Mothers and fathers of gay children tell their stories of heartbreak and joy

By Ni Dandan Source:Global Times Published: 2014-6-30 17:48:01

The parents of gay children share their experiences and feelings at a conference in Shanghai. Photo: Courtesy of PFLAG China

In November 2005, Wu Youjian made headlines throughout China's media, coming out very publicly as the mother of a gay son. She was the country's first parent to openly support the gay and lesbian community in China.

Since then Wu has seen a growing number of Chinese parents joining her. And her independent group PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays) China, which she founded in 2008, continues to expand. Last month, the group welcomed hundreds of parents and their gay children in downtown Shanghai for a conference where they shared and exchanged experiences and feelings.

Themed "Embrace Your Children," the conference was also part of the 2014 Shanghai Pride event, the sixth Pride held in the city. Pride aims to raise awareness of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) themes including marriage equality, sexual health and societal acceptance and boost the LGBT community's position in China.

It is certainly no easy thing to turn around most Chinese parents' deep-rooted prejudices and misunderstandings of homosexuality. At the conference, a mother, whose son had just admitted to her he was gay, could not stop crying through the event which lasted for hours. Another mother, whose daughter hadn't admitted anything but had recommended she attend the conference, left the room in the middle of a discussion, shocked and angry. "I didn't expect so many people would show up for an event like this. I cannot accept it if this has happened to my daughter," said the distraught Shanghai woman on the way out.

Optimistic approach

But most parents attending the conference had already learned to adopt an open and optimistic approach to the issue. "If I cannot accept it and support him, he will never be truly happy. I don't want my child to live in pain," said Mei Jie, a Shandong native who is running free counseling sessions for Shanghai families with gay children.

Some of the parents who have been at the forefront of change say that their present goal is to attain marriage equality for gay men and women in China. "I've been working on drafting proposals advocating legislation to the country's policymakers for gay marriage," announced Xiao Tao's father. Xiao Tao's family has already recognized the de facto marriage of their son and his partner.

Since 2001 when the Netherlands became the first country to recognize gay marriage, a dozen other countries including Belgium, Spain and Canada have legalized this. In China, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Li Yinhe, first put forward a proposal on gay marriage to the annual meetings of the country's policymakers and policy advisors in 2003. But the issue only gained attraction five years later when Li restated her proposal.

Last year, an open letter signed by more than 100 parents of gay children called on the country's policymakers and advisors to consider the rights of gay people and revise the marriage laws as soon as possible to give equal marriage rights to the millions of gay people in China.

There are no official statistics on the number of gay people in China. But research fellow Li Yinhe said that, based on international studies which suggest gay people can account for 3 to 4 percent of the population, the number of gay people in China could range from 39 million to 52 million.

Even if it is a large group and becoming more accepted, many people find it hard to announce their true sexual orientation especially to their parents. Most gay children take a long time, preparing carefully, and dropping clues along the way before plucking up the courage to come out of their closets.

Two young men hug each other. Photo: CFP

Laying the ground

Feng Lin, a Zhejiang native, often talked to his mother about the social programs he had been actively involved with on campus, which were aimed at protecting the rights of the gay community. "I've been laying the ground for an admission for three years."

Bao Bao, a Shanghai woman, frequently reminded her mom that she wouldn't be getting married any time in the future, let alone having a baby. A Shandong boy got his mother to watch gay-themed movies like Bishonen (a Hong Kong film about a gay romance) and Brokeback Mountain and shared gossip items involving gay celebrities.

Even so, when the admission finally came and everything was clear, almost every parent felt shocked and unable to accept the facts. "We accused him of telling a bad joke. But then he left home," said Feng Lin's mother. "I knew then that this time he was serious."

Over the first week when her son was away from home, the mother said she struggled a lot. "I never expected this would happen to my son. But I love him. I have to support him." When her son returned home with a stack of reading about being gay, his mother sat up overnight and read everything he had brought. The following day she decided she would try to accept it. "I didn't want to see my son disappear again. I needed to know about his real life."

The Guangzhou-based gay children's parents' group, according to Feng Lin's mother, offered her vital assistance through the most difficult period. Later, instead of hiding her son's sexual orientation, she told the rest of the family: "If you love my boy, you need to accept him whether he loves a woman or a man. If you cannot accept this and find it embarrassing, we can end our relationship."

Another Shanghai mother, nicknamed Chili, said she had never expected his response when she asked his son to bring home his girlfriend. When her son was 28 the family had prepared him an apartment for his marriage - a tradition in Shanghai. Naturally, the parents asked about his girlfriend. "He went quiet when I asked. Then he said, 'Mom, you will be hurt if I tell you the truth.'"

"I was guessing he might be involved with a divorced woman, or a divorced mother with a child, or a disabled child. I never expected it would be a man."

Her biggest concern was about how her son would cope when he turned old and had no children to take care of him. But looking at the situation from her son's point of view, the mother said she couldn't imagine how hard it had been for her son to realize that he was different from most others. "We need to accept our children's inner worlds if we love them. Once you walk into their hearts, they will be truly happy."

The mother of Bao Bao agreed, adding that a parent's ability to accept could be far beyond the limits their children imagine because of the power of love. She said forcing a gay person to marry a heterosexual man or woman was unfair and wrong for both families and she wanted parents of gay people to never agree to this. At the conference Bao's mother was openly seeking for a suitable female partner for her daughter.

Da Mi comes from a rural village in Jiangsu Province. Two years ago, he told his family that he loved men. To his surprise, his mother, a farmer, who then knew nothing about being gay, has become a loyal supporter. "When I told her I was a tongzhi (literally comrade but it also means gay), she had no idea what I was talking about. I went further and said I was homosexual. She was still at a loss," Da Mi recalled.

Feeling the pain

His mother later discovered that her son had spent nearly six years coming to terms with his sexuality. "I could feel his pain. He burst into tears when my nephew got married. I was puzzled by his behavior then. Now I know he was then thinking why he couldn't be like other people getting married and having a normal family life."

The mother said in the most painful periods, her son actually considered suicide. "Nothing is more important than my son's life. I gave him my word that I would always embrace him no matter what he became." She said her big job now was to persuade her stubborn husband to change his views.

Most Chinese people over 50 are unaware of homosexuality - it was not part of their culture for generations. "My son once said how fortunate he was living in the era of the Internet. He could access knowledge about his 'problem' and found a large group of people sharing the same thing. I guess people of my age kept these secrets to themselves. Young people today are lucky. They can be themselves in this age," said Shanghai mom, Chili, who is now in her 50s.

Some parents, however, still insist that homosexuality is either an exotic art form or it's a physical or mental illness. One Shanghai native, who wants to remain anonymous, said that after telling his father he was gay, his father immediately took him to a men's hospital for treatment.

"His first reaction was that homosexuality was something exclusive to foreigners. Chinese people could not have it. Then he believed that it was a sexual dysfunction that misled me to think I was gay. He took me to a hospital and told the doctor there to prescribe me aphrodisiacs."

For months, the man said his father watched him take the pills every day. "But they haven't had any effect so far," he joked. He worries about how he can convince his father that he is healthy but just a little different from most people.

Sang Ni, from Chongqing, also sought medical intervention for her daughter. She spent four years going to a clinical psychologist every week, seeking a cure to her daughter's "mistaken" sexual orientation. "I didn't believe my daughter only loved women. The psychologist said it would be difficult to change her and it depended on her attitude."

Serious depression

After more than four years, Sang said the only result was both she and her daughter were seriously depressed. However, the persistent mother didn't give up. She thought the psychologist was just not good enough to solve the problem. She turned to Southwest Hospital, a public hospital in Chongqing, asking for help only to be told: "It's you, not your daughter that is sick." "The doctor told me homosexuality was not an illness," the mother recalled.

Also from Chongqing, mother Xiao Li said she was once extremely excited on learning there was a clinic in the city that specialized in "treating" homosexuality. "The 'doctor' asked that both my daughter and I attend. It was going to take three sessions to complete the 'treatment' and it cost 24,000 yuan ($3,864)."

The doctor also told the mother to put extra pressure on her daughter. The mother followed the instructions and forced the daughter to choose between her parents and her girlfriend. Looking back, the mother said she regretted this greatly. "When my daughter was in most need of me, I was torturing her instead of giving her the support she desired."

Newspaper headline: Proud to be parents

Posted in: Society, Metro Shanghai, Relationships, City Panorama

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