Amid the Epidemic, a Quiet Leap Forward for China’s LGBT Community


The days leading up to the Lunar New Year was a tense time for people across China amid the worsening COVID-19 epidemic. But Jiang Junjie had even more reason to feel nervous than most.

The 26-year-old not only planned to visit his parents in the southern city of Chaozhou, 350 kilometers from his home in Shenzhen, in spite of the outbreak; he was also bringing along his boyfriend.

It would be the first meeting between Jiang’s partner and his family, and the young engineer had a lot riding on the outcome. In China, bringing a partner home for the holiday is a big gesture — and often a sign the couple intends to one day tie the knot.

Just months ago, Jiang wouldn’t have considered taking such a step. The previous Lunar New Year, he’d finally come out to his family, and it had gone worse than he’d feared. His father had told him never to come home again. His mother had said nothing at all.

But Jiang had managed to change his parents’ minds with the help of an unexpected ally: the Chinese government.

In late 2019, the country’s top legislative body allowed the public to make suggestions for an updated draft of China’s civil code. It received an avalanche of submissions, with nearly 200,000 people sending feedback in one month. Over 190,000 of them made the same proposal: Legalize same-sex marriage. It was so overwhelming that officials publicly acknowledged legalizing gay marriage was among the most popular suggestions they had received during a Dec. 20 press conference.

“As far as I know, never in the history of Chinese legislation have so many people put forward so many opinions on one law,” says Sun Wenlin, co-founder of iFamily, a nongovernmental organization that promotes same-sex marriage in China.

Jiang messaged his parents with the news, and told them tens of thousands of people like him had campaigned for it. “Two days later, my dad called and asked me to bring my boyfriend home for the Lunar New Year,” he tells Sixth Tone.

Many LGBT people in China have been similarly excited — and more than a little surprised — at the government’s reaction to the civil code consultation. Though few expect China to legalize same-sex marriage any time soon, the authorities’ willingness to recognize the issue is an important step forward — and could encourage more people like Jiang’s father to accept the gay community.

In previous statements, officials had signaled clear opposition to marriage equality. As recently as this past August, Zang Tiewei, a government spokesperson, told reporters that China’s current civil code — which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman — was “consistent with our country’s national circumstances, history, and culture.”

Sun, of iFamily, says he expected officials to take a similar line again, or ignore the issue completely, after the public consultation. “But they showed neither support nor opposition (for same-sex marriage), which is a lot more positive than last time,” the 29-year-old tells Sixth Tone.

The change in tone has convinced Sun that China may allow same-sex marriage much sooner than he’d previously thought. In 2015, he filed a lawsuit against his local civil affairs bureau in the central Hunan province for the right to marry his partner — China’s first case over same-sex marriage — but the court ruled in favor of the government. After that setback, Sun assumed he’d have to wait 20 years to get married, but now he’s more optimistic.

“Now I don’t think it’ll take that long, after seeing how quickly people’s attitudes toward gay people and same-sex marriage have changed in the past few years,” says Sun.

Though homophobia and discrimination remain all-too-common in China, there are signs that society is becoming more tolerant as the LGBT community gets more vocal and visible.

When Jiang started identifying as gay a decade ago, he says he didn’t feel he could confide in anyone, given the widespread negative attitudes toward LGBT people in society. Now, however, he has come out to his colleagues and family members and feels most people his age accept him for who he is.

The results of a December poll conducted by Chinese news website ifeng.com support his assessment. According to the poll, 6.3 million people — 66% of the respondents — voted in favor of legalizing gay marriage. Chinese Christian groups appeared to be alarmed by the news, with several beginning to organize opposition to a potential legalization on social media.

The Alibaba-owned shopping platform Tmall, meanwhile, caused a stir in January by producing a Lunar New Year TV ad featuring a father and mother warmly welcoming their son’s boyfriend into their home during a family reunion.

“It’s so exciting and encouraging to see a gay couple on a TV commercial in China,” says Jiang. “I feel we’re almost being acknowledged and accepted by society.”

Gao Bo, director of the LGBT group PFLAG in Wuhan, Hubei province, says the Dec. 20 press conference will definitely have an effect on China’s gay community, making more people willing to come out.

“We’ve been walking in the dark: Even if there’s just one star above our heads, we feel very bright and hopeful,” says Gao.

Two weeks after the press conference, Gao’s PFLAG chapter held a group wedding ceremony for same-sex couples in Wuhan. More than 200 people came to watch four couples — including Gao and his partner — symbolically tie the knot, an attendance beyond Gao’s expectations.

“The wedding not only celebrates our love; it also encourages more people to speak up for themselves,” says Gao. He plans to make the group wedding an annual event in Wuhan once the city has recovered from the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, which was still at a very early stage in early January.

Participants in a group wedding ceremony for same-sex couples stand onstage in Wuhan, Hubei province, Jan. 4, 2020. Courtesy of PFLAG

Participants in a group wedding ceremony for same-sex couples stand onstage in Wuhan, Hubei province, Jan. 4, 2020. Courtesy of PFLAG

The 36-year-old created an online group with more than 100 members during the civil code consultation, to encourage more people to send responses.

“Many of them asked me if China would legalize same-sex marriage this time, and I told them 300% ‘no,’” says Gao. “But the key is that we need to stick together, get ready, and then when the government reveals any positive attitude, we’ll know what to do and how to seize the opportunity.”

Jiang and his partner took full advantage of their invitation to Chaozhou over Lunar New Year. Things started awkwardly, Jiang recalls, but the family gradually loosened up as they took part in a few activities together.

“We watched TV, played video games, wrote couplets in honor of the festival, and livestreamed on social media,” says Jiang. “My boyfriend cooked several different dishes every day, which really pleased my parents.”

Jiang’s parents even asked his boyfriend to join them in burning incense and praying to Buddha — a New Year tradition in parts of southern China. “It was a sign of acceptance, as we don’t typically ask guests to do it with us,” says Jiang.

But not even the success of the civil code campaign was enough to convince Chen Minming, a 35-year-old from the eastern province of Fujian, to bring her girlfriend to the Lunar New Year dinner with her parents over the holiday.

When Chen told her parents she was a lesbian in 2018, her mother was too shocked to speak. “Then, she cried for days,” she recalls.

Chen’s father also strongly disapproved of her sexual orientation. “My girlfriend was nice enough to collect some articles on LGBT issues online and print them out for my dad, but he still disagreed,” says Chen.

Unlike most of the LGBT people who spoke with Sixth Tone, Chen remains pessimistic about the prospects of same-sex marriage in China, pointing out that legalization in other countries came only after decades of campaigning. “I don’t think it’ll happen any faster than that in China,” says Chen.

In November, Chen and her partner held a small wedding ceremony in Thailand to celebrate their love. “I don’t care that it isn’t legal,” she says. “I just believe life should be filled with a sense of ritual.”

Eros Li, a 39-year-old from the southern city of Guangzhou, however, has no intention of holding a wedding, even if China decides to allow same-sex marriage. Li has been with his boyfriend for 17 years, and he says a piece of paper won’t affect the way they feel about each other.

“I think marriage is a tool for the government to promote the stability and unity of the country,” says Li. “And many people don’t get married for love anyway.”

Nevertheless, Li is an enthusiastic campaigner for marriage equality. He participated in the civil code consultation and encouraged his friends to do the same — even those afraid of coming out.

“Whether I want to get married or not is different from whether I should have the right to get married,” says Li.

Li doesn’t think the authorities’ recognition of the support for same-sex marriage means it’s rethinking its policy. “The number of responses on this topic was far higher than any other — they just couldn’t avoid mentioning it,” he says.

But the government’s attitude has no effect on him on a personal level, according to Li. He and his partner have good relationships with both sets of parents, and the couple spent the Lunar New Year with Li’s family in the eastern Jiangxi province.

“I take my partner home based on whether my family accepts him, not based on the civil code,” says Li. “Even if we’re not legally accepted yet, as long as my family embraces us, I’m willing to take him home.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

 

Three Men Under One Roof


For over 15 years, Tan Zhiliang’s parents refused to let his family spend the country’s most important holiday — Spring Festival, or the Chinese New Year — with them. Old and conservative, Tan’s parents wouldn’t accept their son’s family. Since 2001, Tan, now 46, has been living with his partner, Chen Dezhou, 42, and Chen’s 18-year-old biological son, Jack. But this year, Tan’s parents finally agreed to allow Chen and Jack to celebrate Spring Festival together at their house. Tan thinks the photos of Jack he regularly sends his parents led to their change of heart.

Tan and his family have become minor Internet celebrities in recent years after he set up an account calledsannanyizhai, or “three men under one roof,” on microblogging platform Weibo in 2009 to blog about his family’s day-to-day life. Tan followed this endeavor with a public content account on social network WeChat in 2013, and the family now has over 50,000 followers across both platforms.

The family’s story has brought hope to many same-sex couples in China who also want to have their own families — an arrangement that to this day is still rare. Traditional beliefs about relationships and families dominate in China, and marriage law expressly forbids same-sex marriages, a fact emphasized by the recent case of Sun Wenlin and his partner, who lost their appeal against the rejection of their marriage registration earlier in April in Changsha, Hunan province.

Tan Zhiliang (right) and Chen Dezhou (left) pose at the rooftop garden of their apartment in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, March 16, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Chen and Tan first met in 1997, when Chen was a migrant worker at a garment factory in Shunde, a small city 50 kilometers from Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. One weekend in October of that year, Chen was reading magazines in a local bookstore, when he came across an article about a transgender woman. The woman was despised by her family and cheated on by her boyfriend for not being a “real” woman. It resonated with Chen, who was feeling miserable about his marriage, so he penned a letter to the journalist who wrote the article – Tan Zhiliang.

Over the next month, Tan and Chen exchanged more letters and phone calls, sharing the details of their lives. It was clear they had a lot in common, so Chen got on the train to Guangzhou at the end of Nov. 1997, to meet Tan for the first time. Chen confided in Tan that he felt no love for his wife. It was the first time Chen had ever told anyone, and he felt a great weight lift from his shoulders. The only route for young men in the small village Chen grew up in was to get married to a woman as soon as they hit their early 20s. This was a course that Chen, under pressure from those around him, also followed. Chen had already told Tan about the marriage before the two met. But there was one detail Tan wasn’t expecting: Chen’s wife was about to give birth.

Ten days later, Chen’s son was born into a home shared by two people who barely saw each other and who weren’t in love. With Tan on his mind, Chen told his wife that he was gay and in love with Tan. Her calm and composed reaction spoke volumes. “There was no love between us,” Chen says. He moved in with Tan in 1998, while Jack went to live with Chen’s parents. But after Jack badly burned his thigh reaching for a bottle of hot water in 2000, Chen worried that his parents were getting too old to look after Jack, and so he decided it would be safer if Jack moved in with him and Tan.

Initially, Tan started the Weibo and WeChat accounts to share stories about the family’s life together. But he soon realized that what he was doing mattered to other gay people in China. The family’s experiences have brought hope to many gay people who want children for themselves. For Tan, the message he wants to communicate is clear:

“Being gay doesn’t mean you can’t have your own family.”

But for most gay couples, having children is complicated. Adoption law in China prohibits applications that violate “social morality,” which includes those submitted by same-sex couples. If a couple is wealthy enough, they can use expensive services in the U.S. that provide surrogacy or in vitro fertilization. In rare cases relatives may let a couple look after their child. Abandoned infants are still a reality in China, and some gay couples might take one home if they happen to see one. But aside from the ethical implications, this is also illegal. The only option for the majority of gay couples in China is to remain childless.

It was 2001 when Tan invited his parents to Guangzhou to see his new apartment. Still in the closet to his parents, he introduced Chen as a friend and Jack as his godson. Naively, Tan thought his parents would be immediately accepting of the arrangement. But Tan’s parents hated the idea of their son raising another person’s child, and urged him to find a woman to marry as soon as possible.

In 2003 Tan’s mother told him to come home and visit a relative. But the order was a ruse, and when Tan arrived home he was confronted by a witch who put a spell on him. Superstitious beliefs are still common in China’s countryside, and Tan’s parents thought he was possessed by a female devil that was preventing him from finding a girlfriend. This was the last straw for Tan, and he told his parents the truth about his sexuality.

“I felt the air in the room freeze,” he says.

Tan and Chen live in Guangzhou, but because Tan is vice president of a state-owned media outlet means he spends most of his time in the city of Kunming, Yunnan province. However, the pair decided to live in an affluent suburb of Guangzhou because they think the city is more open-minded. Tan and Chen say that because their neighbors are well-off, they are more accepting of the family.

“Jack is active with the other kids in the compound and has never been confronted with awkward questions,” says Chen.

Photos of Tan, Chen Dezhou, and Chen’s biological son Jack, from their apartment in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, March 16, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Jack doesn’t think his life has been unusual in any way.

“I just happen to have one more dad,” Jack says.

Chen and Tan have been able to maintain a degree of anonymity in spite of their popularity on social networks, but they have shied away from some public events in order to protect Jack’s privacy. Now 18, Jack realizes that his life and experiences might help others.

“I just want people to know that gay families are as ordinary as other families,” Jack says.

In reality, Jack has two fathers and one mother. Chen’s wife requested a divorce in 2003, and the split was amicable. Soon after, Chen and Tan helped her move to Guangzhou where, according to Chen, she is free to visit whenever she wants. Chen has a child in Jack, and he financially supports his family — the two main demands his parents had of him. Because of this, Chen’s family has been accepting of his relationship.

“My job as a son is done,” Chen says.

Tan’s relationship with his own parents didn’t improve after he came out to them. In the years following, he lied to his parents, saying he had broken up with Chen. He pretended to date a lesbian friend, even going as far as to consider a sham marriage with her. But deep inside, Tan knew he couldn’t go through with it.

In January 2016, Tan posted about the changing relationship with his parents on the sannanyizhai public WeChat account. For the first time ever, he shared a post from that account on his personal WeChat feed, where all of his contacts could read it. Tan was incredibly nervous: He was lifting the lid on his double life and coming clean about his sexual orientation. He even worried that he might lose his job.

But Tan’s post received tens of thousands of views and comments of support, including many from close friends and colleagues. Despite the support of people in wider society, Tan was made to wait by his own parents.

“It took them 15 years to finally accept my family,” says Tan.

The English name “Jack” has been used to protect the true identity of Tan and Chen’s son at their request.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.