This is part of our "Lonely Hearts Club: Tales of 21st Century Love in China" series. Read more about a Jiangxi man jilted by his Vietnamese mail-order bride here and a selection of China's young singles with different views on what it means to be unmarried here.
Qiang is sitting next to his wife, Jing, in a Shanghai shopping mall Starbucks. Also at the table is Jie, Qiang’s boyfriend. The trio attempt to explain their complex relationship.
Qiang married Jing in 2013. Jie was his best man. That same week Jie married Jing’s girlfriend. Qiang was his best man. Then Jing split up with her girlfriend. Then Jie divorced his wife. “It’s complicated,” says Qiang, laughing.
Their tangled union presents two examples of sham marriages between gays and lesbians in China, which appear to be surging in number. The phenomenon may not yet compare to the millions of gay Chinese men who marry straight women unaware of their husbands’ sexuality (researchers at Qingdao University suggest that there may be 16 million such marriages in China), but gays and lesbians are increasingly turning to one another.
“I didn’t feel jealous seeing Qiang marry a woman in front of me,” says Jie. “As long as our families felt happy, we were happy. We solved a problem.”
That problem was the enormous pressure that the three, along with millions of other Chinese people their age (Qiang is 36, Jie is 32 and Jing is 29), faced from parents demanding grandchildren. Although younger generations are increasingly liberal, most accept that deeply embedded familial norms are unavoidable. “I couldn’t force my parents to accept that I’m gay,” says Qiang. “Beliefs are different between generations. You can’t change it.”
There seems to be no bitterness or anguish in his voice as he describes the deception. He and Jing planned their marriage to cause minimum disruption to their real lives. They meet for family dinners a few times a month but do not live together, as Qiang lives with Jie. “We have parents round but we don’t let them stay overnight,” says Jing. “My wife lives very close to me,” says Qiang. “It’s easy when parents visit at short notice.”
Qiang and Jie met their wives after trawling lesbian websites, exchanging messages then meeting and forging friendships. Jie unfolds a hand-written contract he and his ex-wife signed prior to their wedding and reads through the terms they agreed on. Such contracts are common in sham marriages and usually outline terms of financial independence. The agreement also states that Jie will be responsible for 70 percent of the costs of raising a child born in the marriage.
“We argued a little about the surname of the child,” Jie says. “Then we finally agreed that it would be the same as mine.” Qiang, a lawyer, has a similar contract with his wife. “They are legally binding,” he says.
The process for organizing sham marriages got easier last January with the launch of the mobile app Queers. It works like a dating site, but instead matching gays with lesbians. Users can upload photos and vital statistics, such as weight, height and income. Whereas on dating sites users might list their favorite bands, on Queers they explain whether they want a baby from the marriage and other details of the arrangement.
Queers has over 400,000 users, around half of whom are between 25 and 35 years old: the stage when pressure to marry peaks in China. “Activists have accused us of setting up barriers, helping people shy away from their problems,” says Liao Zhuoying, founder of Queers. “But we are solution providers. It’s impossible for all gays and lesbians to ‘come out’ in Chinese society.”
“As long as our families felt happy, we were happy. We solved a problem.”
Homosexuality was illegal in China until 1997 and was listed as a mental disorder until 2001. While attitudes are changing, it is unsurprising that so many people keep their sexuality a secret. Although most users of Queers enter into sham marriages to fool their parents, Liao says that some have the consent of their families, who hope to keep their sexuality a secret from wider society. “In China, keeping a family’s face is important,” he says.
The website Chinagayles.com serves the same purpose as Queers. Launched in 2005, it has around the same amount of users as the app. Founder Lin Hai claims that it has facilitated around 50,000 marriages so far. A website for asexual people – who face similar societal and familial pressures – has also been in operation for over 10 years. With an estimated 20,000 users, asexual marriage website wx920.net helps pair individuals looking for sexless marriages.
For many users of these services, the ultimate goal is a baby. After two years as husband and wife, Qiang and Jing are now planning theirs. They will soon attempt artificial insemination at home, but will consult medical experts if that proves unsuccessful. “We want to do this for ourselves as well as our parents,” says Jing. “But we will probably let our child spend most of its time with our parents then take over when it reaches the age of 3.”
For Jie, however, the issue of children led to the breakdown of his sham marriage. His wife had agreed to have a baby but changed her mind after the wedding, prompting a divorce. Jie then made the decision last August to come out to his parents.
“My mother cried uncontrollably and asked: ‘How could you be that way?’” he says. “She said she blamed herself for allowing me to live somewhere like Shanghai, where ‘weird people’ live. When I told my father he said: ‘I feel like there’s a fly in my mouth. Disgusting.’”
After a period of estrangement, Jie is now back in contact with his parents. They have consulted support groups set up to help parents understand homosexuality, and Jie says he feels happier now he doesn’t have to lie.
“The wheel of history is moving forward,” says Queers founder Liao, of the changing attitudes to homosexuality in China. “But not everyone is courageous enough to stand at the forefront. We are solving problems for these people. Maybe the demand for sham marriages will shrink in the future, our app will die and society will progress.”
But for now the deceit continues for many. “I’ve wanted to come out many times,” says Jing. “But if I do that the pressure will be transferred to my parents. It’s selfish. I’m doing this to make my parents comfortable.”
*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Additional reporting by Cissy Young.