What if I told you China could legalize same-sex marriage before the U.S. does? You’d probably call me crazy. As of now, you’d probably be right. Shanghai is far from being a gay-paradise on the level of Amsterdam or San Francisco. However, China’s LGBT community has made remarkable strides in recent decades, and being home to the world’s largest population of LGBT individuals, what happens in China matters to the rest of the world’s queer community.
Last week, reported in the state-owned China Daily, a Guangzhou-based NGO representing 100 parents of gays and lesbians, or “comrades,” sent an open letter to China’s National People’s Congress, its formal legislature, urging adoption of same-sex marriage benefits.
Sociologist and activist Li Yinhe has submitted a similar petition to the NPC each year since 2003. Although unsuccessful, she has raised national visibility of homosexuality and gay marriage, a topic that is now openly discussed in official media. And the recent state visit by Iceland’s openly-gay prime minister is giving hope to some in China’s gay community that homosexuality cannot be ignored by state media.
China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, even before the U.S. removed all anti-sodomy laws in certain states. But today, there are no formal laws to prevent discrimination against LGBT Chinese, especially in the workplace. Since China’s ministry removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 2001, government policy and public opinion has also gradually shifted. Public health ministries have been targeting gay bars with public awareness campaigns advocating safe-sex and HIV-testing. But generally, LGBT Chinese now fall into an uncomfortably grey area: no longer directly harassed, but also ignored.
Perhaps the largest barrier to LGBT rights is the family culture that emphasizes having children as a filial duty. And China’s one-child policy exacerbates the pressure only-sons face to extend the family line. But widespread atheism also means there is little of the moral stigma that characterizes the religious right’s opposition to gay marriage in the U.S. Homosexuality has been documented in Chinese history and literature since at least the Han dynasty. A euphemism for homosexuality in Chinese, “cut sleeve,” refers to a legend of an emperor who cut his own sleeve, which his male lover was sleeping upon, as not to wake him.
Chinese gay activists must often use different strategies, however, than their Western counterparts. Gay marriage is discussed less as a universal human right than as an issue that has large implications for social well-being and “harmony,” an oft-used word in Chinese national discourse. Some scholars estimate 16 million wives, called tongqi, are married to gay or bisexual men. And because of China’s gender imbalance, as many as 15% of China’s male population may be unable to find a wife. In this context, gay marriage could make practical sense as social policy.
Because of social and family pressures, 80% of gay men marry straight women, a situation that is often harmful for all involved. A recent change in law is making it easier for women to annul these marriages if they find out their husband is gay afterwards. But many activists complain that this ignores the real solution: offering gay marriage as a viable alternative.
Gay men may also marry lesbian friends in so-called “sham marriages,” an alternative that may be more honest, but not necessarily optimal. Chinese gay friends have told me that marrying a lesbian is “the most practical way to satisfy their obligation to their families,” many of whom come from rural backgrounds and would be unable to even comprehend the idea of being “gay,” let alone learning to accept it.
Gay life in China follows geographic and economic divisions, as it does in the U.S. Large cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and southwestern Chengdu are home to large gay populations, with nightlife scenes increasingly open in the last decade. The popular gay club Destination in Beijing has remained in business for many years, leading many to suspect the owners have some unusually good relationship with local authorities.
Across the Taiwan strait, China's "renegade province" is already host to Asia's largest gay pride parade, in which Taipei's mayor has participated in. The legislature even held its first hearings on the issue last year, leading some to wonder whether Taiwan will be the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage. Since China still regards Taiwan as a province, gay marriage could theoretically become legal in "greater China," serving as both an inspiration and model to activists and policymakers in the mainland.
China’s gay culture may lack the political dimension that often accompanies queer culture in the U.S., but there is a growing number of civil society organizations involved in LGBT rights and health. A recent poll on popular Internet portal Sina.com indicated over 50% of respondents supported gay marriage, though such a poll probably over-represents urban and educated internet users.
As the letter from parents reads, “Everyone knows that when a homosexual and a heterosexual get married, it can lead to serious social problems, and even more people living unhappily. Is our law trying to encourage this?” Despite the tremendous odds against it, this incredibly brave group of parents and children is at the forefront of changing public opinion on LGBT rights in China. Given how far China has come economically and socially in the last three decades, it’s possible to imagine a not so distant future where gay marriage is legal in the middle kingdom.