In a country where homosexuality was illegal until just 16 years ago and classed as a mental illness until 2001, advocates for gay rights in China complain that attitudes toward their community are years behind those in Western countries. But like their counterparts everywhere, Chinese gays and lesbians are fired up by the growing global debate on same-sex marriage.
In late February, Beijing residents Ma Yuyu and her partner Elsie went to the Civil Affairs Bureau in the city’s Dongcheng district to try to register as a married couple. They had contacted local media ahead of their visit and a gaggle of journalists accompanied them. To no one’s surprise, their application was flatly rejected. “We knew we would fail, but we still wanted to do it anyway,” Ma tells TIME. The rejection of their marriage bid made headlines across the country.
With advocates like Ma pushing the envelope, the discussion on the legal status of the gay and lesbian community in China is evolving quickly. The visit to China two weeks ago of the openly gay Icelandic Prime Minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, and her wife sparked a flurry of interest in Chinese social media. One woman from the city of Chongqing wrote an open letter to the world’s first openly gay head of state explaining how she had discovered her own daughter’s homosexuality and praising Sigurdardottir’s “pioneering spirit” for helping the mother come to terms with it.
Society, however, is nowhere near to accepting equal rights for gays and lesbians. Every year since 2003, prominent sociologist Li Yinhe has submitted a call for same-sex marriage to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the advisory arm of government. Every year the proposal has been rejected — though this year it generated more public discussion than ever before, in part because of Ma’s attempt to get married and in part because of Chinese media interest in the U.S. Supreme Court’s review of the Defense of Marriage Act.
For Li — one of the first Chinese female academics to specialize in sexuality — marriage equality is one of the ways she hopes to reduce homosexuality’s stigma. “Social discrimination is one of the biggest problems homosexuals are facing in China,” she says. “They are facing extreme pressure from their families to get married to someone from the opposite sex.”
A major reason for this is the country’s one-child policy. A gay couple will, in the eyes of many parents, bring two family lines to an end at once. Ma, herself a single child, recalls that when she told her mother about her sexual orientation, her mother couldn’t accept it. “She simply pretends we never had that conversation and gets short-tempered every time I try to bring it up.”
The extreme pressure to raise a family has forced many homosexuals in China to enter into heterosexual relationships. Reports by Chinese media suggest that as many as 90% of China’s gays choose to get married to a member of the opposite sex rather than endure family censure. This phenomenon has created its own social problems, says Li, as the husbands or wives of gay partners try to deal with their partner’s sexual orientation. “It has even created a new type of marriage where [members of a] gay couple marry [members of a] lesbian couple,” says Li.
While she continues to work on submitting proposals in favor of gay marriage, Li is not optimistic that there will be a change in the law anytime soon. The community, she says, has no voice in China, and their needs have been ignored for a long time. “There are no gay representatives in the People’s Congress,” Li adds, “so it’s very hard for their voice to be heard.”
Ma, too, doesn’t foresee any radical shift on official attitudes toward gay marriage. “I don’t think it will happen in the near future,” she says, “at least not in the next 10 years.” In the meantime, with countries like Argentina, Denmark, South Africa, New Zealand and Sweden recognizing same-sex marriage — and with several states in the U.S. following suit — China’s gay and lesbian couples can only look on in envy.