My Wife, My Boyfriend — And Grandkids: A Careful Coming Out For China's Gay Seniors
A series of interviews in Wuhan with aging gay men — all currently or formerly married to women — reveals a hidden story of how Chinese LGBTQ culture is gradually emerging from the shadows.
WUHAN — " What do you think of that guy sitting there, across from us? He's good looking."
" Then you should go and talk to him."
“ Too bad that I am old..."
Grandpa Shen was born in 1933. He says that for the past 40 years, he's been "repackaged," a Chinese expression for having come out as gay. Before his wife died when he was 50, Grandpa Shen says he was was a "standard" straight Chinese man. After serving in the army, he began working in a factory, and dated many women and evenutually got married.
"Becoming gay is nothing special, I found it very natural." Grandpa Shen says he discovered his homosexuality at the Martyrs' Square in Wuhan, a well-known gay men's gathering place.
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Wuhan used to have different such ways for LGBTQ+ to meet: newspaper columns, riversides, public toilets, bridges and baths to name but a few. With urbanization, many of these locations have disappeared. The transformation of Martyrs' Square into a park has gradually become a place frequented by middle-aged and older gay people in Wuhan, where they play cards and chat and make friends. There are also "comrades" (Chinese slang for gay) from outside the city who come to visit.
Grandpa Shen knew every corner of the Square and the people who came and went there. Even today, he still comes to the park every day and sits in a place where he meets young people or chats with old friends in the sun. Grandpa Shin uses the term "do the trick" to refer to homosexuality.
Bisexuality, like yin and yang
Now he has a 37-year-old boyfriend, and has been in a relationship for 11 years. Despite the distance, they are still as close to each other as if they were in love. "When I'm alone, it's like my brain runs off to heaven when I think about how we used to be together."
Many of the "gay grandpas" at Martyrs' Square share the same experience of discovering and/or acknowledging their homosexuality late in their lives. Grandpa Chen is 71, and only "opened his gay switch" just before his 50th birthday. Now he has an open relationship with a boyfriend 20 years younger than himself, and is not shy saying that they are stable because the other person is also married with children and works in a state institution.
Grandpa Chen checks to make sure his boyfriend is spending time with his family.
Grandpa Chen is not willing to define them in terms of lovers. A short video on bisexual science eventually gave Grandpa Chen a satisfactory explanation. He believes that both he and his boyfriend are bisexual and that "bisexuality is more balanced between yin and yang."
Before every encounter, Grandpa Chen checks to make sure his boyfriend is spending time with his family first. He sees this as a responsibility that men need to take. He applies this to his own life, still loving his wife and accompanying her on trips around China. But in the meantime, he hangs out in gay bathrooms and parks around the city.
Cultural Revolution suppression
In fact, the same-sex desire of these grandpas was born long before they acted on it: whether a deeply buried orientation or the stirring of a sexually enlightened exploration, such desires and feelings for the same sex are often repressed for a long time.
The pressure to keep it at bay come from the harsh punitive measures and the widespread public pressure of a society that has not evolved. Grandpa Chen remembers seeing the only university student in his factory being publicly criticized one day at a meeting of 3,000 people, because he was reported to have had an illicit relationship with a young male worker. He had also heard an anecdote about an old colleague who was charged with hooliganism for homosexual behavior, and ended up in prison for 15 years.
"(People) were very offended by it," he recalled "It was said at the time to be a very ugly, like it was a very lowly thing." It was not until 1997 and 2001 that homosexuality was first decriminalized and de-pathologized in mainland China.
But there are also elderly people who have never repressed their same-sex desires. Grandpa Huang, 86, has known since adolescence that he likes males, and has only had sex with them — even during the madness and repression of the Cultural Revolution.
"In those days, Mao's policy was quite strict, and those caught were to be shot! At that time I was young, and was not disciplined, but I was never caught."
Bronze statue in Beijing, China.
All 11 seniors interviewed are or have been married to women, without exception. A recent podcast host who spoke with several of the men said: "I feel the attitude they have towards their wives are not at all different from that of my father. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but is due to the common loveless marriage in their generations."
Grandpa Huang is still together with his wife, whom he was forced to marry when he was 24. "I did not want to get married, but I had no choice under Chairman Mao's policy, you just can't be gay for your entire life!"
Some of the men continue to largely live a lie, as their wife and children know nothing about their homosexuality. The 61-year-old Grandpa Shaw is one of them. Growing up in a small village of Hubei, he thought he was abnormal and was ashamed to reveal his sexual orientation. Now being married to his wife for 35 years, he tries to be a good husband, yet he is the only one who said that he wouldn't marry a woman if he had the choice to be born in modern times.
In other cases, relationships are based on mutual consensus, with the grandpas' family allowing their gay lovers to step into their daily lives. Chun, 66, was hospitalized for six months due to a car accident, and his boyfriend, with whom he has been together for 14 years, came everyday to the hospital to look after him.
Having seen their relationship, Chun's son told his father that he could move out with his boyfriend, but with most his pension kept by his family. "They all knew about what was going on, but never said a word nor tried to stop me."
Stand for the majority
Now the major LGBTQ narrative in China focuses strongly on self-recognition and identity politics. But for these aging men at Martyrs' Square, perhaps it is not the path that they want. Instead of appearing in broad daylight in their choice, they would rather live quietly in their own world.
If there were less social pressure on them, they might not have to be married to women.
Ahua, a volunteer who is recording the stories of this first generation of modern Chinese to be out of the closet, said most prefer to keep a low profile.
"How could we understand their lives? We should not portray them as cowards who have done nothing about their homosexuality. These grandpas have claimed with urban spaces, and were able to achieve self-exploration and community bonding despite the harsh circumstances," says Ahua.
Still, Ahua acknowledges that conformity is still built into this generation. "Without a heterosexual identity, their other social identities would collapse. What we should do is not to try to insist that they stand stronger, but to diminish the external pressure. If there were less social pressure on them, they might not have to be married to women."
Their experiences, in fact, are repeating with their younger boyfriends. For the seven who have stable gay partners, like Grandpa Shen, his boyfriend still has to look for a wife. For Grandpa Huang, his boyfriend is already a father of three.
Grandpa Shen is reflective. "This is a big world, where the light may be seen anywhere. Even without the moon, we can still look at the stars.There are always two sides to any one thing!"
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