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.

 

Late Bloomers: China’s Elderly Embrace Sex After 60


SHANGHAI — Every Wednesday afternoon, Xue Xiaoqing grabs her favorite purse and heads to a beauty salon in the city’s leafy former French Concession. There, the 70-year-old receives special massage therapy that her therapist has coyly named “private maintenance.”

The treatment for vaginal dryness is designed to help Xue improve her sex life with her husband. After a year of weekly sessions, she says she feels much younger and more confident. “I want to keep having sex until I can no longer walk,” she tells Sixth Tone.

Xue is one of a growing number of elderly Chinese who are rejecting traditional cultural mores and embracing their sexuality as a source of health and happiness.

Like many of her peers, Xue, a retired teacher, used to feel intense pressure to refrain from intercourse. Chinese culture has long stressed that sex should be for procreation only, and making love after menopause was considered both unhealthy and immoral.

“I felt guilty whenever I had sex and tried to suppress any sexual thoughts,” says Xue. She cites a common proverb to explain her feelings: “An old man who desires sex disrespects the elderly and brings misfortune on his family.”

But things changed for the 70-year-old when her beautician recommended she give the massages a try. “The therapist told me women in the West have sex into their 80s, and we can achieve that, too,” says Xue.

Quietly, millions of other retirees are joining the silver sexual revolution. Though 85% of young Chinese believe their parents never have sex, according to a recent survey, research suggests that most of the respondents are mistaken.

A 2018 report by researchers at Renmin University of China found that 53% of Chinese people aged between 55 and 61 had sex at least once a month. The number of elderly respondents that reported having an active sex life, meanwhile, rose from 25% in 2000 to 39% in 2015.

Zhang Ying, a professional matchmaker from Kunshan, a city roughly 70 kilometers west of Shanghai, says she has noticed an attitude shift among her elderly clients in recent years: As income levels rise, they are looking for more than just economic security — they are increasingly prioritizing their emotional needs.

“Almost all my clients emphasize that they want to have a sex life after they remarry,” says Zhang.

Personal information from a matchmaking event in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Feb. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Personal information from a matchmaking event in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Feb. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying

Though media discussion of this trend remains rare in China, it is no longer taboo. A growing number of commentators are advocating “scientific sexual knowledge” and encouraging the elderly to keep on having sex “until the end.”

And as public awareness of sexual health issues grows, more retirees are seeking treatments to prolong their sex lives. Zhou Yujing opened a female beauty clinic specializing in sex-related therapies in the eastern city of Hangzhou in 2017. She says nearly 10% of her patients are aged 60 or over.

“This number is already larger than I expected,” says Zhou, adding that she expects to attract more older patients as society becomes increasingly open. The 33-year-old surveyed the mothers of dozens of her friends before starting her business, and she was struck by how many chafed against the patriarchal valuesthey had internalized as young women.

“They all wanted to have sex, but moral hang-ups prevented them from doing so,” says Zhou. “If a woman stops having sex after childbirth or menopause, she’s being unfair to herself.”

Yuan Baohong — secretary general of the China Health Care Association, a Beijing-based nongovernmental organization — encourages elderly patients to pursue an active sex life, arguing that it can offer mental and physical benefits.

“When they have sex, older people feel they are actively engaging in life, rather than retreating from it,” says Yuan. “The self-confidence and positive mental state this fosters can help prolong their lives.”

For Yuan, sex can be an effective cure for the loneliness and negativity that often affect elderly patients. Though many understandably feel unable to move on after they lose their partners, this often heightens their sense of alienation, he says.

“Because their (sexual) needs can’t be understood by their children or society, they often feel distressed or depressed,” says Yuan. “Their moods can become volatile, and they sometimes lose their tempers for no reason.”

At an Ikea store in downtown Shanghai, however, more than 100 single elderly residents are actively searching for a new partner. Groups of retirees meet at the store’s second-floor café twice per week, many of whom attend multiple meetups each month.

On a humid Thursday in August, several attendees in their 60s and 70s tell Sixth Tone they are hoping to find a new spouse at that day’s coffee date, while others say they are simply looking for a friend with benefits. Many openly speak about their previous marriages and desire for emotional intimacy, though most prefer not to discuss their sex lives.

But Wu Xiangui doesn’t shy away. The 68-year-old strides across the cafeteria, remarking to Sixth Tone that he is searching for a “target.” He says he has dated three women since his wife passed away four years ago.

“China is now an aging society, so why is it shameful to talk about the sexual problems of the elderly?” asks Wu. “Everyone has the same desire for intimacy, regardless of age.”

According to Wu, most of the regulars at Ikea have not found suitable life partners despite years of searching, but many have become “old lovers” who meet weekly. They share meals and sing karaoke together and often have one-night stands. “It’s just a need that is understandable and should be understood,” says Wu.

Experts observe that clear gender differences remain among elderly Chinese regarding attitudes toward sex, with men more likely to support the idea that older people have “normal sexual needs.” This is partly due to cultural conditioning, and also a result of the physical changes women undergo during menopause, according to Zhou, the Hangzhou-based sex therapist.

“Women’s inner vulvar mucosa gradually declines with age,” says Zhou. “This can make penetration painful, and slowly, women become sexually apathetic.”

The contrast between the sexes can sometimes create tensions within heterosexual couples, as Zhang Weibin attests. The 60-year-old has been married for more than three decades, but he says he and his wife last made love eight years ago, shortly before his wife started having menopause.

“Ever since then, her sexual desire started to decline,” says Zhang. He adds that he can “solve the problem by himself,” but admits that he has thought about having an affair.

“I think the ancient Chinese were wise,” says Zhang. “They allowed men to marry younger women when their first wives weren’t able to have sex with them anymore.”

For other couples, however, retirement provides the time and space to rekindle their sex lives. Zhuang Xin, a 58-year-old former state-owned enterprise employee from Hangzhou, says she and her husband have sex at least three times per month.

“It’s not as passionate or as long as before, but I see sex as a way for us to show affection for each other,” says Zhuang.

Many of Zhuang’s friends complain about their unsatisfying sex lives, but Zhuang says that old age also brings advantages. “My husband doesn’t need to use a condom now,” she says. “The pleasure is much greater for both of us.”

The couple is able to keep the conjugal flames burning because both make an effort to spice things up, according to Zhuang. They change into each other’s favorite underwear and pajamas for special occasions. On Zhuang’s 52nd birthday, her husband cooked her a romantic candelit dinner and bought her a dildo as a gift. “He was ill back then, but he still cared about my needs,” recalls Zhuang.

Mao Yongyi, who owns a sex shop in Shanghai, says he is receiving more and more orders from middle-aged and elderly people. He also notes that there is a marked difference between his older male and female customers: Women usually purchase lubricants and vibrators, whereas men tend to favor BDSM products.

“Elderly women who come to the shop know that it’s normal to have sexual needs, though they are still concerned about society’s opinions,” says Mao. “But if a man still has a sexual partner at this age, he’ll be particularly confident, feeling awesome about himself.”

But both genders have one thing in common, which is that sex helps them maintain their youth, according to Mao. One of his male customers, 83, needs assistance walking but still purchases bondage gear, while his oldest female customer, 76, is a joy to talk to, he says.

“I can tell she has a stable sex life, because she’s glowing and looks so young for her age,” says Mao.

A few blocks away from Mao’s sex shop, Xue has just finished her therapy session at the beauty salon. She fixes her hair and takes a sip of her favorite green tea. “If young people take it for granted that sex is exclusive to them, it’s only because they are not old yet,” she says.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

The Resolve and Regret of Chinese Women Who Reject Motherhood


BEIJING — Before marrying in 2014, Wu Qing made it clear to her husband that having a child was out of the question. “He said it was OK, but later I realized he wanted to change my mind after we got married,” she tells Sixth Tone.

Wu, 33, is determined to stick to her decision, but her in-laws have pressured her husband for a grandchild and told Wu she should start a “normal family life.” It’s become an unresolvable conflict in their marriage, she says: “I’m waiting for the right moment. As soon as my mother-in-law tries to intimidate us into getting a divorce because I refuse to have a baby, I will divorce my husband right away.”

As early as her teens, Wu decided against having children. Her own mother wasn’t a good parent and wanted a son, not a daughter. Her attitude affected Wu. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why did she give birth to me if she doesn’t love me?’” she says. Wu doesn’t think she’d be a good mother herself, and therefore doesn’t think it would be right to become one.

And besides, Wu loves her current lifestyle — she has traveled the world, including both poles — and doesn’t plan on changing it for anyone. “I think we should try to perfect and enjoy ourselves,” she says. “I really can’t see how a child could make me happier or complete my life.”

Couples who choose not to have children are often referred to as DINKs — meaning “double income, no kids.” In China, their unconventional lifestyle frequently garners disapproval, the same way unmarried women of a certain age are derided as “leftover.”

The Chinese government, which relaxed its family planning policies in 2015 and has encouraged citizens to have more children, does not keep official statistics on how many Chinese couples choose to remain childless. But in its annual Family Development Report, the national health authority noted that the number of DINK families was “increasing rapidly” and that they were “emerging in large numbers” in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Huang Shuyue, a certified marriage counselor based in the southern province of Guangdong, says that in the past, only couples with fertility problems were childless. But in recent years, she says, a growing number of millennials have chosen the DINK life for various reasons — from the desire to focus on their careers to wanting to avoid the cost and stress of raising a child.

“My clients in their 30s and 40s are enjoying their DINK lifestyles,” Huang says. But she warns that when people get older, they often regret not having had children to depend on. The decision also invites social scrutiny. “Being DINK in China will inevitably mean facing pressure from your family and society, as the importance of having children is so deeply rooted in Chinese culture,” says Huang. She advises her clients to have children, calling parenthood “an indispensable life experience” and arguing that it doesn’t have to preclude work and other life goals.

But Wu, who is originally from eastern China’s Anhui province and moved to Beijing for a job in the publishing industry in 2008, fears a child would be a stumbling block for her career. Few companies in China provide nursing facilities, and Wu says her breast-feeding colleagues have no other option but to use cramped bathroom stalls. Mothers in her company fear losing their jobs, she says, and some have voluntarily switched to less demanding positions so they have time to take care of their children. “They complain to me nonstop, and I just feel sorry for them,” Wu says.

People who have children seem to lose themselves entirely, Wu laments. Every time she meets up with friends, all that the mothers in the group talk about is baby products and the color of their children’s poo. Without any common interests, Wu says, her friendships are fraying.

In another corner of the city, 53-year-old Beijinger An Ke tells Sixth Tone that she felt the same as Wu when she was younger. Now, her friends praise her decision to remain child-free because she doesn’t have to look after any grandchildren, but An regrets not becoming a mother. “Whenever I meet young women who are hesitant to have children, I persuade them to do so, as there’s nothing in the world that is truly yours besides your own children,” An says. “Being a good mother should not be secondary to having a successful career.”

Unlike for the younger generation of DINKs, An’s parents and in-laws didn’t pressure her to have children. An and her husband each have five siblings, all of whom have kids. Their parents, who are now in their 80s, struggled to raise children during some of China’s most turbulent times. “It didn’t really matter to them whether we added another child to the family,” says An.

An got married in the late 1980s, when people in China first began to consider that having children could be a choice. Back then, the DINK lifestyle was seen as an import from the modern Western world that An says she worshipped. However, as the years went by, she has gravitated back to more traditional Chinese views. “The independent and free spirit of Western culture that I admired comes at the price of distant relationships with your family,” An says. “It’s great when you’re young, but when you grow older, you naturally desire to be surrounded by your children and grandchildren.”

Working at a local tax bureau in Beijing, An maintains a fairly busy schedule. She’s fond of taking trips abroad with her husband or on her own, and she spends her free time learning calligraphy and Chinese painting at a small studio in one of Beijing’s historic hutong neighborhoods. She’ll retire in two years and hopes that by the time she needs care, government nursing homes in the city will have improved. Currently, many elderly still rely on their children, as China’s elderly care facilities lag behind its rapidly aging population.

Wu, the publisher, doesn’t think a child should be her safety net in old age. Like many of their generation, she and her brother live far from their hometown. “Our parents have ended up living alone now, and I really don’t think that would be a problem for me when I’m retired,” she says. Wu likes the idea of “huddling to stay warm,” a popular form of retirement these days where elderly people move in with their peers.

There’s also her brother’s family of four — he has a 6-year-old daughter and a son who just turned 1 — who live in the same neighborhood as Wu. She adores her niece. “I see myself in her,” Wu says. After her brother was born, the little girl sensed that her parents had shifted their attention to the new baby. “I spend extra time with her and buy her many new clothes — I just want her to know that she’s still loved by me,” Wu says. “If there’s any maternal love in me, I’ve given it to my brother’s children, and I think they will give me a hand when I need it.”

In the meantime, people won’t stop hassling Wu about her decision to remain childless. Visiting her in-laws in rural Hebei province, close to Beijing, is particularly stressful. “In addition to his parents, all of the relatives and even neighbors ask us why we still haven’t had a baby,” she says, rolling her eyes. Most of the time she just pretends she doesn’t understand their local accent.

Forty-year-old Xiao Ma faces the same pressure. She and her husband, 42, tied the knot in 2009 and agreed to not become parents, mostly because she didn’t want the stress of making sure her child got the best of everything: clothes, food, education. When she told her parents two years later, they asked what the point of getting married was if the couple didn’t want children. “They don’t care about why we don’t want to have a child — they just demand that we have one,” Xiao says.

To convince the couple to give them a grandchild, Xiao’s in-laws moved from their native Shanxi province, in northern China, to live with Xiao and her husband in Shanghai for around half a year. It was a time of constant nagging and unbearable pressure. Even though her husband has a younger brother who is married with two children, his parents still believe that every son is responsible for continuing the ancestral line. “The air felt like ice when they were here, and I sometimes avoided being at home,” Xiao recalls.

Last year, Xiao almost changed her mind. After her mother broke her leg, Xiao had to lift her onto an X-ray table at the hospital. “In that moment, I asked myself, ‘Would I feel hopeless and alone if such a thing happened to me, and I had no child to lift me?’” But then she realized it would only be a burden for the child. “This is the reason why Chinese insist on having children, but I don’t think it’s fair,” she says.

Twenty-three-year-old Jodie Qu from central China’s Hubei province is moving to Hong Kong in August to earn a master’s degree. She’s resolved to never have children. “Kids annoy me every time I see them at family get-togethers,” she admits. “I can’t imagine having a child of my own who will bother me every single day.”

Qu wants to marry someone who shares her views. Her current boyfriend, who’s also 23, is on the same page. But when she shared her thoughts with her parents, they didn’t take her seriously. “They think I am too young and too naive,” Qu says. “They believe I will naturally change my mind and want [a kid] when I see friends my own age start getting married and having children.”

Despite her confidence in her decision, the expectations of older generations give her pause. “I don’t need a child to be my spiritual support, but my parents and in-laws do,” she says. “I think I might just give birth to a child for their sake.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

When You Are Old, Chinese, and Gay


Zhang Guowei, a 76-year-old bisexual veteran, is relishing his twilight years. “I couldn’t be happier with my life post-retirement,” says Zhang, who was a doctor in the army until 1994.

As a former military officer, Zhang’s monthly pension is 10,000 yuan ($1,440) — five times the average pension in Changde, the small city in central China’s Hunan province where he lives with his boyfriend. Zhang divorced his wife in 2003 and met the love of his life — Wu, who is 40 years younger — a year later on the internet. “I expect him to accompany me through the remainder of my life,” Zhang tells Sixth Tone after finishing his daily exercise routine.

Zhang says he is bisexual but prefers men. He gained support and understanding from his ex-wife and two daughters when he came out to them in 2003. When he passes on, his assets will be divided equally among his daughters and his boyfriend. “My kids have no problem sharing with Wu because they know he is the one taking care of me in my final years,” he says.

The May-December couple have been living together since 2005 in an apartment provided by the government for retired army cadres and their families. The 10-story building houses a dozen veterans in their 60s through 90s, some living alone and others with their spouses.

When Wu first moved in, Zhang told his neighbors that Wu was his gan erzi, or adopted son, whom he met online. (The Chinese concept of gan erzi allows for a sort of informal adoption of adults, with no legal or religious implications.) “I had this vague idea that they might be gay,” says 74-year-old Lu Shize, who lives downstairs. “But it’s none of my business to ask about his private life,” Lu adds.

Last year, following in other veterans’ footsteps, Zhang wrote a 218-page autobiography — including his experiences of recognizing his sexuality — and shared it with his fellow cadres. His neighbors were very understanding. “Everyone knows about us, and no one gossips or gives us a hard time,” Zhang says.

Lu, who had never before met any out gay or bisexual men, says he admires Zhang’s courage.

“Being gay or not, it doesn’t change the way I see him,” Lu says. “We are in our 70s; what’s more important than being happy and healthy?”

China’s population is rapidly aging. The proportion of the population aged 60 or older was more than 16 percent at the end of 2015, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and that number is only set to increase. The nation’s changing demography brings with it challenges for managing welfare and health care, especially as fewer seniors are able to count on their families for support.

Two older men hold a symbolic wedding ceremony in Beijing, Jan. 30, 2013. ChinaFotoPress/VCG

Two older men hold a symbolic wedding ceremony in Beijing, Jan. 30, 2013. ChinaFotoPress/VCG

Decades of family-planning restrictions mean that even seniors who have children often must become self-reliant, as children born during the one-child policy can’t afford to support two parents and four grandparents. As a result, for many elders, being childless is no longer a major concern or an unusual occurrence.

Wen Xiaojun, 56, is single and childless. Immediately after he retired in November from working as a civil servant, he rented an apartment in Sanya, on the southern island of Hainan, where he is spending six months avoiding the cold of his hometown in the eastern province of Zhejiang. “I still feel young and restless,” Wen tells Sixth Tone. “Being childless makes it easy for me to travel after retirement.”

Like other older people, LGBT seniors want to have rich, fulfilling, and independent lives. They hope that retirement will give them the opportunity to focus on what they truly love.

Wen enjoys his slow-paced life in Sanya. He goes to exhibitions, takes walks along the beach, plays volleyball with locals, and sometimes meets up with men he contacts through Blued — a popular gay social app, on which he hopes to find a long-term boyfriend.

But dating isn’t easy for older gay men. “Younger generations can build a relationship quickly by kissing or having sex soon after they meet offline,” Wen explains. “But we want something more spiritual and stable.” 

Similarly, 62-year-old Ah Shan, as he’s called within the gay community, says that finding a partner is his biggest problem these days. His finances are secure, as he owns his apartment in Guangzhou — capital of southern China’s Guangdong province — and receives a monthly pension of about 5,000 yuan, but he has been single for four years and is ready for that to change. In the meantime, he is renting out one of his bedrooms to gay friends so he has some company at home.

Ah Shan poses for a picture in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2013. Courtesy of Ah Shan

Ah Shan poses for a picture in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2013. Courtesy of Ah Shan

Most gays, lesbians, and bisexuals of Ah Shan’s generation knew little about their sexual orientation until internet access became available at the turn of the millennium. Even when Ah Shan was working in the U.S. in the late 1980s, he refused to consider himself gay because the only information he’d heard about gay topics in China was AIDS-related or implied that homosexuality was shameful or immoral. “I think I was brainwashed,” Ah Shan laughs.

Over the last two years, Ah Shan has been working on a gay oral history project, recording the stories of older gay men in Guangzhou. He has talked to more than 60 gay men aged from 60 to 90, who have experienced some of China’s most critical historic moments, from the Cultural Revolution to the nation’s opening-up era. “If we don’t record them now, part of the important history of LGBT in China will be gone,” he says.

Many of the men are married and choose not to come out to their families. “They go to this particular park to chat with other gay men in the daytime to release their emotions, but when the sun goes down, they have to return home to bear their family responsibilities,” Ah Shan says with a sigh.

Ah Shan’s own parents passed away before he was brave enough to tell them the truth. His mother died in 2000, a year before homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in China.

Compared with gay and bisexual men, older women find it even more difficult to disclose or discuss their sexual orientation. Since 2010, 45-year-old Yu Shi from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, has been working on an oral history project for older same-sex-attracted women across China, but she says the process of locating participants and persuading them to share their stories is tough.

“Chinese women are in a weak position in the family, which doesn’t allow them to speak out for themselves,” Yu says, adding that of the 30 or so lesbians who have taken part in the project over the last six years, only one has come out to her family. Many won’t divorce their husbands even if they have female partners. “Chinese people are very concerned with saving face, and they think it’s a loss of face to get a divorce if you’re already a grandparent,” she says.

Yu and her 40-year-old girlfriend have lived together for over a decade, but despite their enduring, loving relationship, they can’t enjoy the security of a formal union, as same-sex marriage is not yet legal in China. Some issues can be resolved by making a will, but others — like legal or medical power of attorney — remain a problem.

According to Yu, some LGBT seniors who are single and childless have considered building their own retirement estate where they can live together and take care of one another. Although they aren’t opposed to regular nursing homes, Yu says “they prefer to live in a place where they can open their hearts and share their experiences with others in the same circumstances.”

A lesbian couple kiss each other during an event in Shanghai, Dec. 22, 2013. Sun Zhan/Sixth Tone

A lesbian couple kiss each other during an event in Shanghai, Dec. 22, 2013. Sun Zhan/Sixth Tone

As more and more seniors live separately from their children, retirement facilities in China have struggled to meet growing demand. The government encourages investment in privately owned nursing homes, but so far none have been established exclusively for members of sexual minority groups.

Little public attention is given to the needs of older LGBT people, but to Wang Anke, a 50-year-old bisexual woman from Beijing, these individuals don’t do enough to stand up for themselves, either. “We are almost invisible,” she says.

Wang married her husband in 1990 and plans to spend the rest of her life with him. Though Wang considers herself happy and fortunate, she says that most older lesbian and bisexual women she knows are pessimistic about their senior years. “They’re lonely and lack emotional care,” Wang says, adding that many would rather live alone than move into a nursing home where they fear they can’t be themselves. “Loneliness will go to the grave with them.”

But while some LGBT seniors advocate dedicated nursing homes, Ah Shan opposes the idea of separate services. “In the long run, LGBT people shouldn’t lock ourselves in a so-called safe place,” he says. “What we really need is for the overall environment to allow us to live comfortably in the community.”


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.