As China’s Schools Reopen, LGBT Families Feel Pride — and Prejudice
Before his son started school last year, Su Ge spent weeks researching kindergarten options in the eastern city of Nanjing. After much deliberation, he selected the most expensive one. He believed it was perfect for his son — a surrogate child raised by two gay men.
Compared with the other choices, Su says teachers in this private kindergarten are relatively younger, mostly in their 20s, and even include two gay teachers who’d give his son extra care and ensure he wouldn’t face discrimination.
“We were still a bit worried at first,” Su tells Sixth Tone. “We didn’t participate in parent-child activities together, and we invited teachers to eat at my restaurant to establish a good relationship with them.”
With the new semester for schools beginning Sept. 1 across China, Sixth Tone found same-sex couples and their children having to grapple with additional challenges that emerge as early as kindergarten admissions: from a 41-year-old gay man who plans to identify himself at school only as a single parent, to a lesbian mother who moved to Hong Kong for her son, and a 22-year-old who, when younger, said he has a biological father and a “godfather.”
Su, now 40, and his 34-year-old boyfriend had their son through surrogacy in Thailand four years ago. They were clear about what he’d face when starting school and figured the major question would be about “the mother.”
To prepare him, they invited a close female friend to stay with them for a year when their son was 2. “He called her ‘mama’ and he tells people he has two dads and one mom,” Su says. “Luckily, no one has asked more questions that could hurt his feelings.”
But Lei Yu, a 41-year-old gay man, prefers a different approach. As a single parent, he has no plans to hide their surrogate mother, a Thai woman, from his son. Their trip to Thailand was canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but Lei says he keeps in touch with her. “The baby should know his mother, who brought him into the world,” he says.
And to prepare his 1-year-old son for kindergarten, Lei has introduced him to a picture book “The Great Big Book of Families” by Mary Hoffman. “I want to plant this idea in him that families vary — some have two fathers, some have two mothers, some are made up of more than five members.”
Living in the southern city of Dongguan in Guangdong province, Lei is optimistic about the public’s tolerance toward the LGBT community but says he won’t come out to teachers, since sex education and inclusive education are lacking in Chinese schools. He worries teachers will treat his son differently if they knew his family background. “A child should not be exposed to these negative pressures,” he says.
Last year, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that there were 191,000 children living with same-sex parents. In China, however, there’s no such data. But Hu Zhijun, director of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the nation’s largest LGBT organization, estimated there are 100,000 same-sex families, including single gay and lesbian parents raising children, in the country.
Many members of the LGBT community have started families over the last four to five years, assisted by a growing underground network of surrogacy agencies in China. There are now dozens of such agencies nationwide, and demand for their services is skyrocketing.
According to Eros Li, sales director of a Guangzhou-based surrogacy and assisted reproduction agency, there are currently about 50 players targeting Chinese LGBT groups. Since it was established in 2018 after a surge in same-sex couples longing to become parents, Li says the number of their clients from the LGBT community has risen significantly, from about 200 in 2018 to nearly 400 last year.
It is this generation of same-sex couples now looking at school admissions. Dong Xiaoying, director of the nonprofit organization Advocates for Diverse Family Network, says since surrogacy is still new in China, most children raised by same-sex couples have just started kindergarten. “They are all exploring their own ways to deal with this situation,” she says.
According to her research, some LGBT parents introduced a fake opposite-sex spouse to the teacher, while some said they were single parents, and others maintained their child has two fathers or two mothers. “All this confuses the teachers as well,” Dong says.
Tommy Tan, his boyfriend Joe Chen, and their son Jack are considered role models and an inspiration for many same-sex families in China. The couple fell in love in 1997 in the southern city of Guangzhou, and when Jack was born to Chen’s wife shortly after, the two decided to raise him together. Chen and his wife divorced in 2003.
Since 2009, Tan has been posting stories of “three men under one roof” on social media and has attracted over half a million fans. He created a WeChat group for same-sex parents in China in 2016 when surrogacy was just beginning to emerge in the LGBT community. Over 100 families joined the group within a few weeks.
“The original intention of the group was that when their children grew up, they’d know they weren’t the only ones born through surrogacy in the world and that they’re not freaks of unknown origin,” 50-year-old Tan tells Sixth Tone.
Same-sex couples have been increasingly willing to have children through surrogacy over the past few years, Tan says. Thus, it’s crucial to make plans and prepare for foreseeable difficulties regarding their children’s school lives.
“In China, currently, schools and education bureaus don’t see it as an urgent issue, in part because the proportion of same-sex families willing to speak out in public is so small that teachers have no idea about it,” says Hu, PFLAG’s director.
Incidentally, some Western countries have taken measures to support children from same-sex families and their parents. In 2019, France voted in favor of an amendment replacing “mother” and “father” with “parent 1” and “parent 2” at schools to avoid excluding same-sex parents.
The same year, the U.K. issuedcompulsory relationship education lessons, with the then-education minister, Damian Hinds, commenting that he “strongly” encouraged primary school teachers to discuss with children that there are all sorts of“different, strong, and loving families,” including families with same-sex parents.
But Hu is pessimistic about the promotion of diversified family education in Chinese schools and society. “Campuses should have led the way in supporting diversity, but at present, it may be in a more backward state,” he says. He is worried the introduction of multiple concepts in school education will concern parents and give rise to opposition. “They are still wary,” he says, adding that his own brother wouldn’t want him to talk about LGBT issues with his teenage nephew.
Dong, the nonprofit director, says when she first started research in 2015, few in China’s LGBT community were willing to share stories about their children born abroad. “But now it seems common,” she says.
For Dong, the public’s understanding of the concept of diversified families is in its infancy and enlightenment stage. “They know more or less about same-sex marriage, but they probably don’t know that diversified families include single-parent families, single-person families, gay families, and other forms,” she says.
Dong also hopes to popularize the knowledge of family diversity in kindergartens and schools. She believes that in addition to nongovernmental organizations, the government should take the lead in carrying out public education on this issue. That effect, she says, would be “very good.”
Tan believes as society progresses, along with the growing influence of the internet, people will better understand diversity and become more accepting.
However, some will still express misunderstandings, opposition, discrimination, and even hostility due to religion or personal preference. “So even if I’m cautiously optimistic about the spread of social pluralism, parents of same-sex families still need to learn to deal with their family problems on their own, especially the relationship between their children and the outside world,” he says.
He recalls when his son was in primary school in the 2000s, he specially instructed teachers to think more about children from single-parent and other diverse families when asking students to write the composition “My Mother” or making gifts for Mother’s Day.
“I suggested in advance that they could expand the scope by allowing children to write about any female member of the family or dedicate the gift to any relative who is a mother,” he says. “All the teachers understood my intention and cooperated well.”
But for some, being a parent has led them to switch job and move to another city, such as with Li, a lesbian woman who asked to be identified only by her surname to protect her privacy. Born and raised in Guangdong, she was a police officer in Shenzhen and gave birth to her son Andy in Hong Kong in 2013 through assisted reproductive technology.
Considering its better development and educational environment, she eventually moved to Hong Kong with Andy when he was 2.
“In Hong Kong, people hardly spread gossip as everyone is busy making a living, while in Shenzhen, housewives chatter whenever they have a moment,” she says. Though some know about Andy’s family, “they don’t care too much, as there are all kinds of families in Hong Kong and a same-sex family is nothing new.”
Li has been honest with 7-year-old Andy about her sexuality. Whenever Li encounters news or TV shows about the LGBT community, she tells her son directly: “There are many kinds of love in the world — he can love him, she can also love her, as long as they love each other.”
They live with Li's girlfriend and her 11-year-old daughter. They call Li “mama” and her girlfriend “mammy.” Sometimes, the four of them cuddle together when watching TV, and the couple doesn’t mind kissing in front of their children.
“Our kids have never said it’s strange to live with two mothers,” says 32-year-old Li. “Nor have they experienced any discrimination because of this at school.”
Li adds that Andy’s school provides sex education courses for parents and underscores respect for every individual. Despite going slowly, sex education has been promoted in the Chinese mainland as well. Experts believe it provides an opportunity to teach children the concept of diversified families.
Tao Jianli has been teaching sex education courses in the eastern province of Zhejiang since 2018 and, since then, has tutored at least 3,000 children, mostly aged 6-11. In the section titled “family responsibility sharing,” Tao guides children through photos of single parents, left-behind children, and same-sex families. When they see pictures of two men or two women in the family, some children say they are same-sex siblings or friends, while others know about the LGBT community.
“Family come in various forms, and a same-sex family is one of them,” she tells young children. “They are not inferior to heterosexual families.” Though China made sexual and reproductive health education part of the school curriculum in 2011, the subject remains poorly taught. This has forced parents to resort to extracurricular cram schoolsto educate their children better in the facts of life.
Tao thinks the reason many LGBT parents do not take the initiative to come out to their children’s teachers is because surrogacy is still a gray area in China, and they prefer to avoid unnecessary trouble. “It also shows that society is still ignoring the rights and interests of these pluralistic families, so they can’t present themselves in their true identities,” she says.
But Tao believes it is a process. Sex education is slowly gaining ground, which is progress, and the popularization of inclusive education will also improve. “We can only do our best. For example, I will tell my children to respect diversity and not discriminate. This will slowly condense into a force.”
Jack Chen, Tan’s son, is currently studying in the U.S., where he shows the public WeChat account managed by Tan to his Chinese classmates. They all show support. Back in China, though, students rarely pressed him for information about his two fathers, and when they did ask, he explained that one is his biological father and the other is the “godfather.”
Chen, now 22, says he’s proud of his fathers for being role models for those in the LGBT community hoping to start a family and become parents. Whenever he is available, he shares his experience of being raised by two gay men. He says: “If children (from same-sex families) are bullied, it’s important to make sure they understand that their fathers or mothers love them and will stand by them.”
Contributions: Wu Ziyi.
(Header image: Ding Yining/Sixth Tone, icons fromIconscout/People Visual)