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    Love in the Lowlands as a Muslim Lesbian Tomboy

    Two lesbians from traditional families must decide whether to move abroad or return home and find husbands.

    My girlfriend has decided that she needs to marry a man. We’ve been together for eight years, but she still thinks of us as a living dream. Once Gulnur finishes her postgraduate studies in Shanghai next year, it will be time to wake up, return to her hometown, and find a man.

    In the meantime, we will continue to see each other every week. In some ways, I think it wouldn’t be so bad if she could have a happy, stable life with a man. It could be a different sort of joy from this love — pure, rich, but always overshadowed by fear and secrecy. And yet, our hearts have already grown together. The pain will be sharp if we try to cut them apart now.

    We met in senior middle school in 2005. We’re both Muslims from Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. I’m one of the Kazak people from the mountainous north, which borders Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia, while Gulnur comes from a Uyghur family of farmers in the center of the region.

    We both moved to China’s northeastern coast as adolescents to study at a top boarding school, as part of a government-sponsored program for high-achieving students from ethnic minorities. Most of the students were Uyghur, and I came to learn their language alongside Mandarin and my mother tongue. This is why Gulnur and I always speak Uyghur. I once asked her why she hasn’t learned to speak Kazak, and she said that she has got used to me speaking her language, and so that’s the way it is.

    I’ve known since primary school that I’m a lesbian. I had a crush on my homeroom teacher when I was 11 years old. In China, tomboy lesbians are referred to as “T,” while the feminine counterparts are called “P.” I’ve always been a T, but for Gulnur, a P, it wasn’t something she was conscious of before we got together. She has always said that she was just a “typical straight girl” who fell for me.

    We shared a room at boarding school. It was common for the schoolgirls to grow close and write each other letters bursting with adolescent feeling. I would bring Gulnur cups of tea and look after her when she was sick. I don’t think she really thought anything of it until I kissed her. We were 17 then, and she was reluctant and even fearful at first. She had grown up in a conservative, religious family, always knowing that her future would involve a husband and children. As the only child in her family to make it out East to boarding school, she had big dreams, but she had never imagined a relationship with a woman was possible.

    Soon we were spooning every night in our narrow bunks. We never told anyone, but we shared the room with four other girls, so they must have known. Then we both came to Shanghai for university, and somehow eight years passed. Our lives have grown more entwined with time. I guess I bent a straight girl.

    Neither of us are out to our parents. I’ve been afraid of being found out ever since I was young, and I’ve always dreaded reaching an age old enough to get married. I know I couldn’t stand to be with a man. I used to tell my parents that I was too busy studying to date, and so they never really forced the issue. But now that I’m 26 and finished with my master’s, they’ve started asking more. They want me to come home to the highlands, but I don’t think I can return.

    There’s an amazing lesbian social scene in Shanghai, while back in Xinjiang even the T’s have to wear their hair long. The pressure is intolerable. You may be able to steal an hour here or there to go to a secret bar, but you’ll always feel the weight of your parents watching over your shoulder. Your days aren’t your own. My gay and lesbian friends back home have been beaten up, and some have even taken their own lives.

    So instead I’m continuing eastward. To me, the only way forward is to get out of here. At the moment I’m studying Japanese and getting ready to move to Japan later this year. I already have a great job waiting for me, but I mostly just want to escape these awkward questions about my love life. Gulnur won’t be joining me. 

    Besides, Gulnur really feels she owes it to her parents to get married. At one point, she considered a marriage of convenience with a gay Uyghur doctor we know, but she decided it was too risky. It’s not just about a piece of paper. Uyghur marriage traditions are elaborate, and the two families would become intertwined. It needs to be real.

    Our cultures are quite different even though we’re both Muslims. Kazak ways aren’t as strict. We celebrate the major Islamic holidays, but we rarely go to the mosque or perform ritual prayers. I have actually never even learned how to recite the verses. We know we’re Muslims, but it’s different from the Middle East, as our beliefs have been mixed with elements of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and shamanism since ancient times. We retain parts of our own culture and customs from before Islam was introduced to the region. But we absolutely believe in the power of God, even if we don’t do everything by the book.

    Uyghurs are much more observant. Gulnur’s parents neither smoke nor drink, they recite prayers three times a day, and they go to the mosque every Friday. But while they have conservative attitudes about marriage and family, they’re actually extremely supportive of her studying on the other side of the country. She’s the eldest and most successful of their three children, and they hope to see her go as far as she can in her life and career. In that regard, they’re actually more permissive than my parents, who always worry about me living in Shanghai.

    Gulnur often speaks of me to her family. She’s certain they’d never guess we were more than friends. Last year we went to visit her parents at their Xinjiang farm, where they grow wheat and cotton. Her mother is so kind and hospitable, and she always asks about me when she calls Gulnur. But I can’t even say Gulnur’s name to my parents. I’m always scared I’ll let it slip somehow, that my face will give away my true feelings. A stutter or a blush may be enough to reveal the truth.

    It’s only recently that I’ve untangled myself from the expectations of my parents and society, and come to accept myself. I’ve developed my understanding of Islam, and my faith has deepened. I feel God is with me. Being gay doesn’t bring harm to others; you can be gay and believe in Allah. Contradictions only exist when people go out of their way to find them. My faith brings me solace. Before I do anything, I will say “bismillah,” which in English translates to “In the name of God.” It’s a statement of gratitude and a commitment to act with integrity and authenticity.

    Gulnur has similar views, but she isn’t as resolute as I am. And she’s not scared to marry a man, whereas I flinch to even think of it. She’s more anxious that she’ll never find a guy who will love her the way I do, with such tenderness and determination. I’ll always remember when she told me, “I feel like a free bird in your arms.” But no matter how much our love endures, she can’t accept the idea of building a life together.

    When I was very young, I would often stay with my aunt when my parents were busy with work. She raised cows and deer in the Altai Mountains, near the border with Russia. The deer horns were ground and sold for traditional Chinese medicine. Sometimes my siblings and I would climb the mountain, picking and eating strawberries.

    It was a pure and majestic place. Birds dazzled an endless sky. In winter, when the mountain was thick with snow, my aunt would make skis for us to glide down the slopes. Quiet evenings were punctuated by the howls of wolves.

    That scene is only a memory now. Mining and logging have destroyed much of the mountain’s ecosystem, and the wildlife that made up so much of my childhood is gone. A lot has changed. When I was in primary school, all of my classes were in my mother tongue. These days, the children growing up now are losing fluency in Kazak, especially in literacy.

    Land, language, and love. I’m familiar with loss and compromise. I know that Gulnur is facing a difficult and unwanted decision. I’ll understand if she chooses to marry: There is no choice, really. Where we were born, our orientation — we didn’t choose these things. But I can’t add to the pressure by forcing her into anything. She has to choose me, just as I chose her. That’s the only path to happiness.

    (As told to Sixth Tone’s Qian Jinghua.)

    (Header image: Enrique R. Aguirre Aves/VCG)