China’s Gays and Lesbians Join the Global Debate on Same-Sex Marriage

With advocates pushing the envelope, the discussion on the legal status of the gay and lesbian community in China is evolving quickly.

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Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

Elsie Liao, left, and Ma Yuyu kiss in an alley outside the registry office where they asked to be married, before being turned away, in Beijing on Feb. 25, 2013

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.

(MORE: Coming Out in China: The True Cost of Being Gay in Beijing)

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.”

(MORE: Beijing’s Gay Community Fights Censorship)

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.

MORE: New Chinese Dictionary Leaves Out Colloquial Term for Gay

9 comments
LuwianMemories
LuwianMemories

China should legalize gay marriage. Why? Because due to the One-Child Policy, there is a serious imbalance in gender, with males outnumbering females. So, when gay men are forced to marry straight women, not only does it create problems between themselves, it also takes available straight women off the market and away from straight men. Thus, straight are either forced to go unmarried even if they want to, or are forced to buy trafficked women from neighboring countries such as North Korea.

As for people opposing gay marriage because it brings family lines to an end, the Chinese government should make an additional exemption (atop of all the ones they make for minorities, people who grew up as only children, people with rural hukou, etc.). That is, if your child turns out to be gay, you should be allowed to apply to have a second child. 

This fix is so simple that the only reason that I can think of for opposing this is that traditionally, men and women were expected to wed each other and start families, while same sex relationships (at least as of the present with the current level of technology) do not produce offspring naturally (of course, when I say naturally, I am excluding test tube babies, surrogates, adoption, etc). As a result, by not producing offspring, gay couples are seen to be affronting their ancestors. Of course, gay people are not stoned to death, but I believe there is still social stigmatization. This is also true for other East Asian countries, though Taiwan I believe is moving more and more toward allowing same sex unions.

Jean-JacquesBurlamaqui
Jean-JacquesBurlamaqui

All members of society are interested in the due observance of the Laws of Nature, hence they have all a right to praise or condemn another man's actions according as they are conformable or contrary to these laws. They have even a kind of obligation in this respect, lest men be wanting in their duty to society and to individuals, were they not to testify, at least by their approbation or censure, the esteem they have for probity and virtue, and their aversion, on the contrary, to iniquity and vice.


1) Same-sex marriage is not a useful law, as it does not tend to the preservation and perfection of man.


2) Same-sex marriage is not a just law, as it does not conform to the will of the supreme legislator; whether that be called “God” or “Evolution”.


3) Same-sex marriage is not an honest law, as it is not: conformable to the maxims of right reason, agreeable to the dignity of our nature, nor deserving of the approbation of man.


Those who take part in same-sex marriage are well acquainted with the Laws of Nature which they ought to follow, but they see themselves as their own judges leaving their whims and passions left unchecked, and they understand no obligation to contain themselves within the limits of that regard and respect which they owe to civil society, the tranquility of families, and the happiness of children. They deem themselves the arbiter of their own actions, pridefully announcing the right to being the judge themselves, both of Natural and Civil Laws, and of the manner in which they ought to apply them. This independence and excessive liberty must only be productive of disorder and confusion anytime there happens to be a clashing of their interests and passions with civil society. 


Under a just and beneficent jurisprudence, followers of Natural Law are accordingly administered invincible liberty in both actions and speech; while concomitant to vice and confusion, liberty is necessarily oppressed. The height of felicity and prudence is to know how to guard against vice and confusion; as to banish licentiousness, and yet be no way introductive to tyranny. What is most evident with the legislation of same-sex marriage is that debauchery has become sovereign, the Laws of Nature perverted, the virtuous condemned, and the true felicity of mankind hampered in a quagmire of evil and ignorance; rendering the “Blessings of Liberty” a curse, and in time, reducing the “Land of the Free” to the most abject slavery. 


Same-sex marriage proponents are the vicious oppressors of liberty. They are the malevolent bigots driven by their own prideful prejudices into seeking vengeance; whether it be by slandering anyone with whom they disagree by labeling them a “homophobe”, demanding the criminalization of anyone who refuses them service, mandatory indoctrination of our youth by the State, or the destruction of religious charities and institutions; their agenda violates the very maxims of Natural Law leaving them only the tyranny of legislative oppression as their ONLY justification. 


StanleyJames
StanleyJames

@Jean-JacquesBurlamaqui   tjhe old natural law bullpoop.    virtually every med and pscyh organization say gay s a natural variation of human sexuality


Your comments would be the same if we we  replace gay with black  and gay marriage with slavery

straydog
straydog

@Jean-JacquesBurlamaqui 

You know... I'm STILL awaiting a valid, GOOD reason as to why same-sex marriage should not be allowed. 

It doesn't produce children? Neither do the elderly, the infertile, and those that make the choice not to. Would you still argue they have a right to be married, despite their lack of reproductive ability? If so, why do they retain the right over a homosexual couple when the end result is still the same: two consensual adults making physical and emotional commitments to one another because of their affections and not for the purpose of reproduction.

Is it for the purpose of -raising- a child? I've seen arguments where people insist same-sex marriage is wrong because a proper upbringing needs both a man (husband) and woman (wife). And to that I say: children from the single-parent households do amazingly well--if not better, and I'm not surprised there's more outrage from them, as the entire argument centers on how inferior their 1-parent upbringing was.

It's against nature? So are chemicals in our food, fertility treatment, sitting at a desk in a cube all day and tons of other things. Arguably, wearing clothes is against nature, but we still do it because it's the civil thing to do in a society. And it's silly to argue against same-sex marriage on the basis of nature when 'marriage' is a human concept, no more 'nature' than money, or any other human-invented institution.

It's against 'God'? So is eating shellfish, and sleeping with your wife during her menses, ect. Also, who's 'God'? Your 'God'? My 'God'? Who gets to decide which, and why? Religion may have coined the term 'marriage', but the concept of marriage simply describes adherence to the 3 forms of monogamy (social, sexual and genetic)--monogamy which predates the term of 'marriage' used to describe it.

Is it having to explain it to children? I see this tossed out occasionally. No one wants to have to explain to their children why two women are kissing or holding hands, ect. And to that, all I have to say is: denying reality or pretending things (or people) don't exist certainly won't do your children any favors, as they'll encounter it all at some point. Also, I don't see how it's a big deal; it's not as complex as people seem to think it is. I've been asked by children in my family why two boys or two girls would kiss or hold hands and my response is always a simple: "Sometimes two boys (or girls) like/love each other a whole lot, just like a boy and a girl do." That's it. Yes, it is that simple. Children DO have a concept of fairness (there are plenty of fascinating studies/Ted talks on these sorts of subjects that I suggest checking out if you have free time).

But my favorite reason is this seemingly deeply seated fear that acceptance of same-sex marriage is pushing some homosexual 'agenda' to make everyone gay--or that more people will 'become' gay if it's allowed. Do people really believe that making it harder to be gay will somehow 'stop' it? Does anyone really believe that acceptance means everyone who is currently straight will suddenly become attracted to the same sex? And if not, what exactly is the homosexual 'agenda' then? An agenda of legally recognizing consensual, mature, monogamous relationships between adults and eradicating intolerance towards other human beings because of who they attracted to? Why would you rally against it?

So what really is the reason here for this animosity? Why are conservatives and so many religious people so concerned about what other people are doing in their personal, consensual romantic lives? Does 2 men or women marrying suddenly make your own marriage invalid, or worth less? If so, why?

StanleyJames
StanleyJames

@straydog @Jean-JacquesBurlamaqui  

Pqart of thte problem in  the anti gay community is  REACTION FORMATION   In counries where there is no closet about 8-9% of the people ADMIT They are gay.

 Lots of people here are living a lie and that also , for this small % of the population leads to failed marriages

 I've met about 27-28peoeple who were in "str8" marriages and they all failed. These people admit they are gay and married only due to societtal pressure / expectaions.  Many also saad of their ex - I still love her, we are still best friends, but the sex was just plain worng.

makemewanna
makemewanna

What about Canada? Nobody cares about Canada America's hat!!

StanleyJames
StanleyJames

@makemewanna ytheeyve had marriage since about 2004 and the sky hasnt fallen.  etc.  BTW MA was the first US state to allow gays to marry


it has the lowest divorce rate in the country and one of the lowest unemployent rates in the country (about 4 %)


Why - because people there are eduacted on secular  values and our constitution that demands equality.

Look on the web re divorce and you will find the largest % of divorces is in most of the bible belt states.