In June 2008, Ms. Ge, a single, 27- year-old native of Jiangsu province, began dating the handsome Mr. Yang, a 32-year-old native of Anhui province. According to an extensive account of the relationship published to Jiangsu province’s official news portal, it was a traditionally minded courtship: When Mr. Yang made overnight visits to Ms. Ge’s family, he stayed in her younger brother’s bedroom.
Ms. Ge and Mr. Yang married in 2009, but, curiously, the change in relationship status didn’t affect Mr. Yang’s preference for the bedroom of Ms. Ge’s brother. In June 2012, three years into a mostly sexless marriage (according to the government account) a frustrated Ms. Ge went looking for answers in her husband’s dresser drawer. There, to her great surprise, she found love letters from her husband to her brother and gay pornography. She filed for divorce in November 2012.
In China, divorces are easy to attain (and growing in number); satisfactory financial settlements, however, are contentious. A local court was willing to grant a dissolution of Mr. Yang and Ms. Ge’s marriage but denied Ms. Ge’s claim for compensatory damages. According to the presiding judge, China’s divorce law allows for damages only in four circumstances: domestic violence, bigamy, cohabitation with another person of the opposite sex and neglect. Nonetheless, Mr. Yang agreed to settle with Ms. Ge for the equivalent of $8,000.
For Chinese women -- and the lawyers and judges who must adjudicate their divorces -- such scenarios are a growing problem (with few women having the good fortune of a husband willing to settle regardless of a compelling legal reason to do so). According to one widely cited estimate, 16 million Chinese women are married to gay men, most of them unwittingly so and with few legal protections or guarantees if they decide to get out.
Whether or not the statistics are accurate, there’s little question that this is a real phenomenon -- and one not new to China. Straight women married to gay men have long been known as “tongqi,” and the state-owned news media have covered their problems for at least a decade.
In recent weeks, the topic has become particularly popular on China’s blogs, microblogs and newspaper editorial pages after the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court, one of China’s most influential judicial bodies, issued a Jan. 10 report and recommendations on how to handle the growing flood of so-called fake marriage cases.
The most controversial of the report’s recommendations is that legislation be passed to allow for the annulment of marriages in which one partner discovers the other is gay, while allowing the straight partner to sue for compensatory damages. Such legislation, if adopted by China’s rubber stamp legislature (a rubber stamp wielded by senior Communist Party officials) would also revert the individuals to a legally “single” rather than “divorced” status. In China, where divorced women are highly stigmatized, this could be a significant boon for women re-entering the dating market.
It’s a point made in a Jan. 17 article published by Xinhua, the state news wire:
“The different circumstances of divorced men and women reflect the oppression imposed on females by society, said Liu Bohong, a professor of gender studies.
“‘Men traditionally intend to choose a first-time bride, a virgin. Such preferences have led to a preference for being “single” among women themselves,’ Liu said.
“The suggestion may serve as a warning to gay men preparing to marry straight women, according to Zhang.”
For China’s vocal online gay community, such warnings are not only an affront, but also a display of the discriminatory attitudes that motivate gay men to seek out fake marriages in the first place.
A Qiang, a popular gay blogger who has written widely on the subject of Chinese gay-straight marriages, summarized these causes in a Jan. 13 blog post at danlan.org, China’s most popular portal for gay news and information: “Some homosexuals cannot face social prejudice and discrimination, so they hide their sexual orientation with a heterosexual marriage rather than be discriminated against; Chinese traditional culture emphasizes children and the continuation of the family line, and heterosexual marriage is a convenient way to get children; there is an inadequate, comprehensive social safety net, so some homosexuals enter heterosexual marriage for the sense of security. In addition to the above reasons, many people do not understand their own sexuality at the time of marriage.”
It’s not hard to find blogs, microblogs and newspaper articles that substantiate each of these categories with specific examples. On Jan. 28, danlan.org posted one of the more dramatic: a letter from a 26-year-old gay police officer to his parents, who have insisted that he marry. In the letter, the son thanks his parents for their guidance in life, reminds them that he has always been obedient and reveals: “I do not want to get married. I never liked girls.”
He explains that he will get married anyway, despite his avowed love for an unidentified man. “Last year, you asked me why I didn’t seek out a partner, and we fought. A few days later you asked if I would agree to let you find a match for me. I did not agree and at that Mother shed tears and you advised me that you’re old and hope to soon hold a grandson. I stared at your full head of white hair and deepening wrinkles, my heart trembled, and I caved in and agreed to this marriage. I am really forcing myself into a dark place, and you’re smiling ear to ear.”
Although the Beijing court made no mention of the issue in its recommendations, for many gay voices in the media and blogsphere, same-sex marriage is the first, very important solution to this tangle of problems. This might not immediately allow for grandchildren in the police officer’s family, but it’s a step in the right direction; for starters, adoption is restricted to married couples in China.
A Qiang, in his Jan. 13 blog post to danlan.org, summarized the argument for same-sex marriage: “The solution to the tongqi problem is...legislation to allow same sex marriage so that gay men have the right to live with whom they fall in love. More important than legislation is the need to enhance public education to reduce prejudice and discrimination against gays. With less prejudice and discrimination, homosexuals will be reluctant to enter a heterosexual marriage.”
For Chinese feminists and women’s rights activists, the calls for same-sex marriage legislation are welcome but hardly sufficient to solve the fake marriage problem. Neither, for that matter, is a reclassification of women who leave such marriages enough to remedy the underlying social condition that motivates some men to seek out these kinds of unions.
Of these online feminists few are more authoritative than that of the Tongi Association, a support group for women in fake marriages, which maintains a microblogging account active on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo service. On Jan. 12, after the Beijing court’s recommendations, it offered two pointed tweets suggesting that the fake marriage problem is not only -- or even primarily --a matter of discrimination against gay men.
Part of the first read: “A solution to the tongqi problem must start with a discussion of discrimination. But the discrimination in question is not only against sexual orientation, but also the equally important gender discrimination.”
Two minutes later, the association added the second tweet, part of which stated: “Even if sexual orientation discrimination still exists, you can reduce the number of tongqi if there is universal respect for women, respect for their bodies and their reproductive rights, so that they are not just taken as reproductive machines in order to continue the family.”
On a practical level, the legalization of same-sex marriage in China is more likely than a total overhaul of social attitudes toward women -- but not by much. For now, both women and gay men will, in their own ways, remain marginalized in Chinese society. But that status is by no means permanent: The fact that an influential Beijing court is publicly focused on one of the most pernicious social effects of that marginalization -- fake marriages -- is progress for both groups.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at firstname.lastname@example.org.