A new documentary Inside the Chinese Closet explores a specific element of Chinese LGBT+ culture - one where LGBT+ people choose to marry into heterosexual relationships in order to appease their families. SBS spoke to three gay men now living in Sydney - Tim and Ryan from China, and Oliver, originally from Taiwan - about the culture and attitude toward LGBT+ people in China and Taiwan, about how that compares to life in Australia, and about where China and Taiwan should go from here.
Oliver knows friends of friends in Taiwan who have opted for these “friendship marriages” - where a lesbian woman will marry a gay man, but says that “it does make things more complicated” - especially when both parties are in their own same-sex relationships on the side.
“If one couple breaks up, it’s actually a double break up, and when they have children it just becomes so much more, a bigger issue,” he explains.
“People go crazy, rather than facing the issue,” Ryan says, recounting that one of his friends - who is in a heterosexual marriage with children - offered to run away with him, leaving his family behind.
“He is married, he got promoted, and everything is perfect from the surface, but he is actually feeling so devastated,” Ryan says.
Meanwhile, Tim says he knows of “many gay men who enter into heterosexual marriages” with straight women in China - women who remain in the dark about their husband’s sexuality.
“I will not choose that path,” he says. “I do not agree with those kinds of arrangements, I think it’s really unfair to their gay wives - we call them ‘gay wives’ - but also I’m not judgmental of them.”
When it comes to life in Sydney, all three men agree that it’s easier to be LGBT+ here.
Oliver says that living here “makes things much easier” for him, because he can be “out at work to friends and most people here” - as well as his sister and selected family members in Taiwan - while remaining in the closet to his parents. This distance, he says, means that he doesn’t “have to worry about those consequences”.
He says: “Currently, I white lie to my parents, so they don’t really have that pressure in knowing anything”. The pressure, he says, lies in the questions that come from family friends when they ask his parents how their children are.
Tim says he moved to Sydney partially because of his sexuality, saying: “I didn’t want to stay home with the family. I found it a bit unsafe, a bit uncomfortable, I wanted to find another place to meet more gay men, openly.”
While Tim is still in the closet to most of his family - with the exception of one cousin - he now has a partner. Despite this, he says that he still feels the pressure to get married, and that when he visited China recently, his father asked him about girls and whether he wants to get married.
After waiting 10 years for his permanent visa to get approved in 2008, Ryan flew to Sydney on Mardi Gras day.
“I couldn’t really survive in China but there was no way for me to go abroad,” he says, noting that it took him two years to settle into life in Sydney and to accept himself and his sexuality.
“When I was in China in my 30s, my mother would say that she is ashamed of me because I was unmarried,” he explains. “When she would go out with her friends, everyone would brag about their children getting married, having grandchildren, and she wasn’t able to do that. This peer pressure, it made her feel like she was losing face.”
Eventually, Ryan came out to his family while home for his brother’s wedding.
“The reaction was dramatic and violent,” he says. “As a result, my father disowned me and my mother went crazy - literally crazy - for awhile. So for me, I’d say, for three weeks, I’ve never gone through anything that difficult before.”
“Today, my father still refuses to talk to me, my mother refuses to ask me about my personal life,” he says, crediting “ACON and other LGBTI organisations” for helping him through the six month period after he came out to his family, saying that he “could hear anything and just cry” during that time.
Historically, Oliver says, to be gay and Chinese “is not an issue”, but rather, “the whole thing about Chinese culture is that you must have children”.
“Once you have children, no one really cares what you do sexually as long as there’s offspring,” he adds.
Tim agrees that the pressure for heteronormativity comes from the cultural expectation that you will “generate the bloodline”.
Ryan, however, disagrees that Chinese culture is the cause of this pressure.
“Lots of people will think that it’s due to Asian culture, Chinese culture, but if you look at Australian people 20 years ago from Christian families, they are experiencing the same thing, even nowadays,” he explains.
Ryan believes that in China “people don’t really fight hard enough” for equality, adding that “here [in Australia] people are more open and willing to fight,” he says.
Oliver agrees that “with China there’s a long way to go,” but notes that “Taiwan is getting there” and that as LGBT+ visibility grows, “eventually in Taiwan it shouldn’t be a huge deal”.
Tim agrees that visibility would help China to accept LGBT+ people.
“We need to see more role models, because then we can show others ‘look, they are just as common’ as [heterosexuals], they’re not abnormal,” he says.
This, Tim says, is one of the reasons marriage equality here in Australia is so important.
“In China there are 10 million gay men in heterosexual marriages, which is why I think marriage equality is important,” he says, adding: “Since there are so many Chinese people overseas, when they see marriage equality, they will probably have a better opinion of LGBTI people.”
He continues: “I think it will affect my family’s opinion because I am here. Once they see gay marriage is legalised in Australia, they will have a better understanding, you know, they’ll think ‘oh it’s not illegal in Australia’. I think it’s going to affect my coming out, it’s going to make it much easier.”