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Turning straight

By Lin Kan Hsuan Source:Global Times Published: 2014-1-5 18:13:01

Many Chinese gays and lesbians marry heterosexual spouses and have children due to significant pressure from their relatives and society. Photo: IC

 

Hao Yang's (pseudonym) secret double life unraveled in 2011 when his wife picked up his cell phone and saw he belonged to a gay support group on online chat service QQ. Shock quickly turned to heartache when she confronted Hao, who confessed he was homosexual. The couple, who has been married for three years, agreed to stay together for the sake of their infant son and keep Hao's sexuality a secret to avoid bringing shame to both spouses' families.

Growing up in a small village in East China's Zhejiang Province, Hao felt conflicted even as a boy by his parents' hopes for him to marry and have children.

"I've known that I've been attracted to men ever since I was very young. I entered a relationship with a woman [during university], but it only made me more convinced about my sexual orientation," said Hao, 34. "Under pressure from my family, I decided to be obedient and meet their expectations by marrying. I'd rather break a woman's heart than my parents' hearts."

Hao's story is not uncommon in China, where many gays and lesbians feel torn between being true to their sexuality and honoring their parents' wishes to marry. Hu Zhijun, executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) China, said such pressure from families and society leads many gays and lesbians to suppress their sexuality to avoid discrimination, even if it means adopting a false heterosexual persona.

Hu, 36, said some "self-exiled" gays and lesbians resort to extreme measures that include conversion therapy and other pseudo-scientific treatments to alter their sexual orientation, while others succumb to marriage and parenthood. 

"However, all these efforts are ultimately in vain. Sexuality is something natural that can't be changed," said Hu.

Caving under marriage pressure

When Hu launched PFLAG China in 2008, he found very few gays and lesbians, particularly from rural areas, were comfortable about coming out of the closet.

Discrimination against gays and lesbians persuades many to keep their sexuality a secret. A survey in December 2013 of 3,400 people in 34 cities by Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Public Opinion Research Center found almost 70 percent of respondents were against homosexuality.

"Chinese are afraid of being different from the majority. Some people consider gays and lesbians to be perverted or psychopathic," Hu said. "Coming out of the closet is a tough decision because of the shame some Chinese parents feel. Parents also worry their gay children will have to take care of themselves in old age."

Hao Yang (pseudonym), who hid his homosexuality from his wife until the third year of their marriage. Photo: Courtesy of Hao Yang

 

Caught in a 'vicious cycle'

Xiao Wei (pseudonym), 25, can't bring himself to come out to his parents. "I'll never tell them I'm gay," asserted Xiao, a policeman. His job as a civil servant is a source of pride to his parents, but he knows nothing would please them more than if he married and gave them a grandchild.

"Once my parents bring up marriage with me, I quickly change the topic and talk about my work," he said.

Xiao has been in a relationship for three years with a man 12 years his senior, who he describes as a "successful businessman who leads an enviable life." Xiao tutors his partner's son, who is in high school.

But being in a secretive relationship puts strain on both Xiao and his partner.

"He is moody and has threatened to break up with me several times. But whenever he's lonely, he turns to me," said Xiao.

Keeping up heterosexual appearances has been tiring for Xiao, who in the past has considered undergoing conversion therapy or getting married in a bid to permanently turn his back on homosexuality.

"I can't hold hands with my boyfriend on the street. I feel paranoid a lot of the time because I worry curious people might take photos of us and upload them online," he said, holding back tears. "I hope for an end to this vicious cycle."

Despite advances to gay rights, pressure to marry remains intense for many young gay and lesbian people. Photo: IC

 

Tying knots of dishonesty

Hao, who like his wife is an information technology engineer, reached out to gay support groups online to gain a sense of belonging.

"I began feeling homosexual tendencies during primary school, but had no way to be sure about my sexuality. It wasn't until I surfed the Internet and learned more that I felt happy to finally accept my sexual orientation," he said.

Hao tied the knot in 2008, but soon felt like he was "wearing a mask in marriage." He admits he is an unaffectionate husband, often sitting at an arm's length from his wife when they watch TV. But he is grateful their marriage survived his bombshell, even though it now means an extra person is living his lie.

"I told her that we could divorce, but we shouldn't be enemies," said Hao, who refuses to come out to his parents. "After lots of talking, my wife and I finally reached a compromise in our relationship. I'm lucky that she is willing to better understand me." 

An estimated 16 million people in China are in sham marriages involving straight women unwittingly married gay men,the Atlantic quoted Zhang Beichuan, a professor at Qingdao University's Medical School who researches gay issues, as saying. The trend goes both ways, however, with some lesbians marrying heterosexual men. 

Cao Xin, a teacher at a Chongqing high school, put her sexuality on the sidelines when she married a man she met at a matchmaking event.

"I thought I could 'fix' myself by acting straight and getting married," said Cao, 28, who knew she was a lesbian in her teens. "I tried my best, but our marriage only lasted one year. I felt disgusted after I had sex with him."

After enduring a bitter divorce in 2011, Cao came out to her parents. "I decided to begin searching for my true other half. My father accepted my sexuality, but my mother still hopes that I can become 'normal' someday. She wants me to have kids who can look after me when I'm old," said Cao.

Support to come out

Finding the courage to come out to parents is a struggle made easier for gays and lesbians by support groups. PFLAG China has helped many gays and lesbians be comfortable with their sexuality and abandon their heterosexual lifestyles. 

"We're receiving a growing number of texts seeking help from helpless, desperate gays and lesbians. By increasing awareness about the dilemmas gays and lesbians face, we hope that people can view us for what we are: a vulnerable group yearning for recognition," said Hu.

Xin Ying, executive director of the Beijing Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender Center, said one of the most important factors to consider is that everyone has a different attitude about coming out.

 "We never enquire about the marital status of our friends who come here," said Xin. "Even if we know some [gay] people who are married, it is very hard to persuade them to talk openly about their sexuality. All they want is to live an unbothered, hermit-like life. Pressing them to come out is akin to rubbing salt into their wounds."

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