"I'm here to find a lesbian, to be with me and to build a home," No. 11 says to the crowd clustered on floor cushions at a sunlit yoga studio in Shanghai. No. 11 is a muscular man in a flannel shirt and cargo pants, and he easily commands the attention of the crowd of 40 or so young men and women who are gingerly sipping glasses of wine and whispering to their neighbors.
"In my view, a 30-year-old man should start thinking about having a family, but two men can't hold each other's hands in the street. We're not allowed to be a family," he says. The crowd nods.
I'm at a fake-marriage market, where Chinese lesbians and gay men meet to find a potential husband or wife. In China, the pressure to form a heterosexual marriage is so acute that 80 percent of China's gay population marries straight people, according to sexologist Li Yinhe, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. To avoid such unions, six months ago, Shanghai's biggest gay Web site, inlemon.cn, started to hold marriage markets once a month.
Thirty minutes earlier, I triple-checked the address scrawled in my notebook. The studio—located in a high-rise apartment complex—seems an unlikely spot for a fake-marriage market. "The boss of the yoga studio is very kind to us," says Fen Ye, my guide. Slipping off my shoes at the doorway, I pad up stairs lined with Buddhas in the red plastic flip-flops provided. When Fen slides open a door to reveal men and women chatting quietly, conversation falters. "They weren't expecting a foreigner," he whispers, adding, "and don't tell anyone you're a reporter. I'll just say you're my lesbian friend." He bustles me to a cushion on the floor and hands me a glass of Chinese red wine.
Precautions are necessary for an event like this. Though there are an estimated 30 million to 40 million gay people in China—there has been no official count—even simple actions such as trying to access Wikipedia's "LGBT" page often result in a "This webpage is not available" message. Chinese society has adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. A 2007 survey by Li Yinhe found that 70 percent of Chinese people think homosexuality is either "a little" or "completely" wrong, and only 7.5 percent of respondents said they knew a gay person.
While past generations buried their sexuality in straight marriages, the people gathered at the yoga studio are trying a new approach. No. 8 (the men sport numbered buttons in a pleasing shade of blue, the women's are pink), a pretty 22-year-old woman with curly dyed chestnut hair, skinny jeans, and Snoopy slippers wants a fake marriage to ease parental pressure, but she doesn't want a baby. No. 15, a strikingly tall man with side-swept bangs, says: "I want to get married for my parents, but I think lying to them will make me feel terrible. So I want to have a fake marriage with a lesbian girl, but just for one or two years, and then I want a divorce to show my parents that I am not a marriage type." There's one constant: All the participants talk about pleasing their parents.
Influential Zhou Dynasty Confucian scholar Mencius said that the "most serious" way to be unfilial is to not produce an heir. It's an idea that still reverberates through China's family-centric culture. In contemporary slang, single women over the age of 27 are known as sheng nu or "leftovers."
"I could absolutely not come out to my parents. If I could tell them I was gay, I wouldn't have needed to get married," says my guide, 30-year-old Fen, as we sit in a converted Shanghainese shikumen lane house near the popular tourist spot People's Park. We're talking about his lesbian wife, whom he met on inlemon.cn.
"I had a big, traditional Chinese wedding. It lasted for three days, and there were maybe 500 people there. My parents were so happy," says Fen, who knew his wife for seven months before they married. "In your job, in your social life, and for family gatherings, you need to bring a partner. It's hard to do these things alone in China. My grandfather and grandmother … everyone was waiting for me to get married. The wedding felt like a task I needed to accomplish, something I needed to get through step-by-step, a bit like doing homework."
For many gay men, the chance to experience parenthood—and to provide a grandchild for longing parents—is a distinct advantage of these unions. At the yoga studio marriage market, almost every man says he wants a baby, Fen included. "[On the Web site] I said that I didn't want to have a sex life with my wife—absolutely none." Although he says he and his wife are not "very good friends," they have discussed having a child. "For a baby we will maybe use artificial insemination," he says.
Past generations did things differently. The Lai Lai dancehall, in a rundown corner of Shanghai's Hongkou district, is a refuge for gay but married men. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, about 200 men crowd the dance floor in their mismatched suits, twirling together in the green light and cigarette smoke. When they're not dancing, they sit in groups around the edge, nursing flasks of tea, though beer is available for 75 cents a glass.
Zhang, who is 55 and married with children, goes every week. "You can find gay bars in every city, but a dancehall like this only in Shanghai," he says. While tinny speakers rattle out familiar patriotic songs, the dancing stays elegant and refined. Flirting is discreet, barely noticeable. "Older gay men feel comfortable in this place," Zhang tells me. "Because the dancehall starts early, they can go home to their families and keep it secret. Though sometimes the wives come to look for their husbands, and then other people have to persuade them that their husband is just dancing."
But 30-year-old Mu Mu knew that her husband was not "just dancing." Just after she became pregnant, Mu Mu's husband started openly dating men. "I knew he was gay before we got married," says the Shanghai resident over the phone to protect her anonymity. "But the word gay was really strange to me. I read that being gay is something you're born as, but other people said it's like a disease that can be healed. Because I loved him a lot, I hoped that maybe he would change." It wasn't until a year after the birth of their daughter, and after her husband brought home another man to live with them, that Mu Mu left him.
Mu Mu is one of China's estimated 16 million to 25 million "homowives"—or tongqi in pinyin (the word is an amalgamation of the Mandarin for gay and wife)—women who are married to gay men.
"The happiest time of our marriage was when I gave birth to our daughter," says Mu Mu. "That one week when I was in the hospital, he took care of me and the baby. Much of the rest of the time I felt abandoned."
For many women, speaking out about their gay husbands is more difficult than staying in loveless marriages, but in the last few years Web-based support groups have started to form. Li, 33, is a volunteer on a homowife support forum on QQ, a Chinese social networking site. Her job involves giving advice and answering questions, and she is often the only person the homowives confide in. "The women are desperate," she explains over iced tea on a busy shopping street in central Shanghai. "At first they feel shock, and they don't know what to do, because people don't know much about gay people. They think their husband is a disturbed person."
While it's relatively easy to get divorced in China, Li says, many women stick with the marriages for complicated reasons. "Some stay because they still love their husband. He's a good person, and a good father, and they want their children to have a father," she says. Another reason is social stigma. "Most of the women can't go to their friends, they don't think they will be able to accept it or understand. Which is true. I think in China people make a moral judgment about it. [The women] think people will think, 'Wow, your husband would prefer to be with a man than with you—what a loser.' "
But there are tentative signs of change. Pink Space, a Beijing-based sexuality research center, started a support group for homowives earlier this year—the first of its kind in China. Zhang Beichan, a director at the China Sexology Association, thinks the homowife "problem" is shrinking. "In 2005, a TV station put out a program about gay issues, and I introduced a homowife who talked about her problems. This was one of the first times this issue was introduced to the public. It had a very big impact—some gay men still share that program with their families when they are pressured into getting married. Also, there are more and more gay men coming out of the closet, and more awareness of gay issues."
Back at the fake-marriage market, Fen Yu and his friends see themselves as the "transitional" generation. While they can't come out to their parents, they can, at least, be open about their sexuality among friends, go to gay bars, and date. "For the generation after ours, it might be easier," he says, "Our parents have no idea what homosexuality is. It's very difficult, because it's just opening up."
If Fen becomes a father, his will be a different approach: "I might not be able to tell my parents," he says, "but when my child grows up, I will tell them the real story about why it happened and who I am."
Nicola Davison is a journalist living and working in Shanghai.
This article, Gay Marriage With Chinese Characteristics, first appeared in Slate.