The World of Chinese - - Cover Story - - H. L. AND LINDA QIAN

When Sun Wen­lin and Hu Mingliang, a cou­ple liv­ing in Chang­sha, were re­fused a same-sex mar­riage cer­tifi­cate by their lo­cal civil af­fairs bureau, the pair took the mat­ter to court. As Sun told the me­dia, they'd read the PRC'S Mar­riage Law cover-to-cover six times—and there wasn't a sin­gle men­tion that mar­riage must only be be­tween a man and a woman.

Known as China's first civil case ad­vanc­ing LGBTQ mar­riage rights, Sun and Hu's law­suit, filed in Jan­uary 2016, was dis­missed in April the same year, af­ter judges de­ter­mined that civil codes and “rel­e­vant statutes” on mar­riage reg­is­tra­tion con­sid­ered het­ero­sex­ual mar­riage to be the only le­gal kind on the main­land. Af­ter­wards, Sun re­ceived reg­u­lar mes­sages on so­cial me­dia, from both fel­low ac­tivists and mem­bers of the pub­lic wish­ing to share their feel­ings about the con­tro­ver­sial event.

Though by and large sup­port­ive, some in the queer com­mu­nity wor­ried it was dan­ger­ous for Sun to make waves. News site spoke to one, a Wuhan res­i­dent re­ferred to as Xiao Hen, who ad­mired the nerve of Sun and Hu, but be­lieved their ac­tions might turn pub­lic feel­ings against gay mar­riage. Xiao Hen had cho­sen a so­lu­tion that, for oth­ers in the com­mu­nity, is eqaully ex­treme, though char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Chi­nese con­text: En­ter­ing into a xing­shi­hun­yin or xinghun (形婚, “con­tract mar­riage”) with a les­bian friend to please his fam­ily. Statis­tics about th­ese mar­riages are hard to come by, but xinghun match­mak­ing site Chi­na­gayles re­ported at least 390,000 users in 2015. An es­ti­mated 16 mil­lion “queer wives” (同妻)—women mar­ried to clos­eted gay men—are also be­lieved to ex­ist; re­searchers and queer ac­tivists say vol­un­tary xinghun is the more “hu­mane” op­tion com­pared to mar­ry­ing het­ero­sex­ual women, who are more vul­ner­a­ble to emo­tional and phys­i­cal abuse.

Af­ter their tra­di­tional wed­ding “wine ban­quet,” Xiao Hen has never asked his xinghun part­ner to visit his fam­ily, though they still ask when the cou­ple are go­ing to have chil­dren. Other xinghun re­la­tion­ships are even more com­pli­cated. He Xiaopei and Yuan Yuan's 2013 doc­u­men­tary, Our mar­riages: when lesbians Marry gay men, fea­tured two les­bian cou­ples who met and fell in love while all four were look­ing for gay men to marry. The film fol­lows their ex­trav­a­gant “het­ero­sex­ual” wed­dings with gay men and day-to-day lives af­ter­wards, all un­der one roof. Through­out the film, He ar­gues that xinghun of­fers a creative way for young queers to nav­i­gate cul­tural and so­ciopo­lit­i­cal pres­sures in a so­ci­ety with tra­di­tional fam­ily val­ues.

Not ev­ery­one re­ceived this mes­sage pos­i­tively, though. “There is a lot of dis­crim­i­na­tion against peo­ple who en­ter into con­tract mar­riages. Some say that women who are lesbians should not ‘de­ceive' their par­ents; oth­ers say hav­ing a con­tract mar­riage is sur­ren­der­ing to pa­tri­ar­chal in­sti­tu­tions,” He told one au­di­ence at a 2015 screen­ing of her film. On Chi­na­gayles users cite the de­sire to have chil­dren as a good rea­son for such con­tracts since sur­ro­gacy is out­lawed in China, while sin­gle and adop­tive par­ents face daunt­ing le­gal hur­dles.

Ling Jued­ing, founder of (now de­funct) gay match­mak­ing app ZANK, be­lieves nei­ther xinghun nor law­suits ful­fill the larger big­ger obli­ga­tion—chang­ing pub­lic opin­ion. His so­lu­tion? A lav­ish, me­dia-at­tended “wed­ding” with his part­ner, per­formed the day af­ter the US Supreme Court le­gal­ized gay mar­riage in 2015, to“[live] life well as a queer per­son, thus in­flu­enc­ing so­ci­ety,” as Ling told ifeng.

“The ‘con­tract mar­riage' con­cept is in­ter­est­ing… be­cause even het­ero­sex­ual mar­riage is a con­tract; each part­ner has con­di­tions for the other,” Tai­wanese fem­i­nist scholar Li Gen­fang pointed out at He's screen­ing. “[ Xinghun] puts the in­her­ent com­plex­i­ties of mar­riage to light.” Or, as one of the film's sub­jects de­clares, “All mar­riages are about putting on a show any­way.”

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