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.
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.
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.
But, as Xiaojian has found, finding a partner is not so easy. Even without the need to click emotionally, let alone fall in love, meeting the resume requirements of a spouse can be just as difficult. Dates become a series of business negotiations, often hard-nosed.
“It is so hard,” says Xiaojian, who has been trying to find the right partner over the past two years.
Gay men often find they have weaker bargaining power. Because in China, men are responsible for carrying on the family line, they are pushed harder by parents to marry and have children. As a result, there are many more gay men seeking a marriage of convenience than there are potential female partners.
The women, being in a buyer’s market, can set high standards.
Even though many of the couples won’t live together after marrying, women still require that their gay "husbands" be good-looking and have a stable job, sufficient savings, and – in real estate-crazed China – their own apartment.
Xiaojian’s last blind date, who prefers to be called her by her English name, Zoe, only checked him out for three seconds before deciding his height was a deal-breaker.
“I am doing a marriage of convenience for my parents,” says Zoe, who is gay. “They definitely won’t be happy with his height. Since I am doing it, I want to make them satisfied.”
Oftentimes, property is the “biggest concern” for most of the “couples,” says Liu Wei, a legal consultant for Aizhixing.
They also have to negotiate over whether to have children and how to take care of each other’s parents in the future, she says.
Prenuptial agreements can protect either party’s wealth, but “something like whether the couple is going to have children is not something that can be legally contracted,” she explains.
A better solution?
Despite the complications, Professor Zhang, at Qingdao University, believes that such unions have merits – as long as both sides know the terms of the deal.
According to him, China has at least 16 million tongqi, or the straight wives of gay men – many of whom get married without the awareness of their husbands’ sexual orientation. In more than 20 years of research, Zhang has heard many tragic stories from tongqi: how they were ashamed of their husband's behavior and grew depressed in their loveless marriage. Men in these relationships would expose their spouses to the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, he says.
Many activists oppose xingshi marriages, even when both parties understand the terms. Instead of conforming, they say, gay people should work to transform Chinese views of homosexuality.
“Marriage of convenience is a compromise and a retreat,” says Aqiang, the online name of a well-known gay rights activist based in Guangdong. “If each gay doesn’t even have the courage to communicate with their parents, their closest family, and tell the truth, how can we expect the society to change their attitude?”
A growing number of activists and organizations are fighting for gay rights. Li Yinhe, a prominent sociologist who studies sexual practices in China, has submitted a proposal to the government to legalize gay marriage. Some in the gay community say they would settle for laws that prohibit discrimination against homosexuals.
Psychological and physical support is increasingly available for gay people, especially in cities. About 300 NGOs in China work on homosexual issues, providing information on AIDS prevention and legal consultation. Online forums for gay people give them a space to communicate. Hotlines offer psychological consultation.
Aqiang argues that when gay rights are respected and when the public – including parents – better understands homosexuality, then the pressure to marry will dissipate.
For the time being, though, Xiaojian feels he has no other choice. He says he will keep going on dates.
Marriage of convenience is a lie,” he sighs. “But I will spend my entire life to make this lie work.”