Brutal impact of forced marriage on China's young gay men

Gender

After Ma* left the house in anger, his parents did not stop badmouthing him. He has lost count of the number of times he and his parents have quarrelled fiercely over his need to marry.

The 29-year-old, who lives in north-western China, has known his sexual orientation since he was a junior in high school, but, in fear of his parents’ rejection, he has kept his sexuality a secret for 15 years. With their son showing no interest in marriage, Ma's parents have taken the matter into their own hands, attempting to arrange a forced marriage.

In the six years since his graduation from university, Ma has faced a lot of pressure from his parents to marry. "Seeing that I never had any ideas, they started to arrange blind dates for me, and even told me that if I didn't get married I would be cut off from my parentage," Ma said. "I don't know how much longer I can hold out, but I just know that I really don't want to be married to a woman."

A "forced marriage" might be engineered through threats, violence, verbal prodding and emotional blackmail. In China, when parents force their children into marriage in this way, it can lead to excessive psychological stress and even serious mental illness for unmarried young people, especially if they privately identify as LGBTQI+.

'I don't call her my wife, I address her as wife only for my parents and society. I don't want to admit it to myself.'

A 2016 survey by a Chinese government committee revealed more than 70 per cent of respondents under 40 had been forced into marriage. The forced marriage rate was highest (86%) among unmarried young people aged 25 to 35.

China has the largest LGBTQI+ population in the world and while legal persecution of LGBTQI+ people was abolished in 1997, discrimination continues in many forms. Many are unwilling to be open about their identity, officially because of their fear of discrimination and unfair treatment in the workplace, but personally, because of their parents’ objection to their sexual orientation. This means parents may not necessarily be aware of their child's sexual orientation when forcing them into marriage.

"Last year I was diagnosed with depression by a local hospital and have been consistently on medication till now," Ma told Newsworthy, speaking in Mandarin. "I don't know if it has anything to do with my parents forcing me to get married, but the prediction of not being able to pursue my ideal life does make me feel miserable."

While Ma continues to hold out against forced marriage, Zhang*, living in Beijing, did agree to marry his "wife" in 2021 after seven years of forced marriage pressure from his parents. "I don't call her my wife, [I] address her as wife only for my parents and society. I don't want to admit it to myself because I don't like her and even have no sexual desire for her," he said.

Zhang has known he is a gay man since high school and has had several boyfriends. To escape his parents and avoid their urging to get married, he enrolled in a graduate program in Beijing in 2016; he chose to stay in the Chinese capital after graduating two years later. "Because I just worked, I didn't have any savings, but wanted to buy a house in Beijing. I had to turn to my parents, but they raised the only requirement: that I had to get married. They would not finance my house if I didn’t agree."

Zhang said he confessed his sexual orientation, and resistance to marriage, to his parents but they were unmoved, saying, as the only man in the family's current generation, he should marry a woman in any case, not only to fulfil the task of passing on the family name but also to avoid his own social ridicule.

"I have to shape the image of a competent husband in front of other people, even if I'm anxious, even if I have a lot of arguments with my wife and even if I don't love her." Zhang said.

Many LGBTQI+ people in China share the same plight as Zang and Ma. They face not only the pressure from their parents to get married but also the constant pressure from Chinese society to "pass on the family line" and "establish a family". They are hidden among China's 1.4 billion people and have no way to make their sexual orientation known to the public. Day in and day out, they have to play the role their parents or society expects of them.

"My dream is to find a guy I love to spend the rest of my life with," Ma said. "I don't want anything more than having a smooth and happy life with the person I love."

* The names of Ma and Zhang have been changed to protect their identities.

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