China's 'Tongqi': The Millions of Straight Women Married to Closeted Gay Men
In China, many women in sham marriages only find out about their partner's sexuality after the wedding. What is life like for tongqi and the men that they marry?
Couples pose for engagement photos outside of St Michael's Cathedral in Qingdao. All photos by Barclay Bram
"The world is so tiring! Just let it finish, everything is gone!" Shortly after posting these words on her microblog, Luo Hongling, a 31-year-old professor at Sichuan University, stepped off a 13-storey building.
If it wasn't for her husband, her death would have just been another a footnote in the metro section of the Chongqing Daily. Instead, her death became something of a touchstone in China, igniting public debate over a little known issue: Luo Hongling was a tongqi, one of the estimated millions of heterosexual women in China married to closeted gay men. A day before her death, her husband, Cheng Jiansheng, had posted a public message to her on his microblog: "Luo, I am sorry. I am gay and I cheated on you. The reason I married you was to hide the fact I am gay."
Though China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, it remained classified as a mental illness until 2001. According to a 2013 Pew survey, only 21 percent of Chinese people approved of homosexuality; just this March, the government banned the depiction of homosexuality on film and TV as "pornographic or vulgar," putting it in the same category as portrayals of incest and sexual abuse.
It's little wonder that WorkForLGBT, a China-based NGO, found that only 18 percent of gay men have come out to their families. Their parents' generation was raised in the tail-end of the Mao era, when comprehensive general education was disrupted by the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution and sex ed was non-existent. Wish Lanterns author Alec Ash, who has written about the lives of young people in China, says that the cultural divide between parents and their children is enormous: "It would be the equivalent of if my parents were born in 1880."
"I had only a hazy understanding of what [homosexuality] was [when I married my wife], and I had no idea that your sexual orientation is something that you can't change," said Jiaoao Baba*, one of the subjects of queer filmmaker Fan Popo's latest documentary, Papa Rainbow. As he admits in the film, he is gay, but married to a woman.
Despite the geographic proximity of his hometown, Cangzhou, to Beijing, they are a world apart in terms of attitudes towards LGBTQ people. "It's a simple place. The prevailing attitude towards gays is one of non-acceptance and discrimination," he told Broadly. He says that he was introduced to his wife through an matchmaker, which was not uncommon in the early 90s when they met. At the time, he wasn't sure if he was gay, so he went ahead with the marriage, convinced that his interest in men was just a naïve, youthful fantasy––the manifestation of his pent up sexual frustration.
"I still had feelings for men. They never stopped. And then when the internet arrived, I learnt what being gay meant––that it was something innate, and that I wouldn't be able to do anything about it." When he married his wife, homosexuality was still a criminal offence. For him—as well as an entire generation of queer men and women in China—there was very little way of understanding their sexual orientation before the internet came along.
"I have a metaphor," he said. "If a mung bean never encounters water, it is likely to always be a mung bean. But, if it gets water, and the soil is ripe, the environment is good, and it's warm, then it will sprout. And once that happens, it can never return to being a mung bean."
Zhang Beichuan, a professor at Qingdao University Medical School, is a leading scholar of tongqi. The corridor outside his office has no windows and the lights were broken. To find it, I had to use the flashlight on my phone.
Due to the nature of Zhang's research, his office is not on campus—he has had to relocate to an apartment block, an unremarkable grey building lost in Qingdao's urban sprawl. Zhang is a heroic figure in the LGBTQ community here. As a medical researcher in the late 80s, he was one of the first in the country to identify the growing HIV epidemic and write about it in non-discriminatory terms.
In 1999, his research into China's queer community took an unexpected turn: A woman came to his office, crying, and told him that she had unwittingly entered into a sham marriage with a gay man.
Zhang's conservative guess is that there are at least 10 million straight women in China married to gay men. Similar research by Chinese sexologist Li Yinhe puts the figure at around 16 million, and research quoted in Yale anthropologist Tiantian Zhang's 2015 study puts the figure at 19 million, which is about the population of Romania.
According to Zhang's research, 80 percent of gay men in China have, due to the toxic combination of family and societal pressure, entered traditional marriages with straight women. Social security in China is notoriously basic, and children still carry the burden of supporting their elders. For LGBTQ people, these family obligations ratchet up the pressure to remain closeted—and it goes some way to explain why gay men like Cheng Jiansheng feel compelled to marry heterosexual women.
Jue Chen* discovered her husband was gay after seeing texts from a lover on his phone. "Hi beautiful," one read. "Your body makes me too excited. From today, I'll never let another person touch me." At first, she resigned herself to the fact that her husband had taken a lover, but curiosity compelled her to call the unknown number.
This isn't just an LGBT problem. It's a whole society problem.
"Of course, I assumed it was a girl," she said. "But when I called the number I found I was speaking to a man. I thought I had the wrong number, but I tried again and got through to the same person... and the texts continued from them [to my husband]. That's how I knew."
Her partner refused to grant her a divorce, saying it wasn't a big deal. Her father agreed, she says, telling her that she had "unrealistic aspirations for marriage." As they had young children together, she decided to compromise and allowed her husband to keep his lovers—but she also demanded that she and her husband stop sleeping together or sharing a bed.
In 2012, she found a bottle of pills in the bathroom. After looking up its label on the search engine Baidu, she discovered that they were drugs for HIV treatment: Her husband had become HIV-positive.
Zhang says over 30 percent of tongqi will contract a sexually transmitted disease—for many, this is how they discover that their husbands sleep with men. Around 10 percent of tongqi will attempt suicide, he adds. In his office, he gestures towards the rows of filing cabinets that sit floor to ceiling. They contain thousands of letters and correspondence sent from women in these sham marriages. Zhang has recently begun digitizing this archive with the help of assistants; they have scanned 43,000 pages so far.
"This isn't just an LGBT problem," Zhang said. "It's a whole society problem."
Qingdao Agricultural University is far on the outskirts of the city. Liu Tengyang, a programmer and student, has started a WeChat account and a QQ group for tongqi, called Tongqi's Family. QQ is a Chinese social media app optimized for group messages, with administrators who can control who enters the conversation. Tongqi's Family is one of the liveliest of such groups.
We met at the gates and walked together along a tree-lined street that circled the campus. Small roadside food stands did a brisk trade, the smoke from small coal fired barbeques mingling with the mist that had rolled in from the sea. "I saw a few articles online about tongqi, and I realized there wasn't really a space for them to talk about what they were going through right as they discover their husbands might be gay," said Liu.
In the months after we meet, countless women join the group to ask for advice. Almost daily, a new woman enters the group chat and unspools her story before its 1,700 members; one new member detailed her suspicions about her husband in increasingly frantic messages after finding male sex toys and lubricant in their house.
The tongqi phenomenon doesn't just highlight the pressures felt by homosexual men in China. It also underlines the social pressures that women feel to get married, where the popular term shengnu ("leftover women") is used to describe any woman over the age of 30 who has yet to settle down and find a man. Some women end up marrying quickly, without the long term dating and cohabitation common in the West. Luo Hongling—who was active in an online support community similar to Tongqi's Family—had only dated her husband for five or six months before they married. In all, she had known her husband for less than a year before she took her life.
In 2005, IT specialist Lin Hai was working in the southern province of Guangxi when one of his friends was injured in an industrial accident. Unable to perform sexually, his friend became despondent and suicidal. Lin Hai thought that there must be more people like his friend out there, and started a website called wx920 (the wx stands for wuxing, which means "non-sexual"). He originally intended it as a dating site for those who were asexual or unable to perform sexually through disease or accident, but he began noticing that gay men and women were joining the site to look for sham marriages to fool their parents.
The demand led him to create a spin-off website, chinagayles.com, designed explicitly to allow gays and lesbians to marry each other. He says the website has roughly 500,000 members and has matched nearly 50,000 couples.
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These sham marriages are called xingshi hunying ("marriage in form"), which is roughly the compromise that Jue Chen has ended up having with her own gay husband. After discovering he had HIV, she worried that leaving him—and separating him from their children—would likely be a death sentence. "He would stop taking the [HIV] medicine," she explained.
Their sex lives are still completely separate, which means she remains HIV-negative. When I asked her if her husband was actively dating, she said "I don't know. I don't ask." She told me that she has dated other men in the past, "but by now I'm jaded. I don't really see myself falling in love again."
At present, the fragile compromise of her family sees her stay at home raising her children while her husband works in other cities to earn money. "My friends tell me I have nothing to complain about. He provides for me. But they don't know the reality."
While Lin Hai's website allows couples to be upfront with each other from the outset, it is a Band-Aid and not a cure. It might buy queer people a respite from family pressure, but it doesn't solve the underlying issue that their families struggle to accept them for who they are. Until that happens, the best that they can hope for is the uneasy compromise of a socially accepted—but sexless—marriage.
Jiaoao Baba is still married. When I asked if he had any regrets, he said, "I wouldn't call it that," and suggested the word yihan instead. It is closer in meaning to "a pity."
"Emotionally, I have felt restrained," he said, "but more, I just feel bad towards my wife. And this isn't something that gets better, it is just a feeling that gets worse as time goes on." He came out to his wife in 2007, but they have remained together, and he has promised not to publically come out. He is also worried that outing himself would be detrimental to his career.
Growing acceptance of homosexuality—in private, if not public—is increasing among the younger generation. Cities like Beijing and Shanghai hold gay pride events, and meeting people living openly queer lives is not a particularly rare or remarkable occurrence in these cosmopolitan areas. This tolerance is now spreading to other cities, like Jiaoao Baba's hometown of Cangzhou, though there is still a long road ahead. "But I'm optimistic," he said, "more and more people are standing up."
Zhang Beichuan, on his part, is optimistic that one day gay people will no longer need to enter sham marriages. The internet, he argued, is changing the landscape completely. "The pace of change in this society is beyond anything the world has seen," he said, "so I have hope. The changes that were made in the West to allow homosexuals to live openly and marry—those took hundreds of years. I think that same process here will only take a few decades. And it has already started."
* Name has been changed