Until social reform do us part

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 March, 2006, 12:00am

Homosexuality and matrimony will be on the minds of the Communist Party elite this week, for a fleeting moment at least. Among the many issues the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegates will ponder in Beijing is a proposal to legalise same-sex marriages.

This is the third time over the past five years that sexologist Li Yinhe has put the idea forward. It was roundly rejected on the first two occasions, and it is expected to be given the cold shoulder this time around, too. But the very fact that it is being debated - in the Great Hall of the People, in Chinese internet chat rooms and in the mainstream media - is in itself a progressive sign.

Until only nine years ago, gays and lesbians in China could be arrested as 'hooligans', and homosexuality was only declassified as a mental illness in 2001. For a few years after that ruling, the state-controlled media still tended to shy away from the issue, but this year saw something of a breakthrough: a steady stream of stories appeared about the lives of gay people in China. The commentaries frowned on homophobia, and tolerance and understanding were the order of the new day, leading gays and lesbians to celebrate the signs of the emergence of a new era.

Last weekend, for example, Xinhua carried a story that advocated the introduction of same-sex marriages, in a breakaway from conservative values that would rarely have been witnessed in the past. Despite the more liberal media approach, though, gay people still keep a low profile as China remains a fairly conservative society when it comes to sex of any orientation. So while gay clubs are allowed to operate quietly, nobody expects to see gay pride parades strutting in Tiananmen Square any time soon.

While Chinese gays and lesbians say their living environment is generally improving, there is still a lot of social pressure for them to conform. Parents are constantly urging them to marry, and on the career front many say that single people are often skipped over for promotion.

All this pressure is prompting some to take action. To combat the discrimination that still lingers, some are taking advantage of the interconnectedness of their community - by arranging marriages of gay convenience. Many personal adverts are posted on dedicated websites, where gays and lesbians can find the perfect cover: an understanding spouse for a marriage that will never be consummated. Towards the same aim, facilitators also organise speed-dating nights in the big cities, which they say are increasingly popular.

The marriage facade means the pressure is taken off the newlyweds, as they can present friends, family and colleagues with a picture of conformity. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, they get on with their own sex lives.

The system works since staying single in China is not an option for many, they say, and it beats the time-honoured approach of gay people attempting to lead heterosexual lives with straight spouses. So while the media has made liberal advances over the past year or two, the cold glare of wider society is still clearly making some gays and lesbians dive for cover.

It might be an idea for the marrying couple to take a slightly amended vow: 'Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife ... until social acceptance do you part?'

Peter Goff is a Beijing-based journalist