BEIJING — This year, like every year, Tiger Zhao will make the trip from the northern Chinese city where he works to his semirural home town. But this time, he won’t be traveling with a wife for cover.
For much of his adult life, Zhao, a gay man, has periodically pretended to be straight to please his parents, a ruse that involved finding and legally wedding a lesbian looking for the same, in what’s known here as a “lavender” or “cooperative” marriage.
Now divorced, 39, and heading home for the spring festival holiday on his own, he is readying himself for some version of the queries that haunt so many young Chinese: Why aren’t you married? And what about kids?
This week, millions are crowding onto planes, trains and motorbikes to welcome the year of the dog, often reuniting with family after months, even years, apart. It’s a time to feast, rest and shoot fireworks in proximity to neighbors.
But at a time when China’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community is, in some ways, gaining ground, the lunar new year is also when burgeoning pride meets profound family and social pressure.
The government’s newfound desire to boost the birthrate has spurred a state-led marriage drive that reinforces traditional views about what a life ought to look like. Most parents expect their child to marry someone of the opposite sex and give them grandchildren — they count on this for care in their old age.
This pushes people toward lavender marriage. For some, it is a way to temporarily appease their parents. Others get married to have children in a state that does not recognize same-sex unions and makes it nearly impossible to be an unwed parent.
There are no reliable figures — people don’t generally talk about these things — but the phenomenon is so common that there are lesbian-gay matchmaking events and lavender-marriage forums online. Until recently, there was a lavender-marriage app, Queers.
Queers closed because it couldn’t make money, but the founder, Liao Zhuoying, says he still hears from former clients desperate for help. “Every year, users still send emails asking us, ‘Can you help me find a lesbian to take home for the spring festival?’ ” he said.
“I don’t look forward to spring festival like I used to,” said Zhao, who asked to use his English name because he is not out to his parents or all of his co-workers. “There’s a lot of pressure and you don’t know what to say.”
Zhao never expected to marry a woman — he loves men — but by the time he hit his mid-30s, it seemed as though there was no choice.
Growing up in the northern heartland in the 1980s, he did not once hear the word “homosexual.” He realized he was gay in college, but it was not until online chat rooms took off that he was able to connect with men. Later, living in the city, he could discreetly date.
By the time he hit his late 20s, the pressure to marry was intense. When he went home each year, people would urge him to settle down. “They’d say, ‘You’re already 28, or you’re already 30, your classmates are already married with kids!’ ” he said.
He didn’t feel that he could tell his parents. He did not want to disappoint them, or to have them worry about not having a grandson.
Many feel that way. In the decades since China decriminalized gay sex, LGBT communities have fought for and found a measure of freedom and acceptance, particularly in big cities.
But relatively few feel safe coming out. A survey published by the United Nations Development Program in 2016 found that only 5 percent of China’s gender and sexual minorities choose to disclose their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression at school, in the workplace, or in religious communities.
A mere 15 percent feel they can be open with close family members.
The pressure is not just from parents but from extended family and the community.
“When relatives and friends get together for the spring festival, the most common topic for our parents’ generation is the marital status of the children,” said a Beijing-based LGBT rights campaigner, who goes by the name Zhuchuan Maoerbing.
Patrick, a 30-year-old who works in the capital, and who asked to be identified only by the English name he has adopted, summoned the courage to tell his parents he liked men, only to have them rush him to a doctor in hysterics — and then urge him back into the closet.
“They still hope that I can change — that if I get married, if I live with a girl, I will change,” he said. Last year, he took a female friend home for the holidays. They pretended to be a couple in front of the extended family and Patrick’s old friends. His parents were pleased.
This year, however, the friend has other plans. Patrick plans to tell people, including his parents, that his “girlfriend” is busy. “I can’t tell them we broke up this year,” he said. “Maybe next year.”
After nearly a decade of tough trips home, Zhao started frequenting lavender-marriage forums to look for a lesbian to marry.
Since there are far more gay men looking to marry lesbian women than the other way around, it took a while to find a match. When someone was willing, he went for it. They met three times before getting hitched.
The year after the wedding, Zhao spent Chinese New Year in relative peace. Parents: appeased. Neighbors: less nosy.
But the rest of year, he was miserable. He and his wife moved in together, then fought bitterly about everything from household chores to visiting their parents to whether to have children.
Rather than ease Zhao’s sense of isolation, the marriage deepened it.
A 32-year-old gay man who spent two years married to a woman said the day he was married he felt like a lifeless figurine on top of a wedding cake. He asked to be identified by a nickname, Kong Qi, to protect his privacy.
“We needed the marriage,” he said. “And the people around us needed the marriage, but there was no meaning in it.”
Kong and Zhao described being married to women as the loneliest and most painful period of their lives. At one point, Zhao said, he considered suicide. “I still have nightmares about it,” he said.
The problem is that being honest comes with risks. Li Yue, coordinator at the Rainbow Anti-Gender Based Violence Intervention Center, in Beijing, said it is common for people to come out during spring festival only to face verbal or physical abuse. Parents may even push conversion therapy.
Zhao, who split from his wife after two years, understands all the reasons people want to pair off to prevent this, but said he has learned that marrying someone you do not know or love will deepen, not lessen, the suffering.
He has yet to come out to his parents. His father is sick and he doesn’t want to stress him, especially this time of year, he said.
But he is waiting for his moment, working up the courage.“Probably, they won’t understand what it means,” he said. “But they will still love me.”