China's 'Homowives'

Based on a chapter in Burger's book Behind the Red Door: Sex in China:

The marriage of gay men and women in China to unknowing spouses who are straight is nothing less than a tragedy. Sex experts estimate there are between 30 and 40 million gay men and women in China, of whom 80 percent will get married. Sexologist Liu Dalin puts the number at 90 percent. Nearly all of those from previous generations, especially those born during the Cultural Revolution or earlier, are married today, and most gay men and women will continue to marry. Filial piety and the pressure to have children remain intact, and for most gay people, coming out is simply not viewed as a possibility.

In 2009, China's most outspoken sexologist Li Yinhe wrote on her blog about a conference attended by several tongqi, or so-called "homowives" -- straight women married to gay men:

"The condition for 'homowives' is extremely tragic. At the seminar, there were 'homowives' who burst into tears as they spoke, leading all of them to hug each other for a good cry. Most days, they wash their faces with tears. I heard what I considered the most shocking testimony that from a woman who told of how she even doubted her ability to attract men - why wouldn't her husband even want to look at her or touch her? Am I really that unworthy as a woman? She assumed that all men would treat her like that, not knowing that this is far from the truth. She did not dream that her husband would be gay. Under the circumstances, even the most beautiful and accomplished woman would not arouse him."

The story was widely reported in the Chinese media. Sexologist and gay rights supporter Professor Zhang Beichuan estimates there are 16 million "homowives" in China. Such marriages are torture for both the wife and the gay husband. Neither has their needs fulfilled, and often the husband leads a double life. Lesbians are in much the same situation, and while they can at least more easily feign sexual pleasure, they, too, are trapped in loveless marriages. The tongqi who has no idea about her husband's sexuality will do all she can to stimulate him, often to no avail. She knows as he looks away that something is terribly wrong. A tongqi support group in Beijing offers moral support to women driven into deep depression because their husbands cannot have sex with them. They feel betrayed, and in a sense they are.

Chuang Wai, a 27 year-old magazine editor living in Xi'An, married her husband in 2007 and divorced him a year later after she learned he was gay. "When I first met my husband he was so polite, thoughtful and considerate," she says, but his lack of sexual interest in her was alarming, and she soon found him surfing gay websites. "I tried to talk with him about his problem and our marriage but every time we started in a friendly atmosphere it ended with very bad results. I cannot remember how many times he used violence on me. There are four or five times when I was seriously injured. You cannot imagine that when I slept in bed he would use violence without any reason. I think it was because he didn't want to sleep with me. I still remember when he threw a kettle full of water at my belly. That was really a disaster. Before we married he was so nice and I felt truly loved."

These relationships are as tragic for the gay husband as they are for the tongqi. Every weekend older gay men trapped in loveless marriages meet together at a rundown dance hall in Shanghai that reserves the weekend for them, and they dance together, one of their few opportunities to be who they really are. As described in a 2011 story in Slate magazine, watching these men who had to sacrifice a part of themselves to fulfill their family obligations dancing with and holding another man who made the same sacrifice is a scene of heartbreaking poignancy.

Since it is so hard for gay men and women to say no in the face of their parents' insistence that they marry, many have sought an innovative solution that has been gathering traction in recent years: Gay men marry gay women and pretend to be a happily married couple. Then they go off and stay with their same-sex partner. Of course, this compromise is still a form of a double life and living behind a lie, but there is no disappointment to either spouse over the other's lack of sexual interest, and they still fulfill their physical and emotional needs. Most importantly, the continuous pressure from the family to marry is alleviated. It is just tragic that the best alternative for Chinese gay men and women is to hide behind a mask and to pretend to be something they are not.

Richard Burger is a former journalist and communications consultant who lived in greater China for eight years. He is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China.