Same-sex weddings are illegal in China, a fact known to Lu Zhong, 24, and Liu Wangqiang, 20, when they tweeted an invitation to theirs, via the Sina Weibo microblog, on Sept. 22.
The big day would be Oct. 2, the two young men announced, and anyone was welcome to attend. For the precise location, a prospective guest needed only contact the instant chat address included in the tweet. And for those still unclear about the parties to be married, the couple attached several affectionate engagement photos. In the days that followed, they received RSVPs and a few hundred dollars worth of donations to defray the costs associated with what they hoped would be a traditional ceremony.
In some sense, there’s not that much new here. China’s first public (and illegal) gay marriage, so named by the media, took place in 2010 in the southwestern metropolis of Chengdu and was given sympathetic coverage by Communist Party-owned news outlets at the time. Proposals to legalize gay marriage have been introduced (and ignored) at the People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s mostly ceremonial rubber-stamp legislature, for almost a decade. Though there are no statistics on just how many gay marriages (public or private) have taken place, growing activism for the legalization of the unions attracts significant media and netizen attention.
One reason for the increased awareness is that China is opening up to the fact that it is home, by one expert’s calculation, to some 10 million marriages between gay men and straight women. A less common, but equally well-known analog is for a gay man and a lesbian to marry legally while remaining loyal to their same-sex partners. These sham marriages are closet-re-enforcing ruses pursued under social pressure to produce offspring, among other familial duties. They also have something that illegal gay marriages don’t: legal protections that range from the right of inheritance to the benefits of divorce law in the case of a marital breakdown.
Still, the ubiquity of sham legal marriages doesn’t guarantee the acceptance of legal marriages between same-sex partners any time soon. After all, in China homosexuality was illegal as recently as 1997 and listed as a psychosis as recently as 2001. Liu and Lu, as a public example of a committed gay couple, have positioned themselves within an ongoing public debate that places China’s traditional biases against homosexuality at odds with new demographic realities and a young, microblogging generation that prioritizes personal freedom.
The reaction to Lu and Liu’s invitation proved as much. Their tweet quickly garnered 500 re-tweets (or “forwards,” in Sina Weibo parlance) and nearly 200 comments, the vast majority of which were congratulatory and -- based on a brief scan -- seemingly offered by a predominantly youthful set of followers. That’s small-time traffic by the standards of China’s microblogs, but it was big enough to be noticed by the authorities in Ningde, the modest-sized city in Fujian province where the tweet announced that the wedding was supposed to be held.
According to a recently published interview with Lu, the local authorities were less than thrilled with the idea of a gay wedding in their jurisdiction, and in the days running up to the big day, they canvassed local hotels and karaokes (likely wedding venues) in hopes of finding and halting the ceremony.
Why? It’s unclear. The local government hasn’t released a statement, and in interviews and tweets the couple has been reluctant to describe or explain the government’s behavior. Still, Ningde is a smaller city in a largely rural province, and social norms there -- especially among the older generation and those in leadership -- are surely more conservative than in China’s bigger and more modern cities. Equally likely, the conservative, promotion-minded authorities weren’t keen to find themselves leading a city that microblogs would soon dub the home of “Fujian’s First Gay Marriage.”
Even government pressure could not deter Lu and Liu. In a daring bit of romantic bravado, they dropped whatever venue they’d originally planned for the wedding and instead led a motor scooter motorcade into the center of Ningde and held a very public ceremony. Video taken of the event suggests that it was attended by several hundred (at least) seemingly spontaneous well-wishers who, it can safely be assumed, would’ve reacted poorly to any law enforcement action against the young couple. The video was uploaded and began to circulate via microblogs, without impediment from online censors.
However, likely because the wedding took place in the midst of an eight-day national holiday that was enjoyed by journalists, too, it didn’t really generate much in the way of posts, stories or discussion until the middle of last week. By the time media outlets did pick up the story, their tone was sympathetic and congratulatory -- especially toward China for having such an open-minded attitude on gay marriage. Xinhua, the Communist Party-owned national news wire, headlined its Oct. 20 story, “Gay Wedding Reflects Growing Tolerance in China” and failed to mention the harassment and discrimination that Lu and Liu faced in Ningde. Rather, the article extolled the wedding as a sign of social progress against traditional biases toward gays and lesbians.
For all the sympathetic news coverage, China’s leading newspapers and news sites have yet to write editorials formalizing their sympathy toward to Lu and Liu, much less their support of gay marriage. This is no accident: Editorials printed in Communist Party-owned papers are tantamount to official position papers, and for now, at least, officials don’t appear ready to issue statements in favor of liberalizing marriage laws to permit a type of union that was a criminal offense not so long ago.
Still, there are prominent individual voices willing to write in favor of gay marriage and well-established venues willing -- and allowed -- to publish these opinions. Last Thursday, for example, Wu Chunmei, a prolific writer, published “The Ethical and Legal Challenges of the Fujian Marriage,” on a popular state-owned opinion site with wide editorial latitude. The essay has been widely syndicated and circulated in recent days, and the arguments it makes echo those that have been put forth in favor of gay marriage, in a less formal manner, on Chinese microblogs for the last several years:
“Our Law of Marriage expressly stipulates that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that means that same-sex marriage hasn’t been recognized by law yet. So, strictly speaking, the marriage of these two men is without legal validity or protection. Thus this extravagant wedding is just a cathartic scream by these gay men, as well as an overt provocation designed to challenge the marriage law and traditional morality. They’re expressing their aspirations, their longing for respect and confirmation, their quest for acceptance and blessings.”
Wu concludes her piece with a broad statement in favor of personal freedom against the incursions of the state. For many members of China’s older generations, it’s an alien theme (though by no means unacceptable). But for young Chinese raised in an era of ever-widening sexual freedom (both granted and grasped), the language she chooses is nothing less than self-evident:
“The creation of law is based on the principle that it does not encroach on the interests of the majority. At a time when the number of gays increases day by day, and people’s attitudes toward gay marriage become more and more open, why can’t homosexuals be accepted -- especially when they do no harm to other people and society?”
Ironically, Lu, when interviewed on Friday by a journalist with the Netease internet portal about his reasons for wanting a public wedding ceremony, avoided talk of social acceptance and change, and explained, simply: “I’m quite traditional, quite conservative, and I simply wanted the feeling of having a wedding.”
That’s hardly the angry cry of a social revolutionary, and perhaps such composed restraint bodes well for the future of gay unions in China. Whether or not it does, however, doesn’t appear to be Lu’s immediate concern: These days, he and Liu are on their honeymoon, crossing China by train.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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