June 26, 2013 will forever be recorded as a historic day for marriage equality in the United States, as the Supreme Court of the United States ruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. As a result, same sex couples married in states where same sex marriage is legal can now enjoy the same federal benefits as straight couples. LGBT communities in China and around the world were also following these developments closely. As in the U.S., gradual changes in public opinion represent hope for changes in attitudes towards homosexuality in China, though tradition and long-standing custom present barriers that are hard to ignore.
In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. It was not until 1990 that the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the international classification of diseases. In China, the change came just 12 years ago: in Classification and Diagnosis of Mental Disorders, published by the Chinese Society of Psychiatry in April 2001, homosexuality was no longer treated as mental illness. The LGBT movement in China is still nascent compared to European countries or the United States, but the difficulties the Chinese LGBT communities face are just as challenging, if not more so. While the majority of opposition against homosexuality in Europe and the U.S. stands on the grounds of religious arguments, in China, the stigma is predominantly associated with the long-standing traditions of a society that emphasizes filial piety.
Mencius, a Confucian philosopher who lived around 300 B.C.E., once said: “There are three things which are unfilial, and to have no posterity is the greatest of them.” Thousands of years have passed, but the obligation of carrying on the family line is still deeply embedded in Chinese family values, and marriage between a man and a woman is a prerequisite. As parents pressure their children to get married and have kids, the obligation that comes with filial piety has led to a handful of phenomena that are unique to traditional societies like China’s.
One phenomenon is the prevalence of tonghun (homo-marriage), when a gay man conceals his sexual orientation and marries a heterosexual woman. Zhang Beichuan, a doctor and expert specializing in AIDS prevention, has estimated that there are more than 16 million women married to homosexual men in China. The phenomenon has also come to light through the stories of individuals affected by it: in June 2012, Luo Hongling, an English professor in Chengdu, committed suicide one day after her husband of five months revealed that he was gay.
Another way the homosexual community deals with the overwhelming pressure to marry is to enter cooperative marriages (xinghun), in which homosexual men pair up with lesbians to fulfill their parents’ wishes to see them happily married. Such an arrangement also has professional and practical benefits for both parties involved, as a “traditional” union would make promotion more likely, and it is very difficult to have or raise a child out of wedlock in China. Both the tonghun and xinghun phenomena represent an expectation that China’s society and legal system may be slow to change attitudes and stances toward homosexuality.
Additionally, when China began AIDS prevention campaigns in 1998, one of the first and foremost tactics selected the banning of homosexuality. The widely publicized link between AIDS and homosexuality further resulted in discrimination towards the homosexual population. While in 2004, only 0.2% of AIDS carriers were homosexual men, by 2008, the percentage had increased to 4.9%. According to Li Yinhe, a sexologist, sociologist, and activist for LGBT rights in China, 40% to 70% of gay men in China have sexual relations with women – a high percentage that easily leads to a greater chance of AIDS infection. While one of the most effective ways to prevent AIDS is to focus on high-risk populations, discrimination against gay men born from earlier AIDS prevention campaigns in China has made the community more invisible.
Gradually, support from parents is raising awareness and changing the landscape of the LGBT community in China, and the expansion of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in China (PFLAG China) is playing a significant role. Wu Youjian, founder of PFLAG China and the first mother to publicly support her gay son in the media, recently organized an online discussion of xinghun. Most participants seemed to think that even though xinghun might be an act of compromise, it was still a lie that required too much effort to keep up. One discussion participant remarked, “Coming out of the closet is respect for your partner and your parents.”
According to a recent report released by Xinhua News on June 27, women in homo-marriages are building an alliance online with the hopes of making the public more aware of the community. As understanding and acceptance from parents increase, homosexual individuals are becoming more comfortable with their sexual orientation and rejecting the options of homo-marriages and cooperative marriages.
There are many issues left to be resolved: the legality of same sex marriage, the right to adopt for same sex couples, and the continued need to improve AIDS prevention. In a recent online poll entitled “If you were the secretary-general of the United Nations,” the UN asked Weibo users to choose up to three issues they considered “most important,” and ending discrimination against the LGBT community topped the chart, followed by poverty eradication and international peace and security. In a February 2013 poll of Sina Weibo users, the majority favored amending China’s Marriage Law to allow for same-sex marriage.
Perhaps the general attitude towards homosexuality, especially among the younger generation, is experiencing a significant shift in a new era of constant social changes. Without much resistance from religion- almost half of Chinese identify as atheist – social change promoted by LGBT groups such as PFLAG China is accumulating momentum. Despite setbacks, the issue of equality for all regardless of sexual orientation is increasingly debated, discussed, and championed in China.