Beijing, China – When Xiao Yue decided in October 2010 to marry her boyfriend, she imagined a life full of love, happiness and laughter. She knew marriage was a bumpy road, but she never expected hers to end within a month, after discovering she had tied the knot with a closeted gay man.
“I remember the date perfectly, because I asked for divorce only 25 days after the wedding ceremony,” said the 30-something from the front seat of her car, which she deemed the safest place to talk. Xiao Yue asked that her real name not be used, also out of concern for her safety.
Two years after her marriage collapsed, she still fears the exposure of her life as a former “tongqi” – a new Mandarin word coined to describe straight women trapped in loveless and miserable unions to gay men. The word comes from “tongzhi“, or comrade, Chinese slang for “gay”, and “qizi“, which means “wife” in Mandarin.
“China’s gay men marry to have children and pass on the family name. There is an old saying in China which says the worst thing you can do to your parents is not to give them a grandchild.“
– Li Yinhe, sociologist
This is neither a new phenomenon nor it is specific to China, but many say the one-child policy, which prohibits couples from having more than one offspring, has made the country unique in this regard.
“It has put a lot of pressure on China’s homosexuals,” says Wei Xiaogang, founder and director of Queer Comrades, a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) organisation based in Beijing, which documents gay life in China via online videos.
According to several demographic studies, between 70-90 percent of China’s gay men are currently married – or will marry – a straight women, compared to 15-20 percent in the US. China’s tongqi could then number as many as 25 million across the country, according to Liu Dalin, a pioneering sexologist now retired from the University of Shanghai.
More conservative estimates, including one from Zhang Beichuan – a sexologist from the University of Qingdao – put the figure at 10 million. China’s government has not released any official figures on the phenomenon.
Although the exact number is still debatable, the motives behind these empty unions are readily apparent. In China, a family-dominated culture, sons are expected to marry and later have children – preferably male – to appease their parents.
“China’s gay men marry to have children and pass on the family name. There is an old saying in China which says the worst thing you can do to your parents is not to give them a grandchild,” says Li Yinhe, a well-known sociologist with more than 720,000 fans on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like micro-blogging service.
Because of this, Li – a long-time advocate of women’s and LGBT rights – has submitted a proposal calling for same-sex marriage since 2003 to the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp parliament that concluded its annual parliamentary session on March 17.
Although her proposal failed again to get the approval of at least 30 NPC members out of 3,000, which meant it was not formally examined and will unlikely be adopted into Chinese law, Li believes the new light shed on China’s tongqis will help advance the cause.
“He introduced him to me as a friend, and since the ‘friend’ had a spouse, I didn’t suspect anything.”
– Xiao Yue, former tongqi
Like Xiao Yue’s husband, many male homosexuals who marry women hide their sexuality to gain wider acceptance by society. Although homosexuality was removed from the list of mental diseases in 2001 by the Chinese Psychiatric Association and gay communities are now booming in Beijing and Shanghai, it is still largely taboo in China’s inner, less-developed provinces.
A native from Liaoning, a northeastern province bordering North Korea, Xiao Yue settled down in Beijing in 2008 after her studies and started working for a financial institution. There, she met her soon-to-be husband. The pair lived close to each other, and after work they would walk together back home and chat along the way.
After 12 months of dating, she thought he was the ideal candidate: He had a car, a flat and a good salary. But it soon became clear the groom also had a lover – a married gay man who came regularly with his wife to house parties and dinners where Xiao Yue would cook for the four of them. “He introduced him to me as a friend, and since the ‘friend’ had a spouse, I didn’t suspect anything,” she recalled.
But 25 days into her marriage, the wife of her husband’s “friend” told Xiao Yue their husbands were lovers. After she heard, she started looking through her husband’s mobile phone and computer, and discovered evidence of a relationship between the two men.
LGBT out of the closet
While state-controlled media now report regularly on LGBT issues, the desperate lives of China’s tongqis only came into the public eye in June of last year, when a 31-year-old bride from the southwestern province of Sichuan jumped to her death after discovering her husband was gay.
Since then, online and offline support groups have efforted to provide psychological and legal help. Many tongqis have also opened micro-blogs where they talk about their sexless marriages and the conundrum they face: live in the closet with a gay man, or become a stigmatised divorcee.
Xiao Yue decided to go with the second option. “The divorce itself was done in a day. I was lucky enough to have no kids, my own job, and my parents’ support,” she says.
But for financially dependent women, divorce proves more difficult, especially after they have a child.
Follow Raphael Balenieri on Twitter: @rbalenieri