A Proposal for Unwitting Wives of Gay Men in China

A few months after Americans approved gay marriage at the ballot box for the first time, a Chinese court has stirred controversy by recommending China making it easier for women to escape marriages to gay men.

The First Intermediate Court of Beijing recently submitted a report calling for legislation that would allow people who discover their spouses are gay to avoid the messiness of divorce by filing for an annulment instead, according to state media.

After winning an annulment, the person who filed the request would be legally listed as single instead of divorced, the state-run Xinhua news agency said.

Although the court’s proposed regulation could technically apply to anyone, it appears to be aimed primarily at tongqi (??), or straight women married to gay men.

There are no official estimates of the population of tongqi in China, but Zhang Beichuan, an HIV/AIDS researcher and sexologist at Qingdao University, puts the number at around 10 million. When bisexual and transgender men are taken into account, the number increases to 16 million, says Mr. Zhang, who arrived at that estimate by applying marriage rates to demographic studies of gay populations.

“Around 80% of gay men get married because they feel they have the responsibility to pass on their family names — to be so-called filial sons,” Mr. Zhang says.

Officially classified as mentally ill by the Chinese Psychiatric Association up until 2001, gay, lesbian and transgender people have won increasing acceptance in China in recent years, particularly in major cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, both of which boast vibrant gay communities. A public gay wedding in coastal Fujian province in October was widely applauded online in what many gay rights activists described as a sign of Chinese society’s growing inclusiveness.

But gay weddings, which are not recognized by law, are still rare. And if some Chinese take a “live and let live” approach to gay strangers, at home it’s a different story. The reason: Being gay prevents men from fulfilling what many Chinese parents see as a son’s highest duty.

“There are three ways to be unfilial. The worst is to have no heir,” wrote the ancient philosopher Mencius in an exhortation still widely repeated today.

As a result, most gay men force themselves to marry women. In some cases, a gay man will marry a lesbian friend, allowing both to live their lives as they see fit while satisfying their families’ desire to see them hitched. For those who can’t find a willing matrimonial co-conspirator, there’s now a website, chinagayles.com, that offers to match marriage-minded gay men and lesbians. In many other cases, however, the man will pretend to be straight in order to attract a wife, having sex with her only long enough to father the coveted next generation.

The plight of tongqi came to the fore in June last year after a 31-year-old woman in southwestern China’s Sichuan province leapt to her death after discovering her husband of six months was gay. The woman’s parents sued the husband, claiming he had deceived their daughter into marriage and demanding 630,000 yuan ($101,000) in damages. A report published on the official Sichuan government news website earlier this month said a local court had rejected the suit, ruling that the marriage was legally legitimate (in Chinese).

Straight women who find themselves in such situations are often unable to get out, especially after having a child, according to Mr. Zhang. “Even if they’re no longer having sex with their husbands, they’re still attached to the family,” he says. “Think about it. If they get divorced, they lose their husband, their child, their money, their house.”

The Beijing court proposal removes one barrier to escape – the legal hassle and stigma of divorce – according to one tongqi support group volunteer quoted by Xinhua. “A divorced man in his 40s can still be sought-after and find a 20-something woman to marry. But when it comes to a divorced woman of the same age, that is absolutely not the case,” the volunteer, who was not named, told the news agency.

Others have praised the proposed law as a potential deterrent to gay men who are considering marrying a straight woman under false pretenses.

For his part, Mr. Zhang is conflicted over the court’s report, which was published on January 10. “Generally speaking, I think it’s a good thing that the tongqi problem is getting attention in the legal world – it’s a form of progress. But each case is different, and each needs to be handled carefully,” he says. “The intention is good, but [the proposal] isn’t detailed enough.”

Among the questions the proposal doesn’t address, according to critics: whether women who have children with their gay husbands can file for annulment, and how to handle cases in which men only fully realize their homosexuality after getting married.

Ultimately, the problem won’t be solved until China stops discriminating against homosexuals, argues Hu Zhijun, executive director of the China chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

“The judge’s proposal is a complete ‘misdiagnosis’ of the problem. They’ve written a prescription without figuring out the root of the sickenss,” Mr. Hu, also known by his nickname Ah Qiang, wrote in a blog post (in Chinese) after the proposal was made public. “The tongqi problem needs to be solved, and it absolutely requires the adoption of a new law, but a law that allows gay marriage – that gives gay people the right to live with the people they love.”

Even more urgent than a gay marriage law, he argued, was education aimed at helping the public better understand homosexuality. “We also need to improve education for comrades and encourage them to be themselves” he wrote using common Chinese slang for gay men. “With reductions in bias and discrimination, gay people will naturally avoid entering into straight marriages.”

by Olivia Geng and Josh Chin
Source – The Wall Street Journal