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."
Sun, a gay 37-year-old software engineer from the coastal city of Tianjin, said he might be able someday to tell his parents about his secret life. "But the key point is the people around them. They live in the countryside," he said in an interview. "If you're a man who is single for a long time, they think you have problems. They will think I'm not doing what a man does. It's just the way it is, from the time of our ancestors."
Many tradition-minded parents are so concerned about avoiding the shame of friends and neighbors that they threaten suicide.
Lucy Ma, who spoke on condition that her full Chinese name not be used, said she has known since middle school that she was attracted to women. But she has also been wary of upsetting her ailing mother, who does not know she is gay.
Like many lesbians in China, Ma said, she tried to date men over the years. One treated her well, bought her gifts and talked about their future. "But to me, he spoke too much, and I would disappear at the weekends, secretly traveling with my girlfriend," she said.
After their breakup, her parents introduced her to a parade of men. It was then that she began considering a marriage of convenience. "You can appear to have a relationship to your friends and colleagues," she said. "And it's the most important thing for your parents."
First, she searched online. She received three or four responses within two months. Eventually, she said, she connected with a gay man who was also looking for a marriage of convenience. "We e-mailed each other, then met, just like a normal meeting of a boy or a girl," she said.
They registered as a married couple in January 2006 and had a ceremony in the groom's home town. More than 500 guests ate duck, fish and noodles to symbolize longevity. Ma wore a red silk Chinese-style dress; her fiance wore a dark-blue suit.
"His parents and relatives prepared everything for us. We were just like two puppets on strings manipulated by others," Ma said.
She was grateful her husband didn't expect her to cook or clean while she was visiting his family and home town. And when he met her mother, he put her at ease.
"We had a big dinner, and my mother asked her brother and his wife to come. She didn't know much about my husband, and she was nervous. But she smiled a lot that night, she was telling jokes. I can tell she and my dad are very satisfied with him," Ma said.
What her parents don't know is that Ma still has a girlfriend -- and that they've been together for six years. The girlfriend lives in another city, is married and has an 11-year-old daughter.
"I've completed everything according to plan: I have a fake marriage, and my parents are happy and I'm still independent," Ma added.
There's just one small problem.
"My mother didn't used to talk about grandchildren, but now she sometimes mentions that she would like one."