Wedded to misery
Cui Yuhe spent more than 40 years trying to be a good wife by improving her cooking skills and cultivating her feminine elegance.
But it wasn't until last year that the retired television editor from Tianjin realised that, no matter how hard she worked at it, she would never be a suitable partner for her husband. The man she had known for more than 40 years, it turned out, was a homosexual.
'I never felt loved, no matter how good I tried to be,' said Cui, a gracefully dressed 67-year-old with short, crew-cut hair. 'It's like the whole world was crumbling in front of me after I realised that I'd been living such a big lie and that my whole life was wasted.'
Cui is among the nation's estimated 16 million straight wives of gay husbands, but few have opened their eyes to that fact, even though it often means being trapped in loveless marriages, or subjected to indifference, domestic violence and at higher risks of contracting HIV and other STDs.
The large number of women with gay husbands is a phenomenon unique to the Chinese mainland, where homosexuality remains a stigma in a culture that 'places such a great emphasis on marriage and reproduction that it almost makes them compulsory for all men', said sociologist Li Yinhe .
Professor Zhang Beichuan, a pioneer in researching homosexuality, said there were about 20 million gay men on the mainland. He found that about 80 per cent of homosexual men in urban areas end up in heterosexual marriages.
'Homosexual men are at a disadvantage because they're known for being marginalised, but the women they marry are even more vulnerable because they remain invisible in a culture that obliges them to take whatever comes along, for the sake of their families,' Zhang said.
Cui said she knew her husband for eight years before they wed in 1978, but homosexuality was such an alien concept at the time that she had never questioned her husband's sexuality, even though she was perplexed by how little intimacy he showed her, including holding hands and kissing.
'I loved my husband, even though he wasn't a handsome guy and was poor back then,' she said. 'On numerous occasions I just sat next to him trying to talk to him. But he either looked up or down, never at me, and I just thought I wasn't attractive.'
She said she had to beg her husband for more than a year to conceive a child, and they had a daughter three years after marrying.
Cui said that last year she used a computer her daughter bought her to go online, where she started learning about homosexuality. That led to her becoming suspicious that her husband was gay, and she confronted him. She also used the internet to get in touch with support groups for homosexuals and their families.
'I can't tell you how much I hated this man after he confessed his homosexuality when I confronted him,' she said.
But she didn't divorce him, because of their daughter. Also, her husband, who is five years older than she is, has become weak in his old age.
She says she no longer holds a grudge against homosexuals, provided they don't enter into heterosexual marriages.
The plight of women such as Cui has prompted rights advocacy groups to appeal for greater societal acceptance for gay men, which the groups say would also improve the livelihoods of women who otherwise end up in relationships with them.
In a statement last month, Aibai, an advocacy group for the rights of gay and lesbian Chinese, issued a warning about the effects of straight women marrying gay men, citing societal, legal and political implications for the gay community, their spouses, children and even society at large.
'It amounts to a form of cheating for a homosexual to marry a heterosexual partner without disclosing his sexual preference. And by not [doing so], it results in harm,' the statement said. 'Homosexuals should receive due empathy and acceptance,' it said, adding that straight wives hurt by their sham marriages deserved as much too.
A Shanghai-based webmaster who goes by the name 'Niehaixin' said that she manages several online support groups via the popular mainland-based instant-messaging service QQ. The groups feature more than 1,000 women married to gay men, as well as some gay men in heterosexual marriages.
Niehaixin, who declined to give her real name, said that gay men in heterosexual marriages often choose to get married to carry on the family bloodline or to cover up their homosexuality, and most of them refuse to get divorced even if their sexuality is discovered by their wives.
She said most such wives tend to be in a state of disbelief when they first learn of their husband's homosexuality, and the women often hope their marriages will work out, because a lot of gay husbands refer to themselves as bisexual.
Middle-aged women in particular are reluctant to get a divorce, often for the sake of their children or because they have become so financially dependent on their husbands that they don't want to start over without that security, Niehaixin said. She said these women were also susceptible to STDs, as their husbands may engage in affairs with other gay men.
Grace Jiang, an office worker in Beijing who divorced her homosexual husband in April, said that the gravest harm her husband brought upon her was the damage it did to her self-esteem when she found out he was gay.
Jiang, 29, said that she accidentally found out about her husband's homosexuality through his online chat records and text messages with other men that she saw within a month after they got married in October of last year.
But she didn't confront him about it right away. Instead, she said, she took a step back and looked at herself to try to figure out if she had done something wrong, and to see if there were ways she could somehow improve herself.
After some time, she raised the issue with him, but it resulted in a rollercoaster of emotions that started with a glimmer of hope when she thought about his promises, such as to love her, but ended with despair because she felt he had broken his promises.
'For half a year before we got a divorce, I'd shed all the tears I could possibly have in all my life,' she said. 'I'm not sure how long it will take to regain my faith in love again, if it will ever happen.'
Following her divorce, Jiang said, her life has not been as tough as it often has been for other wives, because she doesn't have a child, is still young and has a good job. However, she also noted that she didn't get any compensation from her ex-husband in the divorce.
Zhou Dan, a lawyer who has provided straight wives of gay men with legal advice, said that women in such situations can't argue for compensation on the grounds of homosexuality, simply because gay relationships are not recognised under the Chinese legal system.
'As a matter of practicality, they could argue on other grounds, such as special clauses concerning the protection of the woman and child,' Zhou said, 'but the bottom line is that the law is not a deterrent for gay men thinking of entering into a heterosexual marriage.'
The number of mainland couples who applied for a divorce last year. The BBC says the figure is an increase of 14.5 per cent on 2009