Standing on a square white dais decorated with plastic peach-colored flowers, as a cover version of Bette Midler’s “The Rose” played in the background, gay couple Sun Wenlin and Hu Mingliang finally got to say “I do” Tuesday afternoon in the central Chinese city of Changsha, Hunan province.
Witnessed by a crowd of more than a hundred mostly-young well-wishers and droves of reporters, the two men declared their love for one another in a 45-minute ceremony that was part celebrity wedding, part media spectacle.
After short speeches by a handful of attendees, and a quick exchange of wedding bands, the focal point of the afternoon’s event was the presentation of imitation marriage certificates by Hu’s father and Sun’s mother. Under Chinese law, official certificates cannot be issued for same-sex marriages.
Afterward, the two men signed a rainbow flag and serenaded the audience, karaoke style, with a Chinese ballad, “Rainbow,” by Taiwanese singer Ah Mei.
The wedding didn’t just mark a major milestone for the couple’s relationship; it was also meant to signal a new step forward for LGBT rights in China.
At the heart of this is a plan by Sun and Hu to organize more gay weddings around the country for other couples — 100 in total, including their own.
Sun said he hoped that on completion of the 100 weddings, people would no longer consider gay marriage as something unusual. “I hope everyone in society, including government officials, will understand what homosexuality is,” he said.
After wishing the couple a happy future, Sun’s mother, 46, told the crowd she encouraged other gay people to fight for their rights. “Be brave and tell your families that you are gay!” she said.
Missing from the crowd was Sun’s father’s side of the family. “They are not supportive,” Sun’s visibly upset mother told Sixth Tone after the ceremony.
It’s been a rocky road for the couple, who have found themselves in the center of media attention ever since they decided to sue their local marriage registry in December 2015 after it denied them a marriage certificate.
They became the first to challenge the interpretation of China’s marriage law — which, they argued, doesn’t specify that a marriage must be between a male and a female.
In April of this year the court ruled against them, and the couple are waiting to hear the outcome of an appeal they filed earlier this month.
In spite of their defeat in court, the couple feel their wedding is a victory in itself — in a nod to this, guests at the ceremony were offered treats that included gold-wrapped medals made from chocolate.
Sun quit his job after the April 13 verdict and established his own gay marriage rights organization, the name of which has yet to be decided. Hu works as a security guard.
Sun Wenlin (left) and Hu Mingliang stand hand in hand on stage during their wedding ceremony in Changsha, Hunan province, May 17, 2016. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone
They live together in a small apartment in Furong District, in the eastern part of Changsha.
Sun, 26, came out during a family dinner when he was 14 years old. An elder relative asked Sun if he had girlfriend. In an interview with Sixth Tone earlier this year, Sun said he had replied: “I don't like girls. I like boys.”
Hu, 36, was born in a rural part of Hunan province, some 100 kilometers from Changsha. When he was young, he didn’t dare tell any friends he was gay, he told Sixth Tone in the same interview earlier this year. But he did tell his mother. “Are you ill?” Hu recalled his mother saying at the time.
Hu said he felt lonely when he lived in the village because he couldn't find men similar to him. He left to look for a job in the provincial capital, Changsha, where, among other discoveries, he learned to surf the Internet.
That was how the two met. “It changed my life forever,” said Sun.
After the ceremony, Hu’s father, 65, told Sixth Tone he considered the wedding a success. “But I don’t plan on telling anyone in our village,” he added. “People there don't know much about these kinds of things.”
People in Changsha are relatively open-minded, but although the city has 7 million inhabitants, it does not have a gay scene anywhere near comparable to that of megacities such as Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou.
Sun Wenlin, seated with his mother, massages his neck after the wedding ceremony rehearsal in Changsha, Hunan province, May 16, 2016. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone
Sun and Hu are a source of both inspiration and irritation for the city’s LGBT community.
Among those not impressed with Tuesday’s marriage were some older gay people in the city. Patrons at a gay mahjong parlor told Sixth Tone on Sunday that they were happier keeping their private lives private.
Another person not convinced is Zhang Huamao, 29, who owns a gay bar in Changsha that serves mainly older, often still-in-the-closet men.
“You don’t have to let the whole world know you two are in love,” said Zhang, pointing out that legalizing gay marriage won’t mean discrimination will go away.
Xie Long, a mild-mannered 17-year-old journalism student, said he was encouraged by his teacher to cover Sun and Hu’s court case, and that he was inspired by Sun’s story and determination.
“I came out to my mom after I interviewed Sun,” Xie told Sixth Tone.
Xie attended the couple’s wedding on Tuesday with a small group of his classmates.
Xie dreams of having his own wedding some day in the future, even though he thinks gay marriage will still not be recognized in China when that time comes.
“What I want is a ceremony to witness my love,” he said. “Love doesn’t need a certificate of proof.”
Additional reporting by Shi Yi.
(Header image: Sun Wenlin (left) and Hu Mingliang kiss each other during their wedding ceremony in Changsha, Hunan province, May 17, 2016. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone)