In China, a combination of the one child policy, Confucian influences, and the taboo surrounding homosexuality have given rise to a whole new phenomenon. Many straight women are discovering that the ‘straight’ men they married are actually gay, leading to divorce, social isolation and grief for the families and children involved.
The Mandarin phrase for these women who unknowingly married gay men is tongqi. This phrase comes from the words tongzhi, or comrade, which is also slang for gay in Chinese, and qizi, which means wife. These tongqi are more frequently talked about in the media both within China and recently overseas following the suicide of Luo Li in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, last June.
When Luo Li took her own life after finding out the truth about her husband’s sexuality her family went on to sue their former son-in-law. Although the district court denied their parents’ request, the case is now being heard by Chengdu’s Intermediate People’s Court and the judge has not yet announced a verdict.
Chinese gay men also often feel the need to hide their sexuality within a traditional marriage in order to save their careers, fearful that they would lose their jobs if they were to come out as gay
In contemporary Chinese society, there remains a very strong sense of filial piety, and the desire to appease parents is strong. Combining this with the taboo surrounding homosexuality, gay men often feel pressured to marry straight women and have children with them in order to ensure that the family name is passed on. Due to China’s one child policy, the majority of these men do not have any siblings, and are the only ones that can ensure the family line doesn’t end.
The pressure from society thus drives these individuals to hide their true orientation and start their own apparently heteronormative family. On top of this, Chinese gay men also often feel the need to hide their sexuality within a traditional marriage in order to save their careers, fearful that they would lose their jobs if they were to come out as gay.
Estimates by various sociologists and sexologists of the numbers of these tongqi in Chinese society today vary between 10 and 20 million, as an estimated 70-90 percent of gay men in China are currently married to, or will eventually marry, a straight woman. However, many gay men are also marrying lesbian women, who are bowing to the same pressures as their male counterparts. In this case, the marriage is a cover for both the men and the women, but still often causes a lot of stress and disagreements, as they need to keep up the image of a happy marriage for both families. Regardless of whether they may have agreed on an early divorce, these marriages often don’t last long.
Many LGBT groups are working to provide online and offline support groups that offer psychological and legal help for all involved, and visibility of LGBT related issues in Chinese media provides hope for those who are still living under this taboo.
By Margaux Schreurs