End of China's one-child policy will ease pressure on gays and lesbians to bear children
Timothy Hildebrandt says with the end of China's one-child policy, family expectations to produce an offspring will eventually ease on the only child who happens to be gay or lesbian
The Communist Party intended to help the struggling Chinese economy when it overturned the country's infamous one-child policy last week. The decision to rescind the policy will undoubtedly be welcomed by the country's growing middle class, the next generation of Chinese who will now have the prospect of knowing what it means to have a sister or brother, and corporations who are relishing an even larger market. But one group that the party never considered is also likely to benefit: China's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
The one-child policy never mentioned homosexuality. But its ill effects over the decades have fallen disproportionately on the country's LGBT community. Numerous surveys of gays and lesbians in the country consistently reveal that family pressure is of utmost concern. Indeed, in the decade-long research I have conducted on these issues in China, I found that gay and lesbian citizens consistently ranked family pressure as the biggest obstacle they face. One chance at raising a child who meets all of the expectations of parents put enormous burdens on gays and lesbians, keeping them in the closet and contributing to high rates of depression and suicide. The pressure to produce grandchildren is acute.
The desire for grandchildren isn't, of course, limited to China. But the obsession often leads to pressure on gay and lesbian children to conform to a heterosexual life and produce offspring.
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In China, the expectations for continuing the family line to fulfil ancestral obligations are often extreme. Still, the push to be grandparents has as much to do with material concerns as worries about the afterlife. In this respect, another policy change in the last decade has created a decidedly material incentive for families to pressure their only child into living a straight life and producing a grandchild: the government's dismantling of cradle-to-grave support. Elderly care, once guaranteed by the state, has been severely cut, partly because of the assumption that one's children and their grandchildren can fill the gap left by the state and take care of them. And so, in essence, the pressure that gay and lesbian Chinese feel is not only due to the risk of hurting the family's reputation, but something very material: the parents view a gay or lesbian child as a potential threat to their care as they age. Because both in vitro fertilisation and adoption are difficult, "traditional" and "natural" male-female births are seen as the only option for parents.
In its 35-year history, the one-child policy has long been used by government critics in the international community as evidence of its callous view of human rights. Activists have derided the effect it has had on unwanted pregnancies and children: stories of sex-selective abortions, newborn girls abandoned in public toilets, and even female infanticide have become regular news fodder.
But Beijing's decision has far more to do with demographic forces than human rights concerns, whether they be concerned with forced abortions or social pressure on LGBT people. The policy was intended to curb population growth that the party could not afford while also developing a modern economy. It is being rolled back now because, ironically, the government can't afford to keep it in place. With fewer young people entering the workforce, the country is less able to support the larger number of aged citizens.
The policy shift will certainly not be an instant panacea for gays and lesbians. Family pressures are likely to remain, and changing the policy will be too late for the current generation of gay and lesbian young adults. Hopefully, the possibility to have an "heir and a spare" will ease the pressure placed on gay and lesbian Chinese, allowing them to live a more open and less stressful adult life. Although it was not the intent of Beijing, easing limitations on births should go far in helping to build a more respectful environment for gays and lesbians across the nation.
Dr Timothy Hildebrandt is assistant professor of social policy and development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He researches and writes on LGBT activism and related policy issues in China and around the world