Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

In China, activists fight for gay marriage

By Steven Jiang, CNN
June 30, 2013 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wu Yebin and An Wei live in rural China where homosexuality remains largely taboo
  • They dream of seeing same-sex marriage becoming legal in China one day
  • Homosexuality not illegal in China, long-removed from official list of "mental disorders"
  • Activists and experts agree that prejudices and discrimination persist

Shangfang Village, China (CNN) -- With arms around each other's shoulders, Wu Yebin and An Wei strolled past rows of food booths and game stalls along the main road cutting through their small village in northern China one recent Friday morning.

Looking like two buddies soaking in the sights and sounds of the village fair, the young men wearing matching rings blended in perfectly with the local crowd. Their story, however, stands out: They are an openly gay couple living in the Chinese countryside, where homosexuality remains largely taboo.

"They sought medical treatment for me and hired a shaman to exorcise me," recalled Wu of his family's reaction when he came out. "I had to comply -- but at the same time I found information on homosexuality online and shared with them.

"The more they learned, the more accepting they became," he added.

It took his parents several years to come around, but Wu and An -- who had met online and quickly fallen in love -- now live together and run a roadside convenience store next to the Wu family home in rural Hebei province.

As news of advancements in gay rights in other countries spreads, the two partners in life and business have been thinking more about cementing their own relationship.

READ: Historic ruling for same-sex couples in U.S.

"I hope to see same-sex marriage become legal in China one day," An, 32, said. "We'll go get the license right away to enjoy all the rights like married straight couples."

Sometimes we have to take to the streets to raise the visibility of our cause. It stirs discussion and debate, which could eventually lead to more understanding and acceptance.
Xiaogang Wei, gay rights advocate

"It's going to happen," Wu, 29, chimed in. "I bet next year."

Not everyone is so optimistic though. A lesbian couple in Beijing recently saw their marriage application rejected by local officials and video of their futile attempt made the rounds on the Internet.

Activists also complain about periodic government crackdowns, citing a recent case in May. In the central city of Changsha, a 19-year-old activist leading a street rally against homophobia was jailed for 12 days. Local police accused him of "holding an illegal protest" in a statement.

READ: What's next for gay rights movement?

"They aren't just targeting gay groups," said Xiaogang Wei, a prominent gay rights advocate who heads the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute. "The authorities are increasingly worried about the organizational capability of various rights groups, especially when we band together, because it could challenge their political power.

"Sometimes we have to take to the streets to raise the visibility of our cause," he added. "It stirs discussion and debate, which could eventually lead to more understanding and acceptance."

Homosexuality is not illegal in China and the Communist government has long removed it from the official list of mental disorders, but activists and experts agree that prejudices and discrimination persist.

"Gay people still can't make their voices heard and they have no representation in the legislature," said Li Yinhe, a renowned sociologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Science.

In China, LGBT citizens seek acceptance

Li conducted China's first comprehensive surveys on gay men and published her findings in a popular 1992 book. For more than a decade, she has been calling on national legislators to legalize same-sex marriage but sees a prolonged uphill battle ahead.

"This is an issue affecting a minority group and ranks really low on the government's agenda," she said.

Opposition to a different kind of "gay marriage," however, has become a priority for many activists. Unlike in the West, experts say the vast majority of gay people in China -- especially men -- stay in the closet and marry the opposite sex.

Noting the lack of hostility toward homosexuality throughout Chinese history, Li explains that the Confucian concept of carrying on the family line is "the only thing akin to religion in traditional Chinese culture.

"That's why so many gay men are put under tremendous pressure to get married and have children, especially in the countryside."

Gay people still can't make their voices heard and they have no representation in the legislature.
Li Yinhe, sociologist

An had three girlfriends and almost tied the knot with the last one. Wu was married to a woman for 40 days -- and regrets have dogged him since.

"Sometimes when I lie on bed, I think of my ex-wife and still feel guilty," he said, recalling how much she cried during their brief sexless marriage. "My momentary lapse of judgment ruined her life: Even though I never touched her, it'd be hard for her to find an ideal husband as a divorcee."

State media has cited one estimate putting the number of Chinese women married to gay men at more than 10 million. Sociologist Li calls those unions "tragedies" and has counseled many women in such marriages.

While a nationwide support network has emerged to help so-called "gay wives" -- or "tongqi" in Chinese -- break free, observers note a small but growing number of young gay men in big cities marrying lesbians to placate families and maintain their lifestyles at the same time.

Wu and An are no fans of such arrangements, and predict personal and financial complications.

After he met An, Wu started tweeting on Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter with more than 300 million users. By telling his own story and re-posting news on global gay rights campaigns, Wu hopes to inspire more closeted gay Chinese to come out.

Remembering his own days of feeling lonely, helpless and even suicidal, Wu points to his experience as evidence of progress and hope in gay acceptance in China -- even in the most unlikely families and places.

Back at the village fair, Wu and An -- whose rural hometown has no cinemas let alone gay bars -- paused for a "face-changing" opera performance as an actor quickly switched colorful masks on stage without revealing his identity.

After cheering the entertainer, the two young men who have taken off their "masks" in real life moved on to buy groceries as meat and vegetable sellers greeted them as old friends.

"Many people say they admire us -- they say we did something amazing," Wu said. "We are just two ordinary people who came out to our families so that we can live with our loved ones."

And maybe one day, get married.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0153 GMT (0953 HKT)
China is building an island in the South China Sea that could accommodate an airstrip, according to IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1057 GMT (1857 HKT)
North Korean refugees face a daunting journey to reach asylum in South Korea, with gangs of smugglers the only option.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 2319 GMT (0719 HKT)
China and "probably one or two other" countries have the capacity to shut down the nation's power grid and other critical infrastructure.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1039 GMT (1839 HKT)
It'd be hard to find another country that has spent as much, and as furiously, as China on giving its next generation a head start.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0532 GMT (1332 HKT)
In 1985, Meng Weina set up China's first private special needs school in the southern city of Guangzhou.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
Despite China's inexorable economic rise, the U.S. is still an indispensable ally, especially in Asia. No one knows this more than the Asian giant's leaders, writes Kerry Brown.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 0338 GMT (1138 HKT)
For the United States and China to announce a plan reducing carbon emissions by almost a third by the year 2030 is a watershed moment for climate politics on so many fronts.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 2026 GMT (0426 HKT)
China shows off its new stealth fighter jet, but did it steal the design from an American company? Brian Todd reports.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0101 GMT (0901 HKT)
Airshow China in Zhuhai provides a rare glimpse of China's military and commercial aviation hardware.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
A new exchange initiative aims to bridge relations between the two countries .
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0551 GMT (1351 HKT)
Xi and Abe's brief summit featured all the enthusiasm of two unhappy schoolboys forced to make up after a schoolyard dust-up.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
Maybe you've decided to show your partner love with a new iPhone. But how about 99 of them?
November 3, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
Can China's Muslim minority fit in? One school is at the heart of an ambitious experiment to assimilate China's Uyghurs.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of thousands of Americans learning Chinese.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 0500 GMT (1300 HKT)
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he needs to maintain good economic ties with China while trying to keep Beijing's push for reunification at bay.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 0528 GMT (1328 HKT)
Chinese drone-maker DJI wants to make aerial photography drones mainstream despite concerns about privacy.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 0518 GMT (1318 HKT)
A top retired general confesses to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in war on corruption.
ADVERTISEMENT