This week has seen the inaugural conference of the Europe-China LGBT Exchange Network, which brings together activists, academics, researchers and communities to discuss issues affecting LGBT people living in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Chinese diaspora. Hosted by Manchester University, the opening Keynote address took the form of an interview with questions being posed by renowned scholar of gender and sexuality Lisa Rofel and answered by two leading academics and activists from mainland China, Professor Li Yinhe (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) and Professor Cui Zi’en (Beijing Film Academy).
As someone who is planning fieldwork with LGBT communities in Southern China this summer but who is still negotiating their way through the complex cultural context that is queer China, I attended this conference very much as an observer; an active listener soaking up the discussions, debates and arguments.
While the discussion during the opening keynote was enlightening, one issue piqued my interest more than any other. This was the issue of gay marriage. Both professors saw marriage rights as a key milestone yet to be reached by LGBT activists in China. Discussions of equality and human rights quickly became focused on the question of marriage and observations as to how far China had to travel in comparison to the UK, again saw marriage being used as the benchmark.
While this was a little disconcerting, it did not really surprise me.
Last year I taught an intensive summer school course in Western Media Studies at Sun Yat-sen university in Guangzhou. While I was kept busy by my wonderful hosts (and I cannot wait to work with them again this summer) I did also manage to meet up one afternoon with ‘Guangtong’, a local LGBT organisation who were very welcoming and hosted me for an afternoon of tea drinking and queer discussion. During my two and a half hour visit I learned about some of the challenges facing gay men (in particular) in contemporary China, and the ways in which they negotiated (or ‘failed’ to negotiate) them.
Chief among these challenges was the issue of marriage. Echoing Chou Wah-shan’s (2000) book on Tongzhi life in China, the activists I spoke with identified the immense pressure that LGBT people find themselves under regarding the issue of marriage. The group told me stories of countless gay men they knew who faced the ‘marriage problem’. In a culture where one’s identity is maintained through kinship networks and where the Confucian ideal of filial piety continues to structure family relations and everyday life, marriage is a very big deal. Add to this the controversial ‘one-child policy’ of the CCP and continuing restrictions on labour mobility and it all adds up to a concentrated focus on marriage as a tool for social cohesion and familial security. Indeed, as one of the guys at Guangtong said “when you get married in China, you don’t marry a girl, your family marries another family” – these are ties that bind – and they bind tightly.
Faced with this pressure to marry, gay men tend to adopt one of three strategies. The first is to find and marry a willing lesbian who is in the same situation – desperate to find someone to marry for the sake of pleasing her family but who does not want a sexual relationship (or any kind of relationship) beyond superficial window-dressing. The second strategy is to marry an unwitting heterosexual woman and live a double-life, being a dutiful husband, father and son while also seeking gay experiences, companionship and (possibly) love on the side. What my American colleagues would call a life on the “DL” (down-low) The third option (which is often only a deferment) is to study or work abroad. Study (seen as investing in one’s future – and thus the future of the family) and international work (with its financial rewards, again for the family) may be accepted as reasons for not settling down – yet. But as time goes on, the demands for a daughter-in-law and grandchildren become loud once more.
Guangtong expressed dismay at the situation many gay men find themselves in, and at the fact that the second option – that of marrying an ‘innocent’ heterosexual woman – is often the one chosen by these desperately unhappy men. Being an outsider to this discussion and to this culture, I found it difficult to comment. My all too heightened awareness of cultural specificity in situations like this stopped me from fully agreeing with the group. What if this was how it was supposed to be? What if the idea of gay marriage or of being a self-identifying queer was in fact a Western imposition that had no legitimate place in Chinese culture? Was the whole notion of LGBT identities a form of cultural imperialism? The Khoti men of India seem to negotiate marriage and same-sex relationships. I’m not saying it works out perfectly for them – but it is at least a ‘local’ identity and practice, not one that has been brought in on a big pink cloud of transnational queer activism.
This reluctance to agree with my Chinese compatriots is also borne out of a resistance to the belief that gay marriage can resolve the situation in China – or at least offer a 4th, more legitimate alternative. As someone who grew up and came out well before the UK’s 2004 Civil Partnership Act I remain ambivalent about gay marriage. Of course the civil partnership is not the same as gay marriage. I know, there are important differences and these differences mean a lot – to some people. But I came out during a time when the very idea of marriage (heterosexual or otherwise) was losing its fashionability in the West. At university, Gay History 101 taught me that the foundations of Gay Liberation were built on the dismantling of heteropatriarchal notions such as marriage. Marriage is a form of property ownership, my Lesbian-Feminist lecturers taught me, and thus, Gay Lib sought an end to it, as it did to all forms of repression. The GLF didn’t want to fit in with the existing system – it wanted to dismantle it and build a new one.
Idealistic, I know, but this is my history, our history, queer history… in the West.
Given the difference in cultural context, it was perhaps unsurprising to hear professors Li Yinhe and Cui Zi’en arguing that gay marriage is the keystone of success in the Chinese LGBT rights movement. Unsurprising but also deeply ironic.
In China, we have a society that has, for the last 50 odd years, been (ostensibly) governed by a party rooted in Marxism – a political ideology that questions the equality of monogamous marriage. In this society, LGBT activists are fighting for the right to marry one another as a means of circumnavigating heterosexual unions and claiming a ‘place at the table’ to borrow from Bruce Bawer.
Meanwhile the fight for gay marriage in the democratic, capitalist West has been criticised by many on the Gay Left as being the project of self-interested Log-cabin Neo-liberal types who position such unions as the only real equality issue left for LGBT people.
I am, of course, simplifying a more complicated (and contradictory) picture, but it remains a fact that the ways in which culture, history and political ideology cut across one another results in interesting and often contrasting views on what the most important civil rights are, and what LGBT activists should be prioritising in their campaigns for equality and legal recognition.
I am looking forward to heading back to Guangzhou this summer and undertaking fieldwork for my research into queer China’s use of digital media. I know that the marriage issue will continue to be at the forefront of discussions I have with colleagues and interview respondents. I think there is a part of me that doesn’t want gay marriage to be the answer to queer China’s problems – and that part is also the part that condemns the Andrew Sullivans of this world for promoting gay marriage as the only thing standing between queers and total equality. But ultimately this is a Chinese issue and it has to be a Chinese solution. Just so long as Guangtong and other groups are not looking to the West for their answers and are instead finding support, funding and allies that help them establish what is right for LGBT China according to their own benchmarks.