Qiang is sitting next to his wife, Jing, in a Shanghai shopping mall. Also at the table is Jie, Qiang’s boyfriend. The trio are attempting to explain their relationship. “It’s complicated,” says Qiang, laughing.
When Qiang married Jing in 2013, his boyfriend Jie was his best man. That same week Jie married Jing’s girlfriend. Then Jing split up with her girlfriend, who subsequently divorced Jie. The tangled situation represents two examples of a recent surge in China in the amount of sham unions between gays and lesbians.
There are around 16 million gay Chinese men married to women who are unaware of their husbands’ sexuality, say researchers at Qingdao University. The unions are fraught with emotional dangers. So increasing numbers of gay men and lesbians are now turning to each other for what they see as an option with less potential for disaster. “I didn’t feel jealous seeing Qiang marry a woman in front of me,” says Jie, 32. “As long as our families felt happy, we were happy. We solved a problem.”
Like millions of other Chinese of their generation, the trio faced pressure from their parents to have a traditional family, complete with grandchildren. “I couldn’t force my parents to accept that I’m gay,” says Qiang. “Beliefs are different between generations. You can’t change it.”
There is no bitterness or anguish in his voice when he talks about this deception. He and Jing have planned their marriage to cause minimum disruption to their real lives. They meet for family dinners a few times a month but do not live together – Qiang lives with Jie. “We have parents round but we don’t let them stay overnight,” says Jing. “My wife lives very close to me,” says Qiang. “It’s easy when parents visit at short notice.”
Qiang and Jie met their wives after trawling lesbian websites, exchanging messages then meeting and forging friendships. Jie unfolds a hand-written contract he and his ex-wife signed prior to their wedding and reads through the terms they agreed on. Such contracts are common in sham marriages and usually outline terms of financial independence. Jie’s also states that he would be responsible for 70 per cent of the costs of raising a child born in his marriage.
“We argued a little about the about the surname of the child,” Jie says. “Then we finally agreed that it would be the same as mine.” Qiang, a lawyer, has a similar contract with his wife. “They are legally binding,” he says.
The process for organising such marriages got easier last January with the launch of the app Queers. It works like a dating site, matching gay men with lesbians. Users upload photos and vital statistics such as weight, height and income. They explain whether they want a baby from the marriage.
Women who look typically straight “are desirable as it makes it easier to cheat parents”, says Liao Zhuoying, the founder of Queers.
Queers has over 400,000 users, around half of whom are aged 25-35: the age when pressure to marry is most heavy. “Activists have accused us of setting up barriers, helping people shy away from their problems,” says Liao. “But we are solution providers. It’s impossible for all gays and lesbians to come out in Chinese society.”
Homosexuality was illegal in China until 1997 and was listed as a mental disorder until 2001. Last month media reports showed that gay conversion therapy is still widespread in China.
It’s unsurprising that so many people keep their homosexuality a secret. Although most users of Queers use it to set up a marriage to fool their parents, Liao says that some do so with the co-operation of their families to keep their sexuality a secret from wider society. “In China, keeping a family’s face is important,” he says.
The website ChinaGayLes.com serves the same purpose as Queers. Launched in 2005, it has around the same number of users as the app, and founder Lin Hai claims that it has facilitated around 50,000 sham marriages so far. “Before the site there was no real concept of sham marriages in China,” he says. “Gay men would just marry a straight woman.” Lin says that, like Liao, he sometimes hears from parents of homosexuals. “They are trying to find a way to respect their children while still conforming to society.”
For most users the ultimate goal of such marriages is to have a baby. After two years as husband and wife, Qiang and Jing are planning for a pregnancy. They will soon buy a syringe and attempt to use it to inseminate Jing with Qiang’s sperm at home, but will consult medical experts if that proves unsuccessful. “We want to do this for ourselves as well as our parents,” says Jing. “But we will probably let our child spend most of its time with our parents then take over when it reaches the age of three.”
For Jie, the issue of a child led to the breakdown of his sham marriage. His wife had agreed to have a baby but changed her mind after the wedding, prompting their divorce. Jie then took the uncommon decision last August to come out to his parents.
“My mother cried uncontrollably and asked, ‘How could you be that way?’” he says. “She said she blamed herself for allowing me to live somewhere like Shanghai, where ‘weird people’ live. When I told my father he said, ‘I feel like there’s a fly in my mouth. Disgusting’.”
Despite a period of estrangement from his parents, Jie is now back in contact with them. They are being educated with the help of support groups set up to help parents understand homosexuality, and Jie says he feels happier now he doesn’t have to lie to them.
There are glimpses of progress in Chinese society’s views on homosexuality. Government leaders have recently made public shows of meeting gay tech industry leaders in bridge-building exercises and the influence of China’s young, liberal social media users is rising.
“The wheel of history is moving forward,” says Liao. “But not everyone is courageous enough to stand at the forefront. We are solving problems for these people. Maybe the demand for sham marriages will shrink in the future, our app will die and society will progress.”
But for now the deceit continues. “I’ve wanted to come out many times,” says Jing. “But if I do that, the pressure will be transferred to my parents. It’s selfish. I’m doing this to make my parents comfortable.”
Additional reporting by Cissy Young. The names of some interviewees have been changed
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