the identification of gay Chinese men, I find that the same rules generally apply. My “gaydar” works as well here in Beijing as it did in Berkeley and Cambridge. (That is to say, I am able to identify some, though not all, gay Chinese men.) In any case, I wouldn’t have written what I did if I wasn’t sure the two men in question were, in fact, gay. I know them both very well (they were classmates of mine for several years at PKU) and we remain good friends to this day. In all honestly, I knew they were gay within five minutes of meeting them, and neither has done a single thing – including getting married – to cause me to question my original judgement.

July 2, 2010 @ 4:32 pm | Comment

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