Tea Leaf Nation

The Surprising Reason Chinese Netizens Want Same-Sex Marriage

It would reduce the ranks of 'tongqi,' straight women in sham marriages with gay men.


In June 2015, two Chinese men filed a lawsuit after their local civil affairs bureau refused to register their marriage. When in early 2016 a district court in the southern province of Hunan agreed to hear the case, it marked the first time a Chinese court accepted a case about same-sex marriage. But on April 13, after just a few hours of deliberation, the judge ruled against the couple.

It’s a blow, albeit an expected one, to the growing number of supporters of marriage equality in China. Chinese attitudes toward same-sex unions reflect similar U.S. trends — a younger generation, less traditional than their parents, who believe that all love between two consenting adults should be recognized, and growing acceptance throughout society for individual choice and personal happiness. When the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in June 2015 effectively legalizing gay marriage around the country, Chinese netizens celebrated in droves, expressing hope that China might itself one day legalize such unions. But one major driver of Chinese support for marriage equality reflects a social issue that is virtually nonexistent Stateside: the estimated millions of Chinese women, known as tongqi, or “wives of gays,” who are trapped in loveless marriages with gay men.

In the hours after the April 13 ruling, many comments on microblogging platform Weibo placed tongqi front and center in the debate about same-sex marriage. “Those who oppose same-sex marriage are just producing more tongqi,” wrote one user in a comment that received more than 10,000 likes. “I don’t admire homosexual behavior, but if same-sex marriage is forever prohibited, won’t the tragedy of gay wives be more and more common?” asked another, adding, “The country should at least consider some reform measures on behalf of the poor women who are tongqi.”

Sham marriage is a serious problem in China, where social and family pressures drive 80 percent of gay men to marry women, according to estimates from Zhang Beichuan, who directs the Beijing-based nonprofit academic society China Sexology Association. Women married to gay men often face heavy emotional and social tolls, compounded in a society where divorce and homosexuality still carry strong stigmas. “Their husbands don’t want to look them in the eyes. They’re not willing to get close to them or touch their bodies,” Li Yinhe, a sexologist who works at the government-linked Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Economist in 2010. “This is a huge blow to a woman’s sense of self-worth.” The issue has received growing attention in the past few years, including the well-publicized death of a woman in June 2012 who threw herself off a building after her husband came out to her. Her parents sued the man for luring their daughter into a sham marriage, but the judge rejected the case in 2013.

Many women enter into such relationships without knowing that their partner is gay. One woman, Li Bo, told Shenzhen Daily in 2011 that she had been married for three years before she discovered her husband’s sexual orientation. “My husband never kissed me or hugged me,” Li said. “I thought I had done something wrong. He would always wait until I was already asleep before coming to bed. He didn’t want me to touch him.” She had thought it was her fault, rather than a reflection of her husband’s true desires. “Most women will blame themselves in such a situation,” she said.

Qiu Xuan, a 29-year-old Guangzhou native, had discovered a year after their wedding that her husband had actually been in love with his best man. Gay men married to straight women may have intentionally misled their wives in order to build a public image that conformed to societal and family expectations, but in some cases, the men may not yet have come to terms with their own sexuality. Online chat groups and support groups, such as the Beijing-based Pink Space, have helped women deal with the shock of such discoveries. While some women, like Li and Qiu, seek divorce, others remain in the marriage, especially those with children.

While the online focus on tongqi suggests concern for women’s rights, the reality underlying the phenomenon is more complex. Tongfu, or “husbands of gay wives,” also exist, but less is known about their experiences. According to research by sociologist Tang Kuiyu and others at the Harbin Institute of Technology, that’s because tongfu are “less likely to take their complaints online” or seek out others in the same situation. The researchers also found that tongfu had greater financial independence than tongqi, making it easier for them to obtain divorces. The fact that middle-aged divorced men face less stigma than their female counterparts also has made it easier for tongfu to remarry.

The pressure to marry, and to create the appearance of a life that conforms to social and family expectations, has also led some gay men and lesbians to enter into sham marriages with one another, again largely for appearances’ sake. Some couples may live together only when family is in town, though others may opt for in-vitro fertilization in order to have a child together.

Li, the sexologist, who has advocated for marriage equality since 2003, believes that legalizing same-sex marriage would go far in reducing the ranks of tongqi. Many of China’s netizens seem to agree. “For every married gay couple,” wrote one Weibo user in a comment that garnered more than 8,000 likes, “there are two fewer miserable tongqi.” Not to mention two fewer men unable to pursue true happiness.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy, where she covers Chinese government influence in the United States. @BethanyAllenEbr

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