05/14/2013 12:43 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

When a Gay Husband Is Better Than None

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Three years ago Xiao Qiong married the love of her life, but she has never slept with him. They've never even kissed. Her husband is gay, and she's known it from the start. But, as traditional as they come, raised to be an excellent student and then become a self-effacing wife who never raises her voice at home, she thought this gay thing was a fad that would eventually pass.

Xiao Qiong is what's known as a "tongqi," which translates as "wife of a homosexual," but she never uses that word in public. It is not an offensive term, but she would be humiliated if everyone knew, because getting married is more important than anything else in life. She had dreamed about her wedding day ever since she was a little girl, and she had had her perfect ceremony planned down to the last detail. It would be at the seaside, and instead of wearing a red qipao, the traditional one-piece Chinese bridal dress, she would be radiant in a white bridal gown with a long train, just like a princess or "the models in Vogue." In her fantasy she would take off her shoes and dance with her husband on the sand as the sun slowly set over the water.

That had been her plan. Ever since she was little, she had done everything she could so that one day she would be that barefoot girl on the beach, her white veil fluttering in the breeze. In the end, reality turned out to be just the opposite.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly how many tongqi there are in China. Rough estimates put the number at 16 million women married to gay men, but it could be higher. Many gay men in China live a double life, because the cost of coming out of the closet is too high. The tolerance of centuries past contrasts sharply with the hard-line conservatism of the last 50 years. Homosexuality was a crime until 1997. Today gay men are prohibited from donating blood, because they are considered a high-risk group. There are some gay bars, support groups and gay fanzines, but it is a very limited sphere. To Chinese society as a whole, still deeply Confucian, getting married and procreating is an essential part of life.

Coming out is very complicated. Very few people dare to even tell their own families the truth. As the new year approaches, a time when families traditionally get together, pressure on single people in general mounts, but especially if they are gay. They know that at some point during dinner, one relative or another will ask why they're not married and what are they waiting for. For the last several years many gays and lesbians have found each other through special forums on the Internet. They make friends and form fake relationships to placate their families, going home to introduce their parents to their new "girlfriend" or "boyfriend" and announce their engagement. A few weeks later they may tell their families that they have broken up, or they may even marry but continue to live separately, showing up as a couple to family events to keep up the charade.

Marrying Xu Bing represented many things for Xiao Qiong. It meant helping out a close friend with serious problems, leaving the family nest, not feeling like a loser socially anymore and finally having someone to rent a rowboat with in the park. But more than anything, it meant scoring a personal victory after so long and finally reaching the happy ending to the romance novel of her fantasies.

The first discrepancies emerged when they began planning the wedding. She still had fixed in her head the scene on the beach, with the fluttering veil, laughing guests and softly glowing lights. Xu Bing wanted to sign a piece of paper. He had met someone he liked and wanted to celebrate his liberation with his new boyfriend.

It was a winter morning. After signing the marriage certificate, they went to a hotel to eat, like any ordinary birthday lunch. Both of their parents were there; they were the only guests. Xu Bing observed the ritual of serving tea to his in-laws. As he poured into their cups, he proclaimed, "Father, you can rest assured. I will take care of Xiao Qiong." She felt sick to her stomach on hearing this, but she didn't say anything.

After the meal they walked their parents to their cars. They watched them drive away, and then Xiao Qiong and Xu Bing also parted ways. She went back to her apartment and spent her wedding night watching television and eating peanuts. He went to his boyfriend's apartment, where he has spent every night since the wedding.

"I think I've been very stressed since the wedding," she tells me several months later. "I didn't have a ring, or a honeymoon, or a proper reception, and I feel frustrated."

She has found comfort around other tongqi, although always through the Internet. Most of them are too embarrassed to meet in person. They are all around the same age, 25 to 35, live in cities and have a computer or enough money to go to a cybercafé. Xiao Qiong figures that there must be thousands of tongqi in the countryside who don't even know that that's what they are.

This blog post was adapted from the nonfiction book From the Dragon's Mouth: Ten True Stories That Unveil the Real China (Penguin USA, 2013).