For Gays in China, 'Fake Marriage' Eases Pressure

Xiao Dong, left, an investor-owner of the BF bar and a former TV news producer, with his partner, Mo Yinhua, a webmaster.
Xiao Dong, left, an investor-owner of the BF bar and a former TV news producer, with his partner, Mo Yinhua, a webmaster. (Maureen Fan - The Washington Post)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 23, 2007

BEIJING -- It is Saturday afternoon in a half-empty restaurant on the fourth floor of a modern shopping mall. Two young women kiss slowly and continuously, one permed head of hair poised above another, arms entwined, as other customers ignore them completely.

This is the weekly gathering of Tongyu, a lesbian group that meets publicly to socialize, watch gay movies and discuss important issues, such as whether to come out of the closet and how. Most nearby patrons are gay, but customers at the front of the restaurant are straight. The owner doesn't seem to care about the public displays of affection, as long as the young women of Tongyu keep buying drinks.

The two women kissing are not yet out to their families, and they wouldn't try this at home, said Xu Bin, 34, founder of Tongyu. Their parents wouldn't stand for it.

Ten years after China decriminalized homosexuality and six years after officials removed it from a state list of mental disorders, gay men and lesbians say one of their biggest obstacles is parental pressure to get married.

Coming out isn't easy anywhere in the world, they say, but in a culture that still emphasizes Confucian family ideals, such as obeying one's parents and bearing children, the pressure to conform is enormous. It is compounded by the fact that parents of younger gay Chinese came of age during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976. During those years of social upheaval, failure to conform could mean death.

"I'm an only child, and my parents put all their hopes on me," said Lucy Ma, 32, a Beijing software engineer who regularly attends Tongyu discussions. "They belong to the Cultural Revolution generation. They only graduated from high school, and they suffered a lot, so they really think I should live happily. To their mind that means a husband, a happy family and a good job."

After China's Communist revolution in 1949, homosexuality was considered grounds for persecution. Today, the environment for gay men and lesbians here is more tolerant. Groups such as Tongyu are accepted, gay bars can operate openly, and a special hotline has been set up for lesbians seeking support.

Despite the advances, though, gay Chinese still face job discrimination and stigmatization, even by family members. Those fears can be glimpsed in online personal ads, which are dominated by appeals for "fake marriages," or marriages of convenience.

"Here is my basic plan," a 30-year-old gay man in Beijing said recently in a posting for a bride. "Acting as husband and wife outside, and being close friends with each other. The New Year is approaching. The pressure of facing parents in your home town is growing."

Tong Ge, an independent scholar, two years ago surveyed 400 gay men 35 and older. He said he found that 85 percent of respondents were married. More and more younger gay men are now refusing to marry, Tong said, but among the answers to his survey, this one was typical:

"Now the most difficult people to deal with are not the police, as long as you don't break the law. It's your parents. I finished my master's degree at 26 and was urged to get married. At first, I wanted to escape by going abroad, but I didn't have so much money," one man told Tong in an interview.

"I considered marrying a lesbian, and dated some. But the more we talked about the house and our finances, the more complicated it got."

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