Amid the Epidemic, a Quiet Leap Forward for China’s LGBT Community
The days leading up to the Lunar New Year was a tense time for people across China amid the worsening COVID-19 epidemic. But Jiang Junjie had even more reason to feel nervous than most.
The 26-year-old not only planned to visit his parents in the southern city of Chaozhou, 350 kilometers from his home in Shenzhen, in spite of the outbreak; he was also bringing along his boyfriend.
It would be the first meeting between Jiang’s partner and his family, and the young engineer had a lot riding on the outcome. In China, bringing a partner home for the holiday is a big gesture — and often a sign the couple intends to one day tie the knot.
Just months ago, Jiang wouldn’t have considered taking such a step. The previous Lunar New Year, he’d finally come out to his family, and it had gone worse than he’d feared. His father had told him never to come home again. His mother had said nothing at all.
But Jiang had managed to change his parents’ minds with the help of an unexpected ally: the Chinese government.
In late 2019, the country’s top legislative body allowed the public to make suggestions for an updated draft of China’s civil code. It received an avalanche of submissions, with nearly 200,000 people sending feedback in one month. Over 190,000 of them made the same proposal: Legalize same-sex marriage. It was so overwhelming that officials publicly acknowledged legalizing gay marriage was among the most popular suggestions they had received during a Dec. 20 press conference.
“As far as I know, never in the history of Chinese legislation have so many people put forward so many opinions on one law,” says Sun Wenlin, co-founder of iFamily, a nongovernmental organization that promotes same-sex marriage in China.
Jiang messaged his parents with the news, and told them tens of thousands of people like him had campaigned for it. “Two days later, my dad called and asked me to bring my boyfriend home for the Lunar New Year,” he tells Sixth Tone.
Many LGBT people in China have been similarly excited — and more than a little surprised — at the government’s reaction to the civil code consultation. Though few expect China to legalize same-sex marriage any time soon, the authorities’ willingness to recognize the issue is an important step forward — and could encourage more people like Jiang’s father to accept the gay community.
In previous statements, officials had signaled clear opposition to marriage equality. As recently as this past August, Zang Tiewei, a government spokesperson, told reporters that China’s current civil code — which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman — was “consistent with our country’s national circumstances, history, and culture.”
Sun, of iFamily, says he expected officials to take a similar line again, or ignore the issue completely, after the public consultation. “But they showed neither support nor opposition (for same-sex marriage), which is a lot more positive than last time,” the 29-year-old tells Sixth Tone.
The change in tone has convinced Sun that China may allow same-sex marriage much sooner than he’d previously thought. In 2015, he filed a lawsuit against his local civil affairs bureau in the central Hunan province for the right to marry his partner — China’s first case over same-sex marriage — but the court ruled in favor of the government. After that setback, Sun assumed he’d have to wait 20 years to get married, but now he’s more optimistic.
“Now I don’t think it’ll take that long, after seeing how quickly people’s attitudes toward gay people and same-sex marriage have changed in the past few years,” says Sun.
When Jiang started identifying as gay a decade ago, he says he didn’t feel he could confide in anyone, given the widespread negative attitudes toward LGBT people in society. Now, however, he has come out to his colleagues and family members and feels most people his age accept him for who he is.
The results of a December poll conducted by Chinese news website ifeng.com support his assessment. According to the poll, 6.3 million people — 66% of the respondents — voted in favor of legalizing gay marriage. Chinese Christian groups appeared to be alarmed by the news, with several beginning to organize opposition to a potential legalization on social media.
The Alibaba-owned shopping platform Tmall, meanwhile, caused a stir in January by producing a Lunar New Year TV ad featuring a father and mother warmly welcoming their son’s boyfriend into their home during a family reunion.
“It’s so exciting and encouraging to see a gay couple on a TV commercial in China,” says Jiang. “I feel we’re almost being acknowledged and accepted by society.”
Gao Bo, director of the LGBT group PFLAG in Wuhan, Hubei province, says the Dec. 20 press conference will definitely have an effect on China’s gay community, making more people willing to come out.
“We’ve been walking in the dark: Even if there’s just one star above our heads, we feel very bright and hopeful,” says Gao.
Two weeks after the press conference, Gao’s PFLAG chapter held a group wedding ceremony for same-sex couples in Wuhan. More than 200 people came to watch four couples — including Gao and his partner — symbolically tie the knot, an attendance beyond Gao’s expectations.
“The wedding not only celebrates our love; it also encourages more people to speak up for themselves,” says Gao. He plans to make the group wedding an annual event in Wuhan once the city has recovered from the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, which was still at a very early stage in early January.
The 36-year-old created an online group with more than 100 members during the civil code consultation, to encourage more people to send responses.
“Many of them asked me if China would legalize same-sex marriage this time, and I told them 300% ‘no,’” says Gao. “But the key is that we need to stick together, get ready, and then when the government reveals any positive attitude, we’ll know what to do and how to seize the opportunity.”
Jiang and his partner took full advantage of their invitation to Chaozhou over Lunar New Year. Things started awkwardly, Jiang recalls, but the family gradually loosened up as they took part in a few activities together.
“We watched TV, played video games, wrote couplets in honor of the festival, and livestreamed on social media,” says Jiang. “My boyfriend cooked several different dishes every day, which really pleased my parents.”
Jiang’s parents even asked his boyfriend to join them in burning incense and praying to Buddha — a New Year tradition in parts of southern China. “It was a sign of acceptance, as we don’t typically ask guests to do it with us,” says Jiang.
But not even the success of the civil code campaign was enough to convince Chen Minming, a 35-year-old from the eastern province of Fujian, to bring her girlfriend to the Lunar New Year dinner with her parents over the holiday.
When Chen told her parents she was a lesbian in 2018, her mother was too shocked to speak. “Then, she cried for days,” she recalls.
Chen’s father also strongly disapproved of her sexual orientation. “My girlfriend was nice enough to collect some articles on LGBT issues online and print them out for my dad, but he still disagreed,” says Chen.
Unlike most of the LGBT people who spoke with Sixth Tone, Chen remains pessimistic about the prospects of same-sex marriage in China, pointing out that legalization in other countries came only after decades of campaigning. “I don’t think it’ll happen any faster than that in China,” says Chen.
In November, Chen and her partner held a small wedding ceremony in Thailand to celebrate their love. “I don’t care that it isn’t legal,” she says. “I just believe life should be filled with a sense of ritual.”
Eros Li, a 39-year-old from the southern city of Guangzhou, however, has no intention of holding a wedding, even if China decides to allow same-sex marriage. Li has been with his boyfriend for 17 years, and he says a piece of paper won’t affect the way they feel about each other.
“I think marriage is a tool for the government to promote the stability and unity of the country,” says Li. “And many people don’t get married for love anyway.”
Nevertheless, Li is an enthusiastic campaigner for marriage equality. He participated in the civil code consultation and encouraged his friends to do the same — even those afraid of coming out.
“Whether I want to get married or not is different from whether I should have the right to get married,” says Li.
Li doesn’t think the authorities’ recognition of the support for same-sex marriage means it’s rethinking its policy. “The number of responses on this topic was far higher than any other — they just couldn’t avoid mentioning it,” he says.
But the government’s attitude has no effect on him on a personal level, according to Li. He and his partner have good relationships with both sets of parents, and the couple spent the Lunar New Year with Li’s family in the eastern Jiangxi province.
“I take my partner home based on whether my family accepts him, not based on the civil code,” says Li. “Even if we’re not legally accepted yet, as long as my family embraces us, I’m willing to take him home.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A couple admire their wedding rings during a group wedding ceremony for same-sex couples in Wuhan, Hubei province, Jan. 4, 2020. Courtesy of PFLAG)