Clutching a photograph of his son, Michael boarded a flight from Shanghai to Beijing for a tough conversation. After dinner with his parents, he solemnly called a meeting and admitted to a secret he had been keeping for years: He was gay. Then out spilled another: They had a grandchild.
Despite having lived with his same-sex partner for eight years, Michael had never come out to his family. In 2013, after the couple was established at work and settled at home, they decided to have a child through surrogacy. For the first few months after their son was born, they made do with a nanny, but it soon became clear they were in over their heads. Finally, Michael, the child’s biological father, worked up the courage to have the talk with his parents — and ask them for help.
Immediately after breaking the news, Michael showed them a photo of their grandson. His parents were shocked and peppered him with questions like “Are you sure the child is really yours?” and “You’re not lying to us again, are you?” But as Michael recalls, his plan had a perk: Compared with the revelation that they had a grandkid, his parents didn’t have much time to worry about his sexual orientation. A week later, they moved down from Beijing to help.
If the main obstacle to LGBT acceptance in the United States or other Western countries is religious conservativism, LGBT Chinese face a different challenge. Conservative cultural expectations and patriarchal norms dictating children to carry on the family line have long been the main source of pressure on China’s gay community, including those living outside China’s borders. In an attempt to alleviate this pressure, many enter into potentially harmful “sham” marriages with heterosexuals. Others contract paper marriages with homosexuals of the opposite sex.
More than a third of the respondents in my study either had been in or were still in paper marriages — a number that doesn’t include sham marriages. Yet matrimony on its own isn’t enough. LGBT Chinese are still expected to produce children.
But while doing so may not completely alleviate the pressures on the parent-child relationship, these tensions often transform with the arrival of a grandchild. The birth gives the oldest generation a new target on which to project its anxieties, and the family a new, shared purpose: Ensuring the infant doesn’t fall behind in the country’s cutthroat competition for social, educational, and economic resources.
After a brief burst of individualism in the 1980s, the Chinese multigenerational family has been recodified in recent years, as economic uncertainty and the lack of a social safety net has pushed families back together for mutual support and assistance. Add to that the effects of the country’s family planning policies — which greatly increased elder generations’ material and emotional investment in their only child — and one gets what anthropologist Yan Yunxiang once termed a kind of “descending familism.”
Much as Yan described, children are now the focal point for both their parents and two sets of grandparents. As such, they attract the lion’s share of a family’s attention, affection, and material support. In a reversal of the traditional family norm, the emphasis of a family is no longer on the ancestors, but on the grandchildren, with family resources — including intergenerational care resources — flowing downward.
This is just as much the case for same-sex families as it is for their heterosexual peers. For same-sex couples, however, the new focus on grandkids can create unexpected room for negotiation with their parents, while providing opportunities for new kinds of family relationships.
Like Michael, many of those I interviewed during my research chose to come out to their parents after having children. Born in the countryside, Liangliang came out when his son was 2 years old. “He was calling out ‘Grandpa, Grandma” and I said to them (my parents) ‘Let’s cook something for him.’ While they prepared the meal, I called my husband and told him to come over. It felt like the natural time for us to come out.”
I also encountered the mother of a lesbian woman in a paper marriage with a gay man. After learning the husband had no intention of having children, the mother suggested his partner donate sperm, and they reached an arrangement that resulted in the birth of a baby girl. The woman’s daughter and granddaughter now live with her and her husband, while the daughter’s now ex-husband and his partner visit from time to time.
Although this tactic doesn’t work for everyone, parents’ concerns over their children’s sexual orientation often pale next to their desire to be part of their grandkids’ lives. Just like any other family, the two sides sometimes argue over how to raise the next generation, but family relations typically improve after the child comes out.
And compared with the tense in-law relationships found in many heterosexual families, I found members of same-sex couples generally got along better with their in-laws, who sometimes rationalized their child’s choice of partner by thinking of the new addition to the family as an adopted son or daughter.
Haiping, the lesbian daughter mentioned above, told me her parents didn’t really know what to call her same-sex partner. “As far as my parents are concerned, they had a daughter, so they can’t conceive of also having a daughter-in-law,” she said. “They also think this girl (Haiping’s partner) hasn’t had it easy, right? And they think she’s quite dutiful, too, like another daughter. For them, what’s so bad about having another daughter? So they’re quite happy.”
In playing an active role in caring for their grandchildren, grandparents can also help their grandchild better integrate into the surrounding environment. As one lesbian parent put it: As far as neighbors, schoolteachers, or those at kindergarten are concerned, if it’s the grandparents who are taking care of the grandchildren, who will even notice they come from families with same-sex parents?
In short, my research suggests that, once procreation is out of the way, the sexual orientation of one’s children — whatever it might be called and however it is shown — does not seem to overly trouble their parents. The growing emphasis on grandchildren within Chinese families means their arrival tends to overshadow the personal demands of other family members.
Set in this context, the acceptance of same-sex orientation by families in China after meeting childbearing expectations seems less a victory of purely individual rights, but more importantly a victory for the overall interests of the family.
This runs both ways. In recent years, parents have grown vocal through organizations like PFLAG China, publicly expressing support for their LGBT children in the media and via public welfare events. Because of the particular legitimacy of the family in Chinese society, this sort of advocacy is viewed as less extreme by the government than some Western tactics, possibly allowing the LGBT community more space to push for their goals.
Clarifying the complex role of family in the lives of LGBT Chinese is crucial to understanding the country’s LGBT movement. Changing family norms challenge stereotypes of conservative parents and their children. In an unexpected yet understandable way, parents of LGBT children are acting as caregivers in the home and bridges to the country’s heteronormative mainstream outside of it.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visual elements from People Visual, re-edit by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)