Gay Marriage Comes to China, Sort of.

When "John", a lawyer in his thirties married "Xiaodan" a year ago, they had a traditional Chinese marriage ceremony celebrated by friends and family.  But there was one critical difference.    Both John and Xiaodan are already in long-term relationships with same-sex partners and their marriage was essentially organized to please their parents. 

While same-sex marriage is still illegal in China, more and more gays and lesbians are turning towards what is known as "cooperative marriages" to get around the social and legal barriers they often face.  “In our culture, a person who doesn’t get married will be considered to be disobedient towards their parents,” John stated.    

Despite being a marriage of convenience, both John and Xiaodan spared no expense and had many of the trappings associated with a real marriage ceremony.   John's partner acted as his best man while Xiaodan's partner was her maid of honour.   They even have the wedding pictures in an album to be shown to visitors and Xiaodan takes great pleasure in looking at them.  Their own long-time partners attended the ceremony and had one of their own a week later.

The marriage contract between John and Xiaodan covers the elaborate financial details that comes with maintaining two households, one for John and his partner and one for Xiaodan and her partner.   Since they eventually hope to have children through artificial insemination, the contract also covers issues such as child support.

These kind of cooperative marriages have become extremely popular in China with matchmaking services and apps to help prospective brides and bridegrooms find each other.  One service,, boasts more than 45,700 successful marriages.  

Both John and Xiaodan described how they responded to parental pressure to get married.   Unmarried Chinese men and women face intense scrutiny and their parents often endure constant questions about when their children will marry and have children.  “Sitting around the table, everyone asks, ‘When did your daughter start dating? When will she get married?’” Xiaodan says. “It’s a constant comparison: Who has a baby first? Whose grandchild does better in school? Whose child earns more money? I only run into these people once in a while. But for my parents, they are always in this environment.”

While LGBT activists recognize that China's one-child policy has heightened pressure on only children to carry on the family line, they are divided on whether cooperative marriage is really the answer.   While preferable to the old-style "sham" marriage in which gay or lesbian partners keep their true sexual preference a secret,  some activists suggest that cooperative marriages are nothing more than a "poison pill" solution.

“If people decide to disappear into these marriages of convenience, it’s only going to acquiesce to the status quo of stigma here in China,” says Steven Bielinski, an American gay rights advocate and the founder of Shanghai LGBT Professionals.   “By entering into these marriages, it’s reinforcing heterosexual marriage, heterosexual identity, as the only acceptable, normative, positive lifestyle for people.”

According to Xiaodan, it would likely take decades for social attitudes to the point of allowing same-sex marriages to be fully recognized.   In the meantime, cooperative marriages continue to provide the appearance of traditional marriage though the reality is very different.  While there are signs that attitudes are changing in younger generations,  gay men such as John and lesbians such as Xiaodan have little choice but to celebrate their love as discreetly as possible.

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