Across the Strait in Taiwan, regular headlines are being generated as the government continues to fumble moves for marriage equality; in Hong Kong issues surrounding same-sex partnerships are also regularly in the news, with one of the latest stories being a woman’s attempt to sue the Special Administrative Region’s government for allegedly not granting such relationships the same rights as heterosexual ones. Yet in mainland China, discussion over LGBTQ+ rights and gay marriage remains relatively muted.
That’s perhaps not overly surprising given homosexuality was still listed as a “mental disorder” in China until as recently as 2001. In many parts of the country, “traditional” attitudes and ignorance generally prevails when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights and relationships.
PFLAG China (short for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of China), is one of the organizations at the forefront of efforts to change things, and at the end of June the group celebrated a decade of educating families, friends, and communities about LGBTQ+ issues.
Hu Zhijun (also known as A Qiang) had left his hometown in eastern China’s Anhui Province to avoid persistent pressure from his family concerning his marital status and was working in Guangzhou when, in 2006, he discovered his mother had terminal cancer. “I felt very guilty for not having told her the truth,” he says. “I had been pretending to be another person, lying the whole time.”
It was too late for his mother, but Hu resolved that he would come out to his father. The immense challenges that he felt he faced in order to do this, and the lack of understanding related to LGBTQ+ issues he saw in his father’s generation, spurred him to do something to help others in a similar situation, and in 2008 he formed PFLAG.
The aim, Hu says, was to provide professional family support and psychological assistance to the families of LGBTQ+ individuals, advocating healthy lifestyles, and raise public awareness and knowledge of LGBTQ+ groups.
PFLAG now has over 3,000 volunteers, 12 full-time staff, and 35 major branches in cities all over the country. They’ve held thousands of events in cities from Ningbo on China’s eastern coast, to Urumqi in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, and helped hundreds of families along the way.
Tears are never far away at PFLAG’s meetings. Parents are regularly witnessed crying and breaking down on the spot. In many cases, a PFLAG event is the first time they get to come into contact with other parents and children in a similar situation.
“The biggest problem for China’s LGBTQ community is gaining acceptance from their family and of themselves,” says Hu. “Therefore, PFLAG treated this as the most important issue [right from the start] and opened a hotline for people to seek help.”
One of the countless parents that PFLAG has helped is Ms Liu, a retired worker from Changzhou in Jiangsu Province. She found out her 25-year-old daughter Dong was gay two years ago.
Dong had always displayed tomboyish tendencies as a child, Liu tells us – being reluctant to wear dresses and preferring her hair short – but nobody had thought too much of it in the family, in large part because Dong was such a good student. When Dong and her then-boyfriend got engaged while she was studying for a doctorate at a prestigious university, Dong called her mother to say that she felt trapped whenever they got intimate.
Liu put it down to pre-wedding jitters until one day Dong’s boyfriend called to say he couldn’t get Dong to like men. Liu rushed to the university to confront her daughter.
“My world was falling apart,” she says. “I thought it was some disease from overseas and she had AIDs. She was such an outstanding girl, how could she be like this? I took her to the hospital for a check-up.”
Dong told her mother, “if it was a curable disease, I’d take medicine to cure it. But this is something that can’t be ‘cured.’”
“I was worried so I stalked her,” admits Liu. “I followed her around on campus, and threatened her. I didn’t want her to hang out with her lesbian friends and learn from disgusting perverts. I even took a pair of scissors and stabbed myself saying, ‘if you hang out with them again I’d rather die’. I ended up getting three stitches at the hospital and she agreed to try again with her boyfriend.”
Liu struck a deal with her daughter. She would do more research and try to understand, while Dong would cut off contact with other girls and focus on her studies. In August 2016, Liu came across PFLAG’s hotline online. She was added to the organization’s WeChat groups after one phone call.
“The mothers came to put me at ease and shared their experience with me,” says Liu. “‘My daughter has found a partner right now and she’s really happy’, ‘My son went to the U.S. and officially got married.’ All of a sudden I felt I wasn’t alone. I saw other people are living a wonderful life and I can do that too.”
The mothers from PFLAG took Liu to a meeting in Nanjing, the main city in Jiangsu. That night, she made a video call to Dong where she apologized for pushing her to be heterosexual.
“On the other side of the call, Dong went on her knees and kowtowed. She said, ‘Mom, I’m sorry. Thank you so much for your understanding,’” Liu tells us through tears.
Liu began going to PFLAG events in other cities. “Talking to other parents really helps,” she says. “I felt better every time when I went to an event.”
To give back to the community, Liu now volunteers for PFLAG’s by anchoring their group chat every Saturday evening for 4 hours to talk to other parents, send useful learning materials, and help others understand LGBTQ issues. Her daughter introduced her lesbian friends to the group and they’ve since all benefitted from PFLAG’s help.
When Ms Wang (a pseudonym), from Changsha in Hunan Province, discovered that both of her sons were gay, she was devastated. “At night I cried, lying in bed feeling there was nothing to live for,” she tells us.
She came to Shanghai in the early part of this decade, living with her younger son Dangdang while working as a nanny. She left her husband in Changsha living with her older son Zhuzi in order to earn more money and get her son an apartment in Shanghai. Her dream eventually came true but took a turn she was unprepared for.
She and her son lived in a rented two-bedroom apartment. She occupied one room and Dangdang shared his room with his university “classmate”.
“He told me that it was to share the rent and I believed him,” she says. “However, when we were about to move to a new apartment, he told me that they were lovers and would continue living together.”
Depressed, Wang returned to Changsha and told her husband what had happened. Shockingly, her husband immediately brought another woman home and told her, “I need to continue my family line. If my sons won’t have kids, I will have another myself.”
Feeling unloved by her husband and having lost the will to live, Wang went out for a walk along the river with the notion of jumping in and committing suicide. Zhuzi, her elder son, found her and burst into tears. “Dad’s gone and if you’re gone, what about me and my brother?” she recalls him saying.
Zhuzi gathered 10 gay volunteers to her home to cook and talk to her. “They told me that they are all gay. They all came out to their parents and their parents all support them,” she says.
Gradually, Wang became accepting of her sons homosexuality. “I think it’s love that has changed me,” she says. “Zhuzi showed me a video where a gay guy chose death because his parents didn’t understand him. I don’t want them to make the same decision because of me. I love them. So I can try to change my mindset and understand.”
Now, Wang attends PFLAG events all over the country. She went to the annual party in Nanjing with Zhuzi this year and also applied to a workshop organized by PFLAG where there are volunteer therapists, NGO leaders, and public speaking teachers offering free lessons on diverse subjects.
“I’m over all the pains now and feel very peaceful,” she beams. “My sons are also happy to see I’m doing well. They work very hard and everything is going well in life. We talk openly about everything now. They also introduce their partners to me and ask me for my opinions!”
The “continuation of the family line”, and the huge importance attached to this concept and the institution of marriage in China, can often have other ramifications.
Although the phenomenon of “beard marriages” has risen in China in recent years, whereby a gay man officially marries a gay woman in a marriage of convenience to conceal their orientation from their parents, many women in the country are unwittingly married to gay men.
Li Qiongzan found herself in such a marriage. In November 2017, 10 months after they were wed, she discovered a string of messages with men in her husband’s chat history that revealed their marriage to be a sham.
Originally from Suzhou, in Jiangsu Province, Li had moved to Shenzhen to work as a teacher. Previously divorced and with a daughter, she met her “gay husband” in 2016. According to Li, the man lied about his educational background, faked his age with a false ID, and coaxed her into giving him money to purchase a car and an apartment; in total she gave him more than 840,000 RMB (124,320 USD).
After failing to secure a divorce through normal negotiations, she sued her husband in December; the case is still going through the courts.
“In China, there’s no protection for tongqi [the Chinese term for women who marry a gay husband],” says Li. “I went to some government institutions for help but they only took some notes. They couldn’t provide any real help.”
Motivated by her own pain, and the knowledge that there must be other women in similar situations across the country, Li decided to start a non-profit organization entitled Weichen Women Tongqi Aid to help make people caught in such marriages aware of their rights.
According to some counts, there are as many as 16 million tongqi in China. Li’s group chat currently has 300 members.
“Compared to LGBTQ groups, our voice is much lower and smaller but the problem is equally important,” says Li. “Some wives sunk into severe depression because their husband refused to give them reasonable care and love. I want more people to pay attention to this issue.”
PFLAG offers training in team building and event planning to Li’s organization. Li has also attended some PFLAG events as a tongqi representative.
“Our goal is to help girls recognize their partners are gay before marriage and protect their right to know,” says Li. “We encourage gay guys to come out, accept themselves, and not to involve innocent women in sham marriages. That’s also what PFLAG wants.”
Unfortunately, PFLAG and Weichen have another, less positive shared characteristic: neither has been able to obtain proper registration with the government.
“The government’s policy towards LGBTQ has been tightened recently,” says Hu. “Some video websites are asked to remove relevant content, and in addition, we are not allowed to have some of the events that we could hold in the past.”
Ms Liu strikes a more optimistic note. “I believe society is evolving and progressing in a good direction,“ she says. “China is developing. Everything now problematic will be solved later. In the past, divorces and pregnancy before marriage were perceived as ‘abnormal and dirty’. What about now?”
The situation at present may be difficult for LGBTQ+ people in China, but Liu believes the future holds greater acceptance and equality. “In 20 years’ time, the people in charge will be the younger generation who understand LGBTQ.”
For more information on PFLAG, see their website here.
Cover image: Shutterstock.
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