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This weekend marks the Chinese New Year (or the Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, as it’s called across Asia). It’s the Year of the Rooster according to the Chinese zodiac, and to commemorate the festivities, many LGBTQ Asians will return home to their families, not only in China but in other countries like Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, North Korea, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Sadly, many of these queer Asians will closet themselves during their visit; some will even eventually marry a person of the opposite sex. Unlike in America, the Chinese pressure to remain closeted and heterosexually marry doesn’t result from conservative religious values but rather from the enormous sociocultural pressure to wed, have kids and care for parents in their old age. This pressure increases for an older generation of single children born under China’s now relaxed one-child policy, a policy which places parental expectations upon a sole child rather than across many siblings.
A 2016 UN report concluded that 95% of gay Chinese people stay closeted, although other surveys put their estimates lower around 22 to 55%. The closeting phenomenon is so common that in 2015 the China chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) commissioned a seven-minute film entitled Coming Home in which a gay Chinese man closets himself while visiting his parents during Chinese New Year; his parents later reject him after he comes out.
The video—which was crowdfunded and produced for $1,600 and gained 108 million views soon after its release—was aimed towards “increasing awareness of homosexuality in the broader Chinese society.” You can watch it below.
Although China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, being gay remained listed as a mental disorder until 2001. These days, China doesn’t offer legalized same-sex marriage, and mainland clinics use electroshock “conversion therapy” to try and turn LGBTQ people straight (it doesn’t work). The government uses anti-gay textbooks in schools and has banned any depictions of LGBTQ people on TV, categorizing them alongside depictions of incest and sexual abuse. These accompany a nationwide absence of sex education; before the internet, many Chinese people said they could find no information on LGBTQ identities whatsoever.
Activists who work against these trends risk getting labelled as political dissidents, having their communications monitored by government, harassment by police or indefinite imprisonment.
Naturally, remaining closeted and rejected by parents raises rates of stress, mental disorders, suicide, drug abuse and poverty. But China’s closeting culture has another side-effect: The tongqi, the millions of heterosexual women who get married to closeted gay men.
LGBTQ researchers who spoke to Vice estimate that anywhere between 10 to 19 million straight women in China marry gay men; one researcher estimates that 80% of gay men marry straight women. These women are pressured to marry, too, lest they get labelled a shengnu—a “leftover woman” over the age of 30. Some tongqi don’t discover their husbands are gay until they stop having sex with them, catch them in gay affairs or contract an STI from said affairs; one estimate says that 10% of tongqi will commit suicide. In response, tongqi groups have started popping up on social media where women can talk about (and hopefully survive) the ordeal.
Alternately, sometimes gay men and lesbian women will fulfill parent expectations by marrying one another in arrangements known as xingshi hunying (“marriage in form”). The cultural expectations driving these closets and sham marriages aren’t just limited to China but also other Asian countries that celebrate the Lunar New Year, too.
But hope remains. Darrel Cummings, Chief of Staff at the L.A. LGBT Center and founder of the Emerging Leaders Program in China—a six-week, U.S.-based intensive and immersive skills course to help develop up-and-coming Chinese LGBTQ activists and community leaders—said that when he founded the program and visited China nine years ago, there were only a handful of LGBTQ organizations; only one of them was led by an actual paid staff member and none of their lead members were out to their families even though they thought of themselves as movement leaders.
Now, Cummings says, there are LGBTQ organizations all over the country as a new generation of LGBTQ activists and organizations like PFLAG China and The Beijing LGBT Center have begun raising awareness about LGBTQ visibility, politics and philanthropy.
Queer director Fan Popo has created several films—including The Chinese Closet: Being Gay in China and Papa Rainbow, a documentary about fathers of LGBT people in China—and has started traveling around the country, showing his work to community groups and starting conversations about the effects families have on their queer kids. Concurrently, popular social apps like WeChat and Blued, a gay social app founded by a once-closeted Chinese policeman, have also helped China’s gay and bisexual men start connecting with each other and forming support networks to offer love, intimacy and support that can be hard to find offline.