How a Chinese rural gay couple defied gossip, exorcists and arranged marriage

By Zhang Yiqian in Shijiazhuang Source:Global Times Published: 2014-11-18 19:08:01

When Apple CEO Tim Cook came out of the closet, gay people around the world voiced their support for him. In China, where most gay people stay silent because of the pressure to have children and a lack of understanding, Anwei and Yebin, a gay couple living in rural North China, have defied the biases of fellow villagers. After the futile efforts of exorcists to convert one of them to heterosexuality, they communicated with their parents to help them understand their love and have even signed a contract to give themselves a degree of financial security.

Anwei (left) and Yebin stand in the cornfields in front of their house after a day's harvesting. Photo: Feng Zhonghao

Yebin still remembers the day he found two strangers in his home. They were people in their 40s dressed in robes, and bizarrely, they were dancing around to the rhythm of drums and bells.

The 33-year-old farmer, who lives in a village near Shijiazhuang, North China's Hebei Province, had come out of the closet to his parents in 2004. Immediately, he was considered "ill," and family members tried to "help" him using all means available, including hiring exorcists to cure him. Even drinking water mixed with burning pieces of paper "spells" wasn't enough to get them to stop.

The situation changed gradually, over a long, 10-year struggle. Now, Yebin lives next door to his parents with his boyfriend, Anwei. When Yebin spoke to the Global Times, he was sitting on a couch in a five-square-meter living room, adjacent to a small supermarket the couple owns, which sells snacks and household items. While Yebin spoke, Anwei looked up at him with a smile and a natural spark in his eyes, which was something unimaginable during those dark days just after he came out to his parents.

After Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, came out of the closet earlier this month, homosexuality has been a hot topic of discussion in China. While many gay people living in China's countryside are reluctant to come out as gay, because of cultural pressure to get married and the gossipy nature of small communities, others have found a way to live happily despite these problems.

'Dance the evils away'

Both Yebin and Anwei had dated women before finding each other.

Anwei had girlfriends for many years, even though he felt attracted to men. It was lonely, he said, and when he felt sure about his sexuality he thought that he was the only "abnormal" person in the world.

On the other hand, Yebin was always sure of his orientation, but bent under the pressure his family put on him to wed. In 2004, Yebin married a woman from a neighboring village, a match that was arranged by his parents.

"I knew I had always been gay, but some gay people I knew had gotten married, so I thought if I gave it a shot I could do it," he said.

But on his honeymoon, Yebin found it impossible to pretend to be heterosexual. He was repelled by his wife's advances and the couple ended up sleeping in separate beds. His wife went back to her home after a few days and told her family all about Yebin's behavior.

Yebin's mother soon found out about the almost immediate breakdown of her son's marriage through the village grapevine and confronted her son. He had no choice but to tell his mother that he was gay.

At first, his parents didn't believe being gay was natural. They took Yebin to the hospital and found the exorcists to "dance the evils away."

Yebin's parents struggled with his sexuality for several years and started researching the subject.  The end of this struggle started in 2007 when Yebin's boyfriend was killed in a traffic accident. Yebin, naturally, became depressed.

"During the following two years I hated myself for being gay," he said. But it was then that Yebin came to an understanding with his mother. Seeing her son so miserable, she told Yebin that it didn't matter if he liked men or liked women, as long as he was happy.

Village gossip

In 2011, Anwei and Yebin met each other online. After coming to terms with his own sexuality, Anwei started searching for other gay men on the Internet and added Yebin on the QQ social platform. After talking for a month, Yebin visited Anwei in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Soon afterwards, Anwei moved to Hebei, without even bothering to hand in his notice at work.

"Maybe it's because I liked him too much," he said.

The first challenge the new couple faced was gaining Yebin's family's approval. Anwei recalls that on the day he first came to Yebin's family home, he didn't have the courage to actually meet his lover's mother. When the family came home in the evening, he hid until Yebin coaxed him to come out and introduce himself.

After trying to gain the acceptance of those around him for almost 10 years, Yebin said that he will not hide his sexuality any more. He has convinced his family to accept him and his partner, and he doesn't care what the other villagers think.

"Not many people come up and shout insults in your face. And why should you care about what people say behind your back?" he said.

There have been a few times that he has heard people gossiping about him, he said. Once, he heard two villagers talking about him being gay and he simply went over to them and asked if they'd like to hear the real story. After a couple of incidents like this, people were at least more careful to hide their chatter.

"At first, when we went to the market the salespeople would ask us questions like, 'Are you guys really together?' or 'Who's the man and who's the woman?' But after seeing us a few times, there's nothing more to ask about," Yebin said.

In order to earn Yebin's family's trust, Anwei showed them that he could help them with their day to day business. He volunteered to clean out the family's pig sty and worked ankle-deep in foul-smelling excrement.

Anwei's family has grown to accept the way he lives his life. But to reassure Anwei's family, Yebin's mother has been chatting with them through Skype to show them that Anwei has another family in Hebei that can help support him.

Little privacy in the countryside

Unfortunately Anwei and Yebin's situation, with two accepting families, is not the norm. Gay couples in the countryside face much more pressure than those that live in cities, said Hu Zhijun, the executive director of PFLAG China, a non-profit organization that provides support to homosexuals' families.

"Compared with cities, rural areas in China don't offer much privacy. If you live in the city, you may not know your neighbors. But in villages, everybody knows everybody else's business," he said.

Aside from these cultural reasons, being gay in China's countryside is difficult for practical reasons. Hu said that in rural areas, having children is essential to ensure that you have someone to look after you in your old age, as the provision of private or government-funded nursing homes is meager.

A supermarket employee surnamed Luo, from a village in Guangdong Province, chose to move to Shanghai due to these pressures. When his mother found out that he was gay in 2012, she wasn't concerned. In fact, she seemed to content to ignore it and still wanted him to get married and have children.

Luo said this reaction was caused by the fact that most people haven't even heard of homosexuality in rural areas. His mother also believed that her son was "sick" and asked him to see a psychologist. When Luo refused, she started trying to set him up with different women. "She didn't want to discuss the matter," Luo said.

Gradually, his situation has improved. He took his mother to a support group meeting to share her experiences and hear what other families had to say. Eventually, she has made peace with her son's lifestyle. His father, however, is still in the dark.

"When you live in a rural area, most people think you should have a family, have a child, and that if you don't you'll grow old alone," Luo said. "So if you say you are with a man, people think that there's no way it could work out."

Securing their future

Due to these types of concerns over her son's future, and with the absence of any official legal status for gay couples, Yebin's mother came up with the idea that the couple should sign a contract.

"I've thought this through. I've got two houses, one for Yebin and one for Yebin's brother," she said. "I want Yebin and Anwei to stay together."

Anwei and Yebin drafted the contract. They share the house and the money they've earned, and if one of them dies the other can keep the property. Yebin's nephews will help them in their old age if they do not have any children in the future. And if they split up and Anwei wants to go back to Xinjiang, the couple will sell the house and Anwei can take some of the proceeds.

This kind of guaranteed stability and acceptance is rare among gay couples in China's countryside. Yebin says that he has achieved this situation through communicating with his family and helping them understand what being gay is really about.

Yebin's mother has even become something of a gay rights advocate, telling Yebin that he can bring by any gay people or their parents to meet her if they are having problems and that she will help guide them.

Hu thinks the society's attitude toward homosexuality has improved over recent years. He has seen more and more people coming out of the closet, and many parents, like Yebin's mom, starting to help others in the same situation and sharing their experiences on television.

Yebin says he's happy to show others how it worked out between him and Anwei, as it may help others to come out. After their story was reported in the media, the couple became well-known in the region. Some people drove from nearby villages and acted as though they wanted to buy things at their shop, but their real purpose was to get some good gossip material.

But in the end, Yebin says he hopes people realize that being gay is no big deal.

"We are nothing special, we are just trying to live our lives," he said.

Newspaper headline: Coming out in the country

Posted in: In-Depth

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