Family pressure on gays and lesbians in China

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China's one-child policy has come of age. The first only-children are now adults. Some are gays and lesbians but regardless of orientation, they're expected to provide their own parents with a grandchild. Bill Marcus reports from Shanghai.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. To be gay in China is difficult, yet gay communities are taking root in every major city in the country. Some gay men and lesbians in China say there's a tacit understanding that society will be tolerant of them as long as they don't make waves. Still, many gay Chinese are bumping up against a barrier; that's China's one child policy and the desire of the parents of gay adults to have grandchildren. Bill Marcus reports from Shanghai.

BILL MARCUS: Like everything in China, attitudes about homosexuality are changing fast. Up until 13 years ago, gay sex was illegal here and homosexuality was labeled a mental illness. But just a year ago, Shanghai hosted a week of highly publicized gay pride events. Eddie Zhang took part in the celebrations. He's the owner of Shanghai's oldest gay bar. He says over the years he's been forced to close and reopen many times. But authorities mostly leave him alone.

INTERPRETER: Of course we wouldn't tell everybody that I'm gay, I'm gay, I'm gay. And this is a gay bar. The situation is like this, if you're too loud, you'll draw government attention.

MARCUS: Last January police in Beijing shut down a Mr. Gay China competition. But authorities didn't arrest anyone and some say that's significant. The point out that even though China is a socially conservative society, on some level, homosexuality has long been tolerated here.

DANIEL BELL: There's nothing in Confucian that says that homosexuality is a sin, its evil.

MARCUS: The key he says, is that it stay in the private realm.

BELL: You can be both homosexual and married and have children. The most important thing is that you marry and have children and the sexual preference orientation is not that crucial.

MARCUS: But having children is crucial in China. Since 1980 most Chinese have only been allowed to have one child under China's one child policy. So the pressure on that single child to marry and provide a grandchild can be enormous.

HAYES ZHOU: No matter who you are, you're a boy or a girl, to a certain age you have to marry.

MARCUS: That's 47-year-old Hayes Zhou. He ultimately bowed to the pressure and got married. Now he's divorced, and openly dates men. Another man, a 33-year-old Army officer who didn't want me to use his name, says he's felt the pressure too.

ANONYMOUS ARMY OFFICER: People, they ask me, have you married? Why you still not married?

MARCUS: So two years ago he did what a lot of gay men in China are doing. He entered a sham marriage with a lesbian.

OFFICER: I become normal. And when we talk with others, I do not feel ashamed.

MARCUS: There are no firm data on this, but observers say a large percentage of gay men are entering into sham marriages. Confucian expert Dan Bell says it's understandable.

BELL: If you live within a culture where providing for the material and emotional well being of one's parents is regarded as a very important value, as opposed to the pursuit of personal happiness over and above all other considerations, then it won't necessarily be regarded as a kind of sham marriage the same as it might in the west.

MARCUS: This bar in Shanghai often hosts match-making parties for gays and lesbians who want to find spouses. But some say they haven't gone that well. The women complain the gay men are often too effeminate to take home to mom and dad. Men also complain. They say the women are too picky. One man told me even for this kind of marriage the women want the men to have a perfect body and a good job. The bar is run by a 28-year-old lesbian who goes by the name Miss Chung. She says she also feels the burden of family expectations.

MISS CHUNG: There is an old saying in Chinese that worst thing a kid doing to their parents is that you don't have your own kid.

MARCUS: Miss Chung says her parents keep calling her, trying to set her up on blind dates, but she isn't willing to give in to their wishes.

CHUNG: I cannot get married for you. I cannot have a kid for you. My life is my life.

MARCUS: For The World, I'm Bill Marcus in Shanghai.