Sham marriages for Shanghai's gay community
- 16 November 2010
- From the section Asia-Pacific
What kind of a lie is acceptable to keep your parents happy?
In a Shanghai restaurant, a wedding is under way.
It looks real. There is a cake, champagne and dozens of guests, but the whole thing is a sham. The groom is gay. The bride is a lesbian.
The scene is recorded on a wedding video their parents - unaware of the arrangement - treasure as a record of the day.
The groom, Kevin, was living with his boyfriend when, to please his mother and father who do not know he is gay, he decided to find a wife.
"I love my parents," he says, "and they were getting a lot of pressure from neighbours and relatives. Often they would ask my parents: 'How about your son, did he get married?'"
To Chinese parents, securing a match for their son or daughter as they approach the end of their 20s is a priority.
Often they will take part in the process, whether that involvement is welcomed or not.
In Shanghai at the weekend, in a city centre park, some even gather for a "marriage market" where they meet with other parents to advertise their offspring's qualities in the hope of finding them a suitable match.
Hu Baolin's son got married earlier this year in Sichuan.
"As parents, it is our duty to get them married," he said. "As parents we need to do that... As people get older, women or men, they should all be married.
"Once marriage is done, they can concentrate on their career," he adds.
His son is straight. But for Kevin, the gay groom in Shanghai, the dilemma was how to give his parents the wedding they wanted.
He went on the internet and posted a message on a newsgroup where gay men and lesbians contact each other to try to find partners to marry.
He left his MSN address. Two or three women got in touch and they chatted for a while. With one, it felt right.
For three months, they got to know each other. Then they got married.
There was a banquet for both families that, Kevin says, made him very nervous, so nervous in fact he forgot the ring.
"It felt just like a show," he says. "I felt a little guilty towards my parents, and hers too."
But is it really the best option for young men in his position?
His friend, Nemo, is considering whether to follow his lead.
"A friend of mine married a straight woman," he said. "He thought he could be in a normal family relationship, but he failed. This year, he divorced his wife.
"He could lie to his parents, but he couldn't lie to himself."
Nemo is worried that if he entered into a false marriage, he could be manipulated or blackmailed by the woman.
"Many friends of mine told me it's very dangerous if you marry a lesbian, it's not good. If you want to marry this woman, she will be a member of your family. I think it would be very difficult because she wouldn't be your real wife."
So far, Kevin has not had that kind of problem. He still lives with his boyfriend.
Once a year, he meets up with his wife so they can go to visit their families for Chinese New Year.
But now of course, there is a new but entirely predictable issue to deal with.
"The next problem is the kid. They hope we can have a baby in one or two years, but, you know, we can't, because we don't have sex," Kevin said.
He feels that telling them the truth is not an option, especially after he has constructed such an elaborate deception.
"I think they could not accept that I am a gay because they think it's not normal or it's weird.
"I still think getting married was the right decision, because at least her parents and my parents feel happy, and a wedding is very important to the Chinese. We had to do it. We had no choice."
No-one knows how many gay people go to these lengths to try to make their parents happy, but anecdotal evidence suggests it happens fairly frequently.
One of the bars in Shanghai runs its own monthly marriage market for gay men and lesbians to meet each other.
The Chinese state-run media has in recent months carried interviews with other gay couples in sham marriages.
Kevin is comfortable with the decision he made, but accepts that as the years go by, more lies will be needed.