For over 15 years, Tan Zhiliang’s parents refused to let his family spend the country’s most important holiday — Spring Festival, or the Chinese New Year — with them. Old and conservative, Tan’s parents wouldn’t accept their son’s family. Since 2001, Tan, now 46, has been living with his partner, Chen Dezhou, 42, and Chen’s 18-year-old biological son, Jack. But this year, Tan’s parents finally agreed to allow Chen and Jack to celebrate Spring Festival together at their house. Tan thinks the photos of Jack he regularly sends his parents led to their change of heart.
Tan and his family have become minor Internet celebrities in recent years after he set up an account called sannanyizhai, or "three men under one roof," on microblogging platform Weibo in 2009 to blog about his family’s day-to-day life. Tan followed this endeavor with a public content account on social network WeChat in 2013, and the family now has over 50,000 followers across both platforms.
The family’s story has brought hope to many same-sex couples in China who also want to have their own families — an arrangement that to this day is still rare. Traditional beliefs about relationships and families dominate in China, and marriage law expressly forbids same-sex marriages, a fact emphasized by the recent case of Sun Wenlin and his partner, who lost their appeal against the rejection of their marriage registration earlier in April in Changsha, Hunan province.
Tan Zhiliang (right) and Chen Dezhou (left) pose at the rooftop garden of their apartment in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, March 16, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
Chen and Tan first met in 1997, when Chen was a migrant worker at a garment factory in Shunde, a small city 50 kilometers from Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. One weekend in October of that year, Chen was reading magazines in a local bookstore, when he came across an article about a transgender woman. The woman was despised by her family and cheated on by her boyfriend for not being a “real” woman. It resonated with Chen, who was feeling miserable about his marriage, so he penned a letter to the journalist who wrote the article – Tan Zhiliang.
Over the next month, Tan and Chen exchanged more letters and phone calls, sharing the details of their lives. It was clear they had a lot in common, so Chen got on the train to Guangzhou at the end of Nov. 1997, to meet Tan for the first time. Chen confided in Tan that he felt no love for his wife. It was the first time Chen had ever told anyone, and he felt a great weight lift from his shoulders. The only route for young men in the small village Chen grew up in was to get married to a woman as soon as they hit their early 20s. This was a course that Chen, under pressure from those around him, also followed. Chen had already told Tan about the marriage before the two met. But there was one detail Tan wasn’t expecting: Chen’s wife was about to give birth.
Ten days later, Chen’s son was born into a home shared by two people who barely saw each other and who weren’t in love. With Tan on his mind, Chen told his wife that he was gay and in love with Tan. Her calm and composed reaction spoke volumes. “There was no love between us,” Chen says. He moved in with Tan in 1998, while Jack went to live with Chen’s parents. But after Jack badly burned his thigh reaching for a bottle of hot water in 2000, Chen worried that his parents were getting too old to look after Jack, and so he decided it would be safer if Jack moved in with him and Tan.
Initially, Tan started the Weibo and WeChat accounts to share stories about the family’s life together. But he soon realized that what he was doing mattered to other gay people in China. The family’s experiences have brought hope to many gay people who want children for themselves. For Tan, the message he wants to communicate is clear: “Being gay doesn’t mean you can’t have your own family.”
But for most gay couples, having children is complicated. Adoption law in China prohibits applications that violate “social morality,” which includes those submitted by same-sex couples. If a couple is wealthy enough, they can use expensive services in the U.S. that provide surrogacy or in vitro fertilization. In rare cases relatives may let a couple look after their child. Abandoned infants are still a reality in China, and some gay couples might take one home if they happen to see one. But aside from the ethical implications, this is also illegal. The only option for the majority of gay couples in China is to remain childless.
It was 2001 when Tan invited his parents to Guangzhou to see his new apartment. Still in the closet to his parents, he introduced Chen as a friend and Jack as his godson. Naively, Tan thought his parents would be immediately accepting of the arrangement. But Tan’s parents hated the idea of their son raising another person’s child, and urged him to find a woman to marry as soon as possible.
In 2003 Tan’s mother told him to come home and visit a relative. But the order was a ruse, and when Tan arrived home he was confronted by a witch who put a spell on him. Superstitious beliefs are still common in China’s countryside, and Tan’s parents thought he was possessed by a female devil that was preventing him from finding a girlfriend. This was the last straw for Tan, and he told his parents the truth about his sexuality. “I felt the air in the room freeze,” he says.
Tan and Chen live in Guangzhou, but because Tan is vice president of a state-owned media outlet means he spends most of his time in the city of Kunming, Yunnan province. However, the pair decided to live in an affluent suburb of Guangzhou because they think the city is more open-minded. Tan and Chen say that because their neighbors are well-off, they are more accepting of the family. “Jack is active with the other kids in the compound and has never been confronted with awkward questions,” says Chen.
Photos of Tan Zhiliang, Chen Dezhou, and Chen’s biological son Jack, from their apartment in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, March 16, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
Jack doesn’t think his life has been unusual in any way. “I just happen to have one more dad,” he says. Chen and Tan have been able to maintain a degree of anonymity in spite of their popularity on social networks, but they have shied away from some public events in order to protect Jack’s privacy. Now 18, Jack realizes that his life and experiences might help others. “I just want people to know that gay families are as ordinary as other families,” he says.
In reality, Jack has two fathers and one mother. Chen’s wife requested a divorce in 2003, and the split was amicable. Soon after, Chen and Tan helped her move to Guangzhou where, according to Chen, she is free to visit whenever she wants. Chen has a child in Jack, and he financially supports his family — the two main demands his parents had of him. Because of this, Chen’s family has been accepting of his relationship. “My job as a son is done,” he says.
Tan’s relationship with his own parents didn’t improve after he came out to them. In the years following, he lied to his parents, saying he had broken up with Chen. He pretended to date a lesbian friend, even going as far as to consider a sham marriage with her. But deep inside, Tan knew he couldn’t go through with it.
In January 2016, Tan posted about the changing relationship with his parents on the sannanyizhai public WeChat account. For the first time ever, he shared a post from that account on his personal WeChat feed, where all of his contacts could read it. Tan was incredibly nervous: He was lifting the lid on his double life and coming clean about his sexual orientation. He even worried that he might lose his job.
But Tan’s post received tens of thousands of views and comments of support, including many from close friends and colleagues. Despite the support of people in wider society, Tan was made to wait by his own parents. “It took them 15 years to finally accept my family.”
The English name “Jack” has been used to protect the true identity of Tan and Chen’s son at their request.
(Header image: Tan Zhiliang (left) and Chen Dezhou (right) sit at the rooftop garden of their apartment in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, March 16, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone)