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Amid family pressures, gays in China turn to marriages of convenience

In China, where homosexuality remains taboo, many gays enter marriages of convenience to satisfy family pressure to wed and have children. While they act like a couple in front of their families, many don't live together.

By Zhang YajunContributor / April 13, 2010

A couple presents wedding dress during the Wedding Expo in Harbin, capital of northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, April 9. In China, where homosexuality remains taboo, many gays enter marriages of convenience to satisfy family pressure to wed.

Wang Song / Newscom

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Beijing

Xiaojian was on his 10th blind date, and it wasn't going well. A few minutes in, he already found himself rejected. The reason: He was too short.

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Xiaojian isn’t even looking for love. As a gay man, he only wants to form a xingshi marriage, or marriage of convenience, to ease the pressure from his family to settle down.

China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, and in 2001 removed it from the official list of mental disorders. But the social stigma against gays remains deep, and in a society where family plays an important role, it is intensely reinforced by parents pressuring their children to get married and carry on the family line.

Zhang Beichuan, a professor at Qingdao University who has studied homosexuality in China since the 1980s, estimates that the country has about 30 million gay men and women between the ages of 15 and 60.

Of them, 80 to 90 percent “eventually get married,” he says.

In China, parents often play a big part in the life decisions of their children well into adulthood. Disobeying parents – for example, by refusing to get married and so continue the family line – is considered deeply unfilial.

Many gay people, then, are turning to the xingshi marriage: A gay man and a lesbian (or, sometimes, a heterosexual woman) will marry one another to deflect the nagging from their parents and relatives. They meet through friends or over the Internet. After marrying, they won’t necessarily live with one another, and many maintain their own same-gender partners. But in front of their families they act like real couples.

Parental pressure

For Xiaojian, at 28 years is just past the ideal marriage age here, it seemed like a perfect solution.

“My parents asked me to get married, so I have to. I cannot make them upset,” he says. “Even though I don’t agree with them, I cannot challenge them. ”

His decision comes after years of family strife and personal angst. Xiaojian's aunt, a surgeon in a prestigious Beijing hospital, once questioned his sexual orientation and dragged him to a mental hospital to take a test to make sure he was not “abnormal.”

One night, during the Spring Festival in February, he banged his head into a wall in a dramatic protest against his parents’ pressure to marry. His extreme reaction won him a brief respite, but they soon resumed their nagging about his bachelorhood.

Coming out of the closet is, as might be expected, not an option for Xiaojian, who asked that his full name not be used. “Either my father or my mother would die,” he says. “They cannot accept the fact that their son is the only freak in the village.”

The pressure to marry is greater in rural areas, such as in Xiaojian’s home village on the outskirts of Beijing, where his relatives and neighbors keep close watch. Stay single too long, and gossip begins to spread about possible physical or mental disabilities. Constant questioning ensues. For some jobs, such as in the military and civil service, marriage is a requirement for promotion.

Adding to the pressure to obey, many young adults rely on their parents for financial support. The average Beijing salary of 3,700 yuan (about $550) is barely enough to live on in the increasingly expensive capital.

That is the problem facing Ling Yu, a project officer for homosexuality at the Aizhixing Institute, an AIDS prevention and awareness grassroots nongovernmental organization based in Beijing. Though he has helped many other gay men and women protect their rights, he acknowledges that he may end up in a xingshi marriage. He earns 3,000 yuan ($440) a month.

“People in China don’t have any security. If I lose my job, I cannot survive," he explains. “If that happened, I would have to rely on my parents to support me, forget about buying an apartment. So it is not practical to challenge my parents.”

Marriage of convenience – not so easy

At first glance, a marriage of convenience seems to be a good compromise between finding personal freedom and satisfying the parents.

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