Seeking a lesbian wife: pressured Chinese gays turn to online dating for ‘cooperative marriage’
A mobile number and a few personal details: those were all Bill Zhong needed to register for an account on dating app Queers, which within minutes connected him to a network of more than 4,000 lesbians seeking a gay partner for “cooperative marriage”.
The marital arrangement, called “xinghun” in Chinese, is done between a gay man and lesbian woman to appease their conservative parents and conceal their sexual orientation.
It is similar to the Western concept of a “beard”, someone who acts, knowingly or unwittingly, as a gay person’s spouse or date to keep up the appearance of heterosexuality. Under xinghun, the couple know each other's orientation and can live accordingly - while staying married.
Zhong, 23, who has not come out to his family, signed up on Queers – a pioneering app in a country where LGBT relationships still face serious discrimination and fierce opposition from conservatives, especially older family members – to prepare for the inevitable moment when his parents pressure him to get married.
China decriminalised homosexuality in 1997 and removed it from the list of mental illnesses in 2001. While China is slowly opening up to discussion of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, traditional views are still hard to shake.
Even well-educated Chinese who might be open-minded about LGBT issues tend to find it difficult to accept if their own children are gay.
Zhong is not alone in his predicament. “We have had about 10,000 [gay and lesbian] users in less than two weeks after the launch” on January 5, said Liao Zhuoying, co-founder of Queers.
Liao said Queers was an offshoot to his company’s dating and meet-up apps, Gaypark and Lespark, where they noticed a subset of gay men seeking lesbian wives.
“Then we conducted a survey among our Gaypark users and realised that there was a market for it,” Liao said.
“The communities of gays and lesbians rarely cross over, unless you know a lesbian in real life,” said Zhong, who has a handful of lesbian friends from college.
With Queers, his options have expanded exponentially. “The app can search for users nearby and those who live in the same city as me,” he says.
The app lets users chat with prospective mates and keeps identities relatively secure. To register, Queers asks users to confidentially upload a photo of themselves holding their identity cards for verification purposes.
Profile pages give an initial indication of whether it would be a good match, showing information like whether the person would like children.
But Zhong says the process is no piece of cake, as this could be a lifelong commitment.
“It is like a heterosexual marriage. People may not get along due to their personalities and they [can easily] disagree on property ownership or having children,” he said.
Zhong wants someone who lives in Beijing. He also wants to have a baby someday. “It is easier to work things out if we both live in the same city. [Because] there are occasions that we need to attend as a couple,” he says.
“Xinghun is not based on love, so all the terms and conditions are put on the table,” said Stephanie Wang, who completed a thesis on the phenomenon for her master’s degree.
To give an idea of these terms, Chinagayles.com – China’s largest xinghun dating website with nearly 380,000 registered users since its launch in 2005 – features a sample prenuptial agreement as a guide to couples about division of property, childbearing, debts and inheritances.
“In a cooperative marriage, both parties are aware that the so-called marriage is simply a white lie, a compromise to social bias … But financial interests are concerned once it comes to sharing a house. Without proper legislation [on xinghun], the division of family expenses will become a centre of conflict,” the website states.
“If marriage were not considered mandatory on mainland China, and people were not stigmatised for staying single, xinghun would not be necessary [for the homosexual community],” said Wang.
Chinagayles.com founder Lin Hai himself faced family pressure to marry 10 years ago.
“I was constantly asked by family members if I had a girlfriend or why I was not married. My mother would talk to me in a tearful voice, which made me feel extremely guilty,” he said.
“And my colleagues [females in their 40s or older] would pry into my relationship status and offer to set up blind dates for me. For many Chinese, there is no such thing as privacy.”
One day, Lin found a temporary solution. “A friend of mine broke up with his girlfriend at the time, and we were all curious. For us, they made a great couple. Then he told me that he found out [she is a] lesbian, and it just occurred to me that I could introduce this girl to my parents as my girlfriend.”
Lin, though no longer closeted, still takes lesbian friends home from time to time to keep up appearances and save his parents the grief of neighbours’ gossip. “[That way] my parents can tell [relatives, neighbours and their friends] that I have a girlfriend,” he said.
But even before the idea of xinghun flourished in online forums in 2005, gay men in China have for decades been marrying straight women – without telling them the secret.
The wives in such marriages are called “tongqi”, literally “gay wives”. Their plight came into the national spotlight in 2012 after the suicide of a teacher in Chengdu city, Sichuan province, who found out that her husband was a closeted gay man.
Chinese scholar Zhang Beichuan had estimated that there might be 16 million women who are unknowingly married to gay husbands.
Xinghun and tongqi are just symptoms of the problem of heavy social pressures in mainland China to marry and start a family, preferably at a marriageable age (though it varies per region, it is typically in the late 20s).
Unlike their Western counterparts or peers in Hong Kong and Taiwan, staying single is often not an option for gays and lesbians in mainland China.
And even when they come out to their parents, they will usually be besieged by inquiries, criticism or even ostracism from family, friends and neighbours. Some would rather choose xinghun to avoid this.
“I know a guy. He had come out to his family and they stopped setting up blind dates for him,” said He Xiaopei, a feminist activist who recently produced a documentary on two xinghun couples in China. “But he was treated like a monster by other people for not being married at the age of 30. The man ended up locking himself up and refused to go outside.
Activist He adds: “One of the heroines in my documentary once said, ‘It is impossible to be single in China. People will keep setting up blind dates for you [until the day you are married]. That is too much trouble.”