Xiaojiong has the ultimate online dating success story. On a Chinese matchmaking forum, she not only found her current husband—she found her current girlfriend, too.
Born in Shenyang, a city in the northeastern province of Liaoning, Xiaojiong grew up not knowing another lesbian. As a teenager searching for love, or at least some friends, she sometimes took the train down to Beijing but felt awkward in the city's rowdy girl bars.
The Internet changed everything. Isolated gays and lesbians were able to socialize with others all over the country and find people in their hometowns who were also living in the closet—creating real-life friendships and communities.
The Internet also allowed for the emergence of a new way to “act straight.” In China, where homosexuality was classified as a mental illness until 2001 and a crime until 1997, gays and lesbians still face serious discrimination, with most having to lead double lives.
In a country where the pressure to get married is strong and starts early, it has long been common for gays to marry straight spouses. Now, some are finding what they consider a better alternative. Known as “cooperative marriages,” or hunzuo hunyin, gay men and lesbian women are increasingly marrying each other—often aided by the Internet. (Such marriages are also known as “fake marriage” [jia jiehun] or “ritual marriage” [xingshi hunyin].)
Xiaojiong, in fact, was one of the first to create an online forum for gay men and lesbian women to find such marriage partners. At the time, her motivation was to find herself a husband. “I was already 25 and my parents were pressuring me, non-stop, to get married,” she says of why she began her venture in 2007. “I couldn't find a website for cooperative marriages so I started my own.”
Those who join her forum need to answer the following questions to set up their profiles: “Do you want to live with your spouse or live apart? Do you want to have children or not? Do you want to get a marriage certificate or just have the ceremony? Do you want to get divorced?”
“When gay men and lesbian women marry each other, they can agree on the terms of marriage so they could keep living how they want to,” Xiaojiong says. “It's not fair for straight people to get stuck in marriages with miserable gay people.”
The site is popular and Xiaojiong organizes regional meetups for members to share experiences and support each other. It was at one of those gatherings that Xiaojiong met her girlfriend.
Xiaojiong is tall and slim with short, spiky hair and a uniform of baggy jeans with flannel shirts. Her girlfriend, Xiaopu, is shorter and plumper with shoulder-length hair and a fondness for pastel sweaters. In the local lingo, Xiaojiong is a “T” (tomboy), and Xiaopu is a “P” (feminine-style). They live in a large apartment they share with another lesbian couple.
“We're such a happy family. Two 'T's', two 'P's', two dogs and two cats!” says Xiaopu.
And their family is growing bigger. When they moved in together three years ago, all four women were in search of gay husbands. Last autumn, they each found a man and got married—within weeks of one other—each throwing a lavish wedding that successfully deceived their families, friends, and co-workers. The women continue to live together as before, occasionally attending family gatherings with their spouses.
Xiaojiong's husband is a high school math teacher 10 years her senior. She is glad they are friends because she feels comfortable calling him any time of the day to “scurry back to the marital home” in case of a surprise parental visit.
So far, they have managed to keep their secret. But many others find it too difficult to live in the same city as their parents and move away from home to gain some freedom.
Beijing has the largest gay scene in the country. But even miles from home, the pressure to marry does not go away.
Stephen Leonelli, director of Beijing LGBT Center, says he routinely gets calls from people seeking advice on cooperative marriages—an often divisive topic. “From what I've observed, cooperative marriage is most accessible for the elites,” he says. “People have really high criteria for marriage partners. They want someone with a high salary, a nice apartment, and a Beijing hukou [household registration].”
Others say that cooperative marriages are on the whole more egalitarian than traditional heterosexual relationships.
Brian, a 34-year-old engineer in Beijing who prefers not to use his real name, feels lucky to have a healthy relationship with his lesbian wife and to have found her online in only a few months when it can take others years to find the right match. “She's really independent,” he says. “We have similar career goals and agreed to live separately and share family expenses equally.”
Since the birth of their son last month, however, Brian admits they will face some difficult decisions and challenges. “The boy is living with my wife's parents now, but if we're going to raise him as a family, we will live together and need to discuss how to split the responsibilities. We're also starting to talk about what to tell our son when he gets older.”
Cooperative marriage is such a new phenomenon that there is little research available. A yet-to-be-published study sponsored by Common Language, a lesbian organization in Beijing, surveyed 19 people looking for cooperative marriage partners across China. The study found that most people use online forums to meet potential partners and that gay men tend to take a more active role in pursuing female partners.
Lucetta Kam, a sociologist at Hong Kong Baptist University, is the author of Shanghai Lalas, the first book that analyzes cooperative marriage from the perspectives of lesbian women in Shanghai. “Cooperative marriage is a sad reality,” she says. “It happens because homosexuals are forced to be invisible. But in a way, it is still a kind of resistance—it mocks 'traditional' marriage and creates space for new forms of family to develop.”
Xiaojiong and Xiaopu's story will be the subject of a new documentary from the Pink Space Sexuality Research Center in Beijing.
“I hope cooperative marriage will be a temporary thing,” says Xiaojiong. “If more gay people come out, then perhaps it'll be like a clothing style that the public finds unappealing at first. But if more people start wearing it, then people might become more used to it. China may be an old culture but it has changed a lot.”
After all, she says: “I hope to marry Xiaopu someday."