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    Pass-Fail: China’s Closeted Academics on the Choice to Act Straight

    In a hostile work environment, many gay university teachers lean into marriage as a way to deflect suspicions about their sexualities.

    Late last year, China’s National People’s Congress took activists by surprise when it acknowledged the popularity of a grassroots campaign to write long-taboo same-sex marriages into the country’s civil code.

    For the time being, same-sex couples cannot marry in China. Yet, given the continued social importance of marriage, many LGBT Chinese, whether out of pressure or their own volition, opt to get married in one form or another. In the course of my research into homosexuality in Chinese academia, I interviewed 40 gay male Chinese university teachers. Some of them had entered into “sham marriages” with unwitting heterosexual women, others were involved in so-called marriages of convenience with lesbian women, and at least one had chosen to quietly marry his partner overseas.

    As for what pushes gay teachers to get married, my research found that some used marriage as a way to manage their identities in the workplace. Instead of maintaining a defensive silence regarding their relationship status, they’d display their private lives to others in a conscious performance of heterosexuality.

    One controversial strategy for doing so is to enter a sham marriage with a member of the opposite sex who is unaware of their true orientation. Jin Zhe — all names in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of my interviewees — is a lecturer at a college in East China. He is married to a straight woman and has a child. His boyfriend supports his marriage; his wife doesn’t know he’s gay.

    Jin blamed his situation mainly on family pressure and local customs. “I tried to get married to a lesbian, but it didn’t work out,” he said. “My parents were already very old and anxious to see me get married. In the end, I didn’t have a choice — I let them set me up with a wife.”

    Jin harbors a lot of guilt toward the woman he married: “Our marriage is monotonous, and she doesn’t get much love from me. Although she yearns for more affection, I’m unable to give it to her. By using her as a cover, I’m really hurting her,” he told me.

    For many homosexuals, the “cover” provided by a sham marriage can be useful in a variety of spheres, including the workplace. Being married means Jin no longer has to worry about his superiors and colleagues enthusiastically helping him find a girlfriend — an almost constant problem before his marriage. It also allows him to talk more freely with his colleagues about his private life, including his parenting. Now, he feels he finally has something in common with his co-workers.

    That’s less true at home. Although Jin’s school is far from his house and he finds the commute tiring, he doesn’t want to move: Being closer to his wife and home would only be “more exhausting,” he said. This way, he has an excuse to stay overnight in the teachers’ dormitory.

    “I occasionally choose to sleep somewhere besides home and relax a little bit,” he said. The teachers’ dorm, where he has his own room, is a refuge where he can meet his boyfriend. On the nights Jin spends at the dorm, it’s as though he can finally breathe, he told me.

    Jin was the only teacher I interviewed married to a heterosexual woman. But there may be more gay teachers in sham marriages than this statistic would suggest — some declined my request for an interview. The reasons for their refusal may be varied: the practice of concealing one’s sexual orientation to enter a marriage with a heterosexual woman is condemned both inside and outside the gay community. Gay men who have married straight women also have less freedom of action than others. When Jin uses dating apps or a separate social media WeChat account to interact with other gay men, he has to make sure his wife doesn’t see, and he would only answer my interview questions from the security of his dorm room.

    Other gay teachers opt for a marriage of convenience with a fellow member of the LGBT community. Huang Hui, who also teaches at a college in East China, was briefly married to a straight woman. After their divorce, he became more certain of his homosexuality. A few years ago, he married a lesbian with whom he had a baby through in vitro fertilization. The two live independently in neighboring cities, and Huang occasionally visits his child on holidays.

    Huang chose a marriage of convenience not just to deal with conservative local cultural norms and his colleagues’ suspicions, but also because he had been overlooked for a promotion after his superiors wondered whether his lack of a spouse indicated a personality defect.

    It is worth mentioning that most of the gay teachers I interviewed didn’t feel their marital status would affect their career trajectories, because promotions in education mainly depend on research output. However, for those in largely administrative positions like Huang, not being married can count against them. Members of this group are therefore more cautious about hiding their sexual orientation.

    To cope, Huang compartmentalizes his professional and personal circles and routinely dodges questions about his wife. But he also selectively highlights aspects of his private life: He showed off his marriage certificate on social media, and he and his wife feign intimacy in front of their colleagues.

    Chen Cheng, a lecturer in Central China, uses a similar strategy. His cultural studies courses, which include discussions on homosexuality, are popular among students, but bring scrutiny from university administrators. Chen confided his “not very gay-friendly” work environment forced him into a marriage of convenience “as a cover.”

    For gay teachers like Chen engaged in education and research relating to homosexuality, hiding their true identity is all the more essential. His marriage legitimizes his ostensible heterosexuality, allowing him not only to avoid unnecessary trouble, but also to be able to teach and study gay issues without raising suspicion.

    Most gay teachers would prefer a same-sex marriage, but this, too, is a risky option. Han Wu teaches at a university in North China. He and his husband got married abroad more than 10 years ago and have since had two children through surrogacy. When his colleagues ask him about his marital status, he slyly responds, “Ah, my children are growing up so fast!” He then counts on his interlocutor simply assuming he is heterosexual.

    When applying for his current position, his university department required Han to write the name of his spouse. He figured he didn’t have much of a chance to hide the fact that he had children, so he couldn’t reasonably pretend he was single. In the end, he filled in his husband's information in the “spouse” column, which fortunately didn’t include any information that would reveal the man’s gender.

    Another form, issued by the university administration, posed a greater dilemma: asking for his spouse’s name and ID number, which contains a gender code. Therefore, on all the forms collected by the university — as opposed to his department — Han claimed he was unmarried.

    In the vast majority of cases, same-sex marriages between Chinese citizens carried out overseas are not officially recognized inside the country. As a teacher who has entered a same-sex marriage, Han must constantly assess the risk of being exposed in various contexts before deciding whether to inform people of his marital status.

    Sometimes this means voluntarily giving up Children’s Day gifts and the child care benefits his university provides to married teachers. But even these compartmentalization techniques are not foolproof. At some point, someone may discover the inconsistencies between the information he provided to his university and his department. He also worries his department will wonder why he’s turned down the university’s child-rearing benefits.

    China’s post-secondary education system is still thoroughly heteronormative, and its failure to provide homosexuals with equal benefits constitutes a form of de facto discrimination. I look forward to the day Chinese colleges and other employers provide a more inclusive and equitable environment for their LGBT staff.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: TotalImage/People Visual)