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Gays, Lesbians And "Marriages Of Formality" In China

Gay pride in Shanghai, but many others in China still hide their orientation
Gay pride in Shanghai, but many others in China still hide their orientation
Zhu Chong and Cui Tianti

It's a weekend morning. Y, a lesbian woman, changes out of her usual masculine attire and puts on an elaborate woman's outfit to go and visit the parents of A, a homosexual man. The visit is to inform the parents that Y and A are getting married, and hope that they will approve of their marriage.

This kind of marriage is called Xinghun, literally meaning a marriage of formality in Chinese. It can involve little of any true substance. Both Y and A respectively have had hid a girlfriend and boyfriend for years, while being constantly pressured by their parents to get married.

In the past, gay men and lesbians felt obliged to get married due to social pressure and traditional necessity, winding up in loveless and sexless marriages. The Xinghun, a sort of reductio ad absurdum, is emerging in developed cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. Through mutual cooperation, China's homosexuals and lesbians are composing superficially normal families — with a man and a woman — while in reality the couple continues to have their independence both physically and morally. The formality of marriage is simply used to fend off exterior pressure and to go on loving who they love: indeed, it is also called a mutual support marriage. And they can even, through artificial insemination or adoption, have offspring.

Short of gaining authentic acceptance by society, Chinese homosexuals find the Xinghun a breakthrough. To facilitate the search for a husband or wife, QQ groups, a variety of instant messaging platforms, are dedicated to finding a suitable faux partner. It was through a friend's introduction that Y joined a QQ group and got linked up with A. Soon after, they decided to visit each other's parents and set up together as a family as soon as possible.

Often the search for Xinghun can be even trickier than finding a conventional match. Since the couple doesn’t have any real emotional attachment, external factors are the only standard for choosing their “spouses." Whether the man owns his own house is even more important in a Xinghun, for example.

There is also a "code of conduct" for the Xinghun couples. Generally, accompanying in public places is the major right and responsibility of the two parties. However, since the marriage is not out of affection or sexual love they are not obliged to support each other financially, nor provide health care or emotional support. Both parties usually sign a premarital property agreement specifying that matrimonial property is not to be shared.

Since Xinghun couples do not have any obligation to care for each other they mostly live separately. Of course if their parents also live in the same city, they may be obliged to live together to maintain their cover. Such cohabitation is similar to a roommate relation where the involved parties share the living costs, though in general men tend to pay a bit more.

The divorce

Similar to ordinary marriages some of the Xinghun couples also end up divorcing, others actually sign a premarital agreement specifying that they will get divorced after a certain number of years. Usually they are the ones who believe this is the way to make their sexual orientation obvious to their families and to society so that they will no longer be burdened with a heterosexual marriage.

However, Y has a dream — to “emigrate to where I’m allowed to marry my girlfriend.”

It’s worth noting that apart from parental pressure and sheltering oneself from the eyes of society, more and more homosexuals are getting married for their own future. Whereas in the West many homosexuals might choose to adopt children from an orphanage or have a child through artificial insemination from a sperm bank, most Chinese homosexuals are more conventional and would prefer having their own biological children. Due to China’s strict household registration system and protection of children born in wedlock, the marriage of convenience becomes even more useful.

In the Xinghun QQ groups, most men express their aspiration to have children. This is also the case of A.

As for Y, she was initially reluctant, but finally compromised. “I think at the end of the day women all like to be a mother. Although I don’t feel strongly that I want a child now, but I’m afraid to end up regretting it, so I gave in,” she said. Like others, the couple will probably use artificial insemination.

When asked how she will feel having a child with a partner for whom she feels no love, Y replied, "I know it's hard for a woman to bring up a child herself. But it will be helpful for me in my old age."

As to whether or not the child is to be told the reality of their parents' "marriage," most Xinghun couples are hesitant. Though they see Xinghun as the only way to satisfy their own parents' expectations while pursuing their own happiness, they are not sure what the next generation will think.

"Maybe I'll tell the child when he or she grows up," Y says.

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Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*


When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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