Queering the Chinese Family
May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.
In 2019, a same-sex couple in Beijing made national headlines after successfully filing for mutual “appointed guardianship” in a Chinese court. Appointed guardianship is a legal procedure that grants guardians the power to make crucial decisions regarding medical and personal care, property, and death or funeral arrangements, should the person in their guardianship lose their capacity for civil conduct. Originally implemented to help aging seniors who had lost their only children, a small number of same-sex couples have used appointed guardianship over the last three years to gain limited legal protections in a country where same-sex marriage remains illegal.
Appointed guardianship is far from a perfect solution. The application process is complex and time-consuming, and only a handful of guardianships of any type have been awarded. The legal privileges it offers are also limited and do not extend to property or child custody arrangements. The fact that the arrangement caught on at all speaks to the widespread yearning and willingness among China’s queer communities to creatively imagine non-normative family forms in a society where institutionalized legal protections for members of marginal sexual orientations remain lacking. It also raises questions about what the “queer family” looks like in contemporary China.
In its dominant Western definition, a person’s queer family exists outside their biological family, which is seen as a heteronormative institution. In her classic 1997 book, “Families We Choose,” scholar Kath Weston sketches what was then a typical queer trajectory, from coming out to one’s biological family members, to breaking with them and moving to a queer-friendly city to start a new, self-chosen family with lovers and friends.
Although appealing to some, the liberal focus on “choice” in Weston’s model presupposes a range of cultural, social, political, and economic privileges that many queer Chinese simply do not enjoy. Homosexuality has been de-criminalized and largely de-pathologized in contemporary China, but it nevertheless exists in the shadow of a powerful heterosexism which sees homosexuality, along with other forms of non-heterosexual, non-familial, and non-monogamous sex, as abnormal and morally unacceptable.This strong heterosexist inclination is reflected in the prominence of traditional familism, which, though reticent on the topic of homosexuality, persistently upholds the heterosexual reproductive family as the only acceptable family structure.
Of course, this does not mean that queer families do not exist in China. Quite the contrary, as I point out in my recent book, “Queering Chinese Kinship,” queerness has survived and indeed thrived by creatively negotiating with, and sometimes transforming, the traditional institution of the family. In coming out to their biological families, queer Chinese creatively expand the Confucian family, avoiding direct confrontation with the heteronormative system while making a place for themselves within the context of family values and kinship ties.
A good example is “form marriages,” or xinghun. Essentially contract marriages between gay men and lesbian women, they help LGBT Chinese cope with social stigma and reproductive pressure from their biological families. Viewed through a Western lens, form marriages might look like a simple imitation of heterosexual marriage. But scholars like Shuzhen Huang and Daniel C. Bower have shown how form marriage can be empowering and disruptive, turning the ostensibly heterosexual institution of matrimony into a tool for the survival of homosexual intimacy. And imitation is not necessarily flattery. Form marriages constitute what Judith Butler terms “parodic repetition;” their very existence problematizes marriage as the default reproductive heterosexual institution in China.
In other words, in the absence of legal same-sex marriage protections, form marriages offer a way to embody queer desires within a supposedly heteronormative construct.
Outside of marriage, queer people in China are reworking family values and ideologies to tacitly transform the biological family, expanding it to accommodate queer desires. The queer activist and auteur Fan Popo produced two documentaries — 2012’s “Mama Rainbow” and 2016’s “Pink Dads,” exploring the relationships between homosexual children and their parents. These “queer community documentaries,” as the film scholar Bao Hongwei calls them, are themselves a form of queer activism, in which traditional family structures are re-imagined as elastic and full of possibility.
“Mama Rainbow,” for instance, documents how Chinese mothers come to terms with their children’s sexual orientations. “You have got to accept everything about them since you have brought them to this world,” says Sister Mei, one of the interviewed mothers. “I hope that all parents can accept everything about their children with all their heart and love. [The children] don’t ask for too much. They just need you to accept them. They just need somebody with whom they can pour their hearts out.”
By employing the rhetoric of unconditional parental love, Fan’s work re-imagines the biological family as a possible vessel for enabling queer desires and identities. In this formulation, the self does not hinge on an individualistic understanding of coming out and living one’s truth. Instead, it is formed relationally in a family network that accommodates queerness. The Chinese family, in this sense, can become queer as well — perhaps not in a confrontational or “radical” sense, but in a way that makes space for an alternative path of negotiation and survival.
The current legal, cultural, and social environment in China is far from LGBT-friendly. But the tactics employed by queer Chinese stand testament to the creativity and vitality of queerness. As much as queer people may hope for the legal and social change of same-sex marriage, we should not limit our imagination of the forms queer families can take. A Chinese queer family is already coalescing and, in the process, transforming understandings of what a family is and can be.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: katesea/Getty Creative/VCG)