The Mantle of Secrecy

A study among rural men in Dali prefecture of Yunnan province in southwestern China found that 54.2 % of the subjects surveyed – all of them men having sex with men (MSM) – were married to a woman (Wong/Kong 2007: 851). Also, Cui 2005 shows that ‘nearly 80 percent of the homosexual male population [in China] is either married or intends to marry women’. In this paper, I want to shed light on the (psychological) consequences of these (as will be shown: involuntary) marriages, as well as their causes. Different actors should be looked at: families, society as a whole, and the Chinese government.

It’s ‘a choice between the public and the private, between the sexual activities and the sexual identity, and between “playing gay” or “being gay”’ (Liu 2011: 507). This description of the everyday life lesbian and gay people in China are caught in is probably the most appropriate one. Taking a glimpse at available interview data of MSM shows a tendency for choosing to ‘play gay’. It is seldom that people adopt an (overt) gay identity. Most of them enter heterosexual marriages, ‘mainly as a result of family expectation and societal pressure to marry and have a family’ (ibid.: 498). Still, a survey among Shanghai MSM revealed that ‘[m]any single men hoped to resist family pressure to marry’ and they acknowledge ‘that to get married would be to ruin a woman’s life’ (Zhongxin et al. 2006: 8). Of these urban citizens only a few (approx. 10 per cent) were married. These relationships ‘were characterized by unhappiness, lack of communication, guilt and misgivings’ (ibid.). Among the sample of Zhongxin (2006) only 10 per cent of the interviewees’ natal families knew about their sons’ gay identity. Instead of letting their family members into their secret, MSM rather hide their sexual identity from them and secretly engage in same-sex behavior.

It is not surprising that the high nonacceptance among family members goes along with ‘negative perceptions of their own sexual orientation’ (ibid.: 7) even to the point that interviewees describe it ‘as ‘abnormal’, an indication of mental illness’ (Wong/Kong 2001: 855).

As for their heterosexual friends, ‘almost all respondents [in the urban sample] found it necessary to conceal their gay identity’ (Zhongxin et al. 2006: 8). For the rural sample no data is reported. ‘Several respondents described a tendency to socialize less and less with straight friends as they became more a part of a gay circle’ (ibid.: 9). Still, it also has to be stated that some urban interviewees report about supportive reactions from non-homosexual fellow beings including coworkers and even family members (ibid.) Although both samples expressed positive feelings towards their gay circles, especially because of the social and emotional support (Wong/Kong 2007: 854), the urban sample also reported persisting negative social experiences in these circles (Zhongxin et al. 2006).

Which impact does all this high psychological pressure have on the MSMs’ lives? Some rural interviewees report that ‘there is a real risk that the psychological distress will drive MSM into alcohol use, drug abuse, fighting, or promiscuous sexual behaviours’ (Wong/Kong 2007: 855), thus endangering their psychological and physical well-being. People also report that – trying to escape this psychological pressure – they went through so-called ‘conversion therapy’, a treatment that aims at altering the patients’ sexuality and that is not yet forbidden in China.

Another way homosexual people go in order to escape the obligation to enter a marriage with a partner of the other sex are so-called ‘formality marriages’, arranged weddings between gay and lesbian people. These weddings are arranged between ‘partners’ that find each other via ads posted in online forums (Liu 2011), or on fake-marriage markets (Davidson 2011). In these arrangements ‘both parties would fulfill gender-specific roles such as housekeeper and family caregiver for women and provider for men’ (Liu 2011: 506). Liu (2011) also shows that the majority – namely 60% – of ads posted in an online forum contain offspring plans, with some of them indicating the need to fulfill a domestic duty. Besides coping with the pressure of getting married to an ‘ideal’ partner and raising off-spring, the goal of these Xinghuns is to uphold one’s private homosexual identity without needing to hide it from an eventual spouse. ‘Compared to the other alternatives, it [thus] offers social and health benefits’ which ‘may be the driving force behind the Xinghun relationship behaviors’ (Liu 2011: 508).

Still, there is an opening up towards homosexuality in Chinese society (Cui 2005) and an improvement in the social pressure on gay and lesbian people to, for example, marry.

As Cui (2005) states, this is ‘simply modernity’. Especially young people seem to be more open towards minority sexualities. Apparently, there are also changes concerning the representation of marriage in modern Chinese society. ‘These include late marriage, increasing rates of non-marriage, married people who do not have children and the increasing acceptability of pre-marital sex’ (Zhongxin et al. 2006: 11). Still, these changes might not be true for the country as a whole but might be restricted to large cities or specific social strata, thus excluding different social groups.

In this atmosphere of modernization, Chinese government tries to apply a form of invisibility of gay and lesbian people in the public. It should be kept ‘ignorant of this population and their needs’ (Liu 2011: 497). A clear prohibition of same-sex marriage and so-called ‘propaganda of homosexuality’ partly restrict a public presence of same-sex acts, just like the blockage of ‘any website containing the word “gay”’ (同性恋 – tongxinglian)’ (Mountford 2011: 4). But the possibility of living an overt same-sex life and the retrieval of information about minority sexualities is not predominantly constrained by prohibitions but simply by the absence of beneficial laws.

Due to the ‘three-nos policy [of the Chinese government] – “no approval, no disapproval, no promotion”’ (Zhang 2014: 1020) we cannot find any beneficial laws when it comes to LGBT rights. Especially the situation in the labor sector and the educational sector has a grave impact on gays’ and lesbians’ lives. In the former you cannot find ‘applicable provisions against discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender identity’ under the Chinese Labor Law (Mountford 2011: 5). This makes it easy for LGBT people to be faced with discrimination in the workplace or to lose their jobs simply because of their sexual identity.

The Chinese educational system, moreover, largely ignores homosexuality, and the access to information about HIV/AIDS is rather limited (ibid.: 4).

Still, the time period between the first diagnosis of AIDS in mainland China in 1985 and today brought some ‘attitude change[s] towards ADIS [sic!] patients and homoerotism’ (Zhang 2014: 1017), so as to prevent the further spread of the disease – especially among ‘ordinary people’ (ibid.). Achievements in the legal status of gays and lesbians were thus for example the ‘removal of the crime of hooliganism and sodomy in 1997, under which gay and lesbian were arbitrarily penalized. In 2001, the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders published its new version, which removed the reference of homoerotism as a psychotic disorder’ (Gao 2001 qtd. in Zhang 2014: 1022). Still, the authors argue that some of these achievements ‘should not be exaggerated to be taken as approval of LGBT rights, as it was a very reluctant decision under the AIDS pressure’ (Zhang 2014: 1019).

Regarding the sum of reports, it seems as if the Chinese government neither tries to actively promote nor to restrict LGBT rights. Government reactions endangering human rights are responsive, rather than proactive, to obtain the mantle of secrecy. This mantle is only lifted where it serves the containment of HIV/AIDS.

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