A gay couple kisses under a rainbow-coloured scarf during a party after a mass wedding organised by the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) China organisation on a cruise in the open seas en route to Sasebo, Japan, on June 15, 2017. About 800 members of the Chinese LGBT community and their parents spent four days on a cruise trip organised by the NGO. Photo: EPA
by Lucetta Kam
by Lucetta Kam

Why the struggle for same-sex marriage in China will continue, despite civil code setback

  • The primacy of heterosexual marriage in Chinese society means that there are negative social and economic consequences to remaining unwed
  • The LGBT community has developed many coping strategies – from lesbian women and gay men marrying each other to couples tying the knot outside China or unofficially via an app
The Chinese government has rejected the LGBT community’s demand for the legalisation of same-sex marriage when the country’s parliament adopted China’s first civil code in May.

This is a new and clear condemnation of same-sex marriage rights by the state in the two-decade long struggle in China.

The fight started officially in 2001 when Li Yinhe, an outspoken sociologist in Beijing, lobbied for same-sex marriage during the annual parliamentary meetings.

Homosexuality was removed from the criminal category of “hooliganism” in 1997 and from the official list of mental illnesses in 2001.

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These moves were understood as the decriminalisation and depathologisation of homosexuality, though in practice, lesbians and gay people still face the threat of police intervention, and the public understanding of them as mentally ill has persisted.

Nonetheless, grass-roots tongzhi activism – tongzhi, literally meaning “comrade”, is a term used to refer to lesbian, gay, transgender, queer and intersex people in China – has been developing rapidly since the late 1990s. Now there are local tongzhi groups all over China with diverse objectives.

Same-sex marriage is a central concern of tongzhi in China; the state’s refusal to legitimise same-sex marriage has not silenced the demand for it.

Thousands of same-sex couples have chosen to wed online through a WeChat app called Hunli (meaning “wedding”), which issues virtual marriage certificates.


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Among all the difficulties tongzhi face, the pressure to get married is always reported as the greatest source of stress. When I first started researching queer women in China in 2005, most of the women I met told me they suffered from the pressure to wed imposed on them by parents, relatives, colleagues, peer groups and the wider society. Many gay men also told me they had been tortured by the same demand.

While many people, especially the younger generation in Hong Kong, embrace the idea that marriage is an option, simply one of the many lifestyles we can “choose” – though whether it is really a “choice” is debatable – in China, even in economically developed urban areas today, marriage is still not seen as optional by most people.

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Heterosexual marriage has a deep impact on one’s interpersonal relationships, career development, share of family resources – for example, a Chinese wedding can yield significant profit for the families concerned – and can affect one’s personal and even one’s family’s reputation.

A rich single woman is not considered “successful” because she has not been able to acquire a husband, and is labelled a “ leftover woman”. Marriage is generally believed to be a necessary component of adult life.


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The culture of marriage in China can also be understood also from a political perspective. There has been a long history of state stigmatisation of single people in China through the central job assignment system before 1979 and through neoliberal ideologies in the economic reform era.

Single people usually were allocated less job-related benefits, such as housing, at the time when livelihoods largely relied on state provision. After 1979, the market logic began to regulate people’s private life – single people are now stigmatised as losers.

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There are many practical consequences when one is deprived of the right to get married. The heterosexual marital relationship has been prioritised as the most significant kin relationship.

For example, people who are not in a heterosexual marriage are not allowed to co-own property. Unmarried people are denied access to reproductive technologies in the public health care system.


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Lesbian couples who have migrated to Western countries told me it is impossible for them to protect both their relationship and their assets in China. They are legally invisible and unprotected as a couple in China.

Over the years, tongzhi in China have developed many strategies to cope with a hostile society. One of the most discussed is “cooperative marriage” – a sham marriage in which a lesbian and a gay man mutually consent to entering into marriage.

This form of strategic marriage requires long-term planning and negotiation between the two partners. It has gradually gained popularity among tongzhi facing marriage pressure in China, though it remains controversial.

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Another trend in recent decades that reflects the emergent aspirations of tongzhi in China is the practice of marriage tourism. With an increasing number of countries legalising same-sex marriage, economically well-off tongzhi are opting to marry outside China, even though overseas same-sex marriage is not recognised in China (including Hong Kong).

In addition, migrating to or establishing a second home base in a country which recognises same-sex relationships have been become popular among tongzhi with urban professional or middle-class backgrounds.


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Over the past 20 years, there has been rising popular support for same-sex marriage in China and a very promising development of grass-roots tongzhi activism. The biggest setback for the legalisation of same-sex marriage and the improvement of the rights of tongzhi is the tightened state control over nearly all kinds of grass-roots activism under Chinese President Xi Jinping. But I believe, based on the foundations laid over past years, the fight will carry on.

An ideal future would be one in which everyone enjoys equal rights without the prerequisite of marriage, be it heterosexual or same-sex. This is the direction we must work towards.

Lucetta Kam is associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University. She is the author of Shanghai Lalas: Female Tongzhi Communities and Politics in Urban China