Biggest obstacle for China's gays: Social pressure for marriage

SHANGHAI — They had what they thought was the perfect solution, but it turned out that the men are just too picky.

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."

Plans such as Yu's and Jiang's are viable in China, even in international cities such as Shanghai. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness until 2001, and gay sex was decriminalized only 13 years ago.

The ramifications of China's increasingly open gay culture are visible, but although it continues to grow, the traditional pressures and social stigma remain.

While Shanghai hosted mainland China's first ever Gay Pride event in June 2009 and is known for its booming gay nightlife, its lesbian and gay inhabitants still live in constant fear of a government crackdown.

"The gay movement is not very developed," said Wei Wei, a sociology professor at Shanghai's East China Normal University. "The major issue facing them is not homophobia, it is social pressure for marriage."

In fact, Wei estimates that about 90 percent of Chinese gays eventually will marry someone of the opposite sex.

Still, lesbian and gay Shanghainese have carved out a place for themselves. On a typical Saturday, Yu works as a bartender at Red Station, a lesbian bar on the fourth floor of a tall office building.

Men prefer Shanghai Studio, which is in the basement of an apartment complex. Its bathroom sign reads, "PP ISLAND, FOR MEN ONLY," and the owners rent out a room to a male underwear store dubbed MANifesto.

These young Chinese are using these years to live the way they please before the weight of marriage descends.

Yu Jing, a 20-year-old student at Shanghai's Tongji University, said she doesn't identify as a "lala," or lesbian. She said she likes to date girls — she's been in relationships with five women and no men.

Yu Jing's parents found out about her most recent relationship a few months ago, prompting her to promise "to try to not date another girl." She broke up with her girlfriend a month later.

"My dad said, 'You are on a road that can go no further,' " she recalled. "So I'll marry a man one day so I do not disappoint my parents."

"I really had a good relationship with my parents before," said Yu Jing, who keeps her hair short and has a penchant for Nike sneakers. "I told everything to my mom — my life, my friends. But from the day I began dating a girl, I have a lot of lies," she said. "I just feel really guilty."

In a change in attitude about sexual orientation similar to many Western countries, sociologist Wei said that "gay" was just a behavior before, but now it's an identity.

"It's a way of life," Wei said.

This small but growing sentiment scares some Chinese parents.

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."

Amior Zhao, a lesbian activist in Shanghai, said that many young Chinese men and women feel guilty coming out to their parents because by doing so they've "put their parents in the closet," meaning that their parents must hide their knowledge from other family members.

With the added pressure of being an only child, the elements are compounded, she said. China's one-child policy has created a generation of 20-somethings who've come to understand what it's like to be the vessel of all of the hopes and dreams of two people.

Zhang Peng, a Fudan University student, said his parents ask him about his marriage plans frequently. He doesn't have the heart to tell them that he's dating a 28-year-old South African man.

"I want to be the person he can go to to share his sorrows with," Zhang said. "But my parents would say, 'This is so abnormal, why are you doing this?' "

Zhang said he was born gay, but he knows he should marry a woman at some point.

"I can maybe still find a woman I can care about," he said.

"Rights in China is a very risky word," Zhao said. "The risk for me in China is not so clear. That's the thing I fear a lot. You do one thing and you don't know the next step."

Zhao, 28, is a founding member of Shanghai Nvai, meaning "female love." The group hosts frequent salons and Saturday film screenings at a local space the women have dubbed "The Closet."

Zhao said that the local gay and lesbian Shanghainese are just looking to connect with others. Gay rights is abstract term, she said, and it's certainly not on the agenda, at least for a while.

"Our first priority is to be alive here," she said. "Existing now is the most important thing for us."

Some, though, are pushing for change.

Kenneth Tan, a Singaporean expatriate in Shanghai and an organizer of Shanghai Pride 2010, said this year's festival would be bigger and bolder than last year's was. However, it will have to wait. Organizers postponed the event until Expo 2010 concludes in October.

In 2009, organizers hosted several indoor events, including film screenings and theater productions — several of which were shut down by police.

"We will push the envelope this year," Tan said. "It will involve more outdoor elements. Basically last year, we were hiding."

And as these gay rights events continue to crop up, everyday Chinese continue to find ways to live their lives their own way.

Wei, 36, said he came out to his mother seven years ago. "It was like an earthquake," he said. Since then, he's taken his mother to a gay bar, created a home with his partner of two years and built a first-of-its-kind sexuality course at East China Normal University.

Wei said he's seen more young Chinese take this route — to live in gay relationships and build a life and family together. It's a small but growing trend, he said.

For Yu and Jiang, however, marriage remains on the horizon. Change hasn't come rapidly enough for them.

"We don't want (our parents) to get hurt because of us," Jiang said.

Yu continued, "So we choose to get married."

(Murphy, a student at Penn State University, reported this story from Shanghai for a class in international journalism.)


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