Ask the Yangxifu: How Does China View Gay Families?

Rainbow gay pride flag
How does China view gay families?

Different Kind of Wonderful asks:

I want to start this off by saying I have sooo many questions. I am currently dating a Chinese man. Obviously, we are both gay. However, both of us want marriage and kids. Marriage is something we unfortunately can’t enjoy in both of our countries. Just like your relationship with John, I’ve found that our relationship has progressed rather quickly. I.E. – We’re already talking about marriage and kids. My question to you is:

How are “not-so-normal” families seen or reacted to in China? More particularly, the cities?


I think Michael Tsai from Beijing, interviewed by the BBC earlier this year, says it perfectly:

Although I wouldn’t call it discrimination, there’s definitely a pressure to conformity in Chinese society. The goal is to to marry and produce male offspring. Since the Chinese are allowed to have only one child there is even more pressure to conform.

So does this lesbian, featured in a McClatchy News article about the pressure on gay Chinese to marry:

Yu Jing’s parents found out about her most recent relationship a few months ago, prompting her to promise “to try to not date another girl.” She broke up with her girlfriend a month later.

“My dad said, ‘You are on a road that can go no further,’ ” she recalled. “So I’ll marry a man one day so I do not disappoint my parents.

When it comes to what a family is, Chinese feel great pressure to be “normal” — because there’s a lot of prejudice, stigma and the like against, as you write, “not-so-normal” families.

As such, one blogger, Jonathan in China, (who also has a great article about being gay in China) cited an Economist article suggesting that around 90 percent of gay men in China ended up marrying heterosexual women. That seems shockingly high, but not if you take into account the burden such a man faces, should he choose not to follow the traditional pattern of marriage, and birthing and raising least one child to continue the family. This is considered part of filial piety — honoring your parents. And most Chinese would not want to be seen as “unfilial” because the value is so strong in China, and also because children simply don’t want to hurt their parents, given everything they’ve sacrificed for them.

Gay relationships might be the most difficult nontraditional family situations to accept, but they’re not the only ones — divorcees and even families with mental illness (in a parent or a child) have a hard time.

So, when it comes to a nontraditional family — such as what you and your boyfriend hope for — how exactly do people react?

As Tsai mentions in the BBC article, some families, like his, simply ignore it, believing the possibility for a “normal” relationship still exists:

Even though they know I’m gay they still say things like “When you find your wife…”

Another article about homosexuality in the China Daily — which starts out with perhaps the most extreme example of a father wanting to kill his son for being gay (thankfully, he didn’t, and went on to actually found a hotline to help the parents of gay children) — highlights the range of responses, among family members:

The 2007 survey on Public Attitude toward Homosexuality by renowned sociologist and sexologist Li Yinhe indicates that 11.5 percent of Chinese will completely embrace a gay/lesbian family member, while 11.3 percent will not do so, with the vast majority of 74.3 percent saying they will accept, in the hope that their children will go mainstream with their sexual preferences in future.

In the end, most Chinese gays and lesbians will “go mainstream” — even if it means, as the McClatchy article explains, a lesbian couple finding a gay couple, so each will pair off and provide the facade of a “normal,” happy family.

Still, just as so much has changed in China, so will the narrow definition of what a family should be. It already is, in fact — look at how more people choose to divorce in China, and that even a handful of parents have begun to actively support gay children in China. And while that change may not come quick enough for you and your boyfriend, perhaps your love and commitment will continue to build momentum in changing attitudes about what a “normal” family really means.

Or, for that matter, who we’re really picturing when we wish a couple báitóuxiélǎo (白头偕老 — may the married couple live to a ripe, old age together). 😉

What advice do you have?


Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China (or in Chinese culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.

17 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: How Does China View Gay Families?”

  1. As a Black woman living here in China.. I have to say that Joeclyn in her beautiful way told you the truth.. however, I will be a little more direct. They will treat you horribly here… I know how they treat people that are different. I am different and married to a Chinese man and I have lived here for 2 years in the same small town and they still look at me like I am walking around with two heads.. I have spoken to students of mine or are obviously gay.. and they have told me although I think girls are more lovely.. I will do what my parents want… I have some men that will move to abroad because there is no way they would be accepted here. Unfortunately, China is still very closed and very traditional when it comes to family matters. Even if your marriage is horrible.. it is better to stay in it and have an affair than to divorce. They are just not ready over here… hey… they are barely ready in the states…

  2. The results from Li Yinhe’s study are right in line with my experience. Most people I know say they would accept a gay family member but they would encourage them to choose a hetero lifestyle instead because life is hard for gay people in China, even in a big city like Beijing.

    So it *sounds* like a fairly open atmosphere where people might not necessarily support a gay family member but they wouldn’t actively oppose them either. But in my five years here I haven’t met one single openly-gay person, let alone someone in a committed gay relationship. And I’ve met a lot of people.

    1. @Jo, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I’m so glad you chimed in on this subject (as clearly, you’ve experienced some of the difficulties of being an unusual couple in China). 🙂

      @Melanie, so nice to see you in the comments! In all of my years in China, I only met one lesbian, but she was in the closet — so I’d certainly echo your experience.

  3. My hairdresser here in Beijing is openly gay. He is Chinese/Korean and grew up in Moscow. His family is very supportive of his lifestyle, but he tells me that being in gay in Beijing is miserable – from the discrimination he feels from other Beijingers to the lack of social outlets.

    1. @globalgal, oops, almost missed you! Thanks for coming over to visit! How interesting you actually know someone openly gay. I can imagine it must be horrible. And the fact that it is horrible in what is considered a cosmopolitan city in China says a lot.

  4. Actually, I started thinking about this after I commented, and I realized that I know three more openly gay Chinese, all living in the third tier city in Shandong where I lived for 3.5 years. One is a young man who runs a clothing shop with his parents who are aware of his orientation. He liked to hang around with the foreigners there because he felt he could be more himself. The other two were a lesbian couple (They also spent much of their time with foreigners.). If Beijing is tough, imagine life in a third tier city!

  5. I asked my husband this question – his family is from a “small” town and are very traditional. He said that his family would probably prefer to have their children be heterosexual but would love them just the same if they were not. They want his happiness first. Now, outsiders on the other hand… don’t know! I’ve never been to China, but will be there in a couple months, and I’ve already been forewarned that people will probably want to touch me, gawk, etc. because I look so different.

    Like Jo Gan said, she still gets strange reactions to her skin color. So, you’ll probably get strange reactions as well. I just hope you don’t let it get to you… and maybe you can change the perceptions of those people around you to make it easier for others in the future. I will pray that you will have all the boldness you need to be yourself and live authentically.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Laura. Interesting that your husband’s family would love their children, even if they were gay. That’s encouraging to know families like his are out there.

  6. My boyfriend is Chinese, I’m Australian. We’re both under 20. I think younger people are much more open than the older generation; he is completely out and has been through most of his school life. His family doesn’t accept but some of his cousins do.

    Anyway, I think it will start to slowly change.

  7. So…I’ve been dating my boyfriend for almost 1 year and I’ve been in China for the past 6 months with him. I spent some time with his parents (about 3 weeks or so at his house), and there was a LOT of friction…
    I assume his parents must know he’s not straight because he’s never dated, and because of things he said when he was younger (i.e. not feeling attraction when asked about girls…etc) anyways, one day his dad became very upset and they got in an argument. I had a pretty good idea about what was happening, but played dumb, because I didn’t want it to escalate…(my boyfriend told me later once we had left that his dad had proclaimed that he felt me and my boyfriend had become too close for comfort and it disgusted him)…things only got worse as the day progressed. His aunt and uncle and cousin came that night and his dad again brought up the topic of me and my boyfriend’s “closeness”…after some pacification from his uncle they left and things cooled some…but it was still very uncomfortable. Now my boyfriend has seemed to have back-tracked a little…I feel very confused. He actually told me that if something happened to our relationship and we separated, he’d just find a woman and marry her because he just doesn’t want to hurt his mother. But on the other hand, he DID stand up to his father and told him, that “even if [he] was gay, it doesn’t matter…it’s [his] life and he can decide to be with whoever he wants.”
    So in short, I feel like I’m in between him and his parents (well, mother) and I don’t want to be there…I feel as though I will lose in such choice if things become tough…

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, webster. That is a real tough situation to be caught in the middle of. In the end, it’s really going to depend on your boyfriend and just how much he is willing to go against his parents’ wishes and what society expects of him. You need a lot of courage to stand in opposition to that, and it may be that in the end, it is too much for him. I hope I’m wrong, though. Hang in there.

  8. Ah, Webster, I am in the EXACT same position as you are. I am an American, and have been dating my Chinese boyfriend for 2 years. We moved to China 6 months ago so that he could accept a Professorship in a university in a second-tier city.

    I am openly gay, but in China I feel I’ve had to go back in the closet, which is a very miserable thing… It was so hard to come out in the first place! My boyfriend is only out with a few friends in the U.S. and Shanghai, but mostly definitely not out in general, especially not in China. This is exacerbated by the fact that he is a professor, and would probably lose his job, or at least support from his colleagues, so it is somewhat impossible for him to be out in this city.

    I really want him to tell his parents, though I never push the issue. I hate feeling like I am just a casual friend of his to everyone he knows. I have visited his parents several times and it’s usually OK, though the language difficulties make it a bit hard. I feel they would most likely hate me if they found out about our relationship.

    I also feel like I will lose on any issue between my boyfriend and his parents. He has talked many times about finding a fake wife or a real wife and what we might do. I’ve gotten pretty angry about it, as we are in a committed relationship, why would he be talking about finding a wife!?

    In China, there is also the annoyance of everyone trying to hook me up, or commenting on the fact that I am single (so they think). This is a very hard issue to deal with, and I feel I may need to pretend I have found a girlfriend in America on one of my visits there. Sigh, life became so complicated when I moved to China.

    However, I do like living in China (though I do miss America), but this issue with my boyfriend and his family, more than any other issue, makes me feel we must move back to the States to have a normal life.

  9. I’m pansexual and my family knows it the one’s who don’t, I’m not hiding it from but it’s really none of their business. My boyfriend wasn’t too happy about it when I told him. He just wanted to know how I became that way. I said I didn’t “become” this way, I just am. He thinks it’s weird and doesn’t hide the fact that he thinks Americans are weird for accepting such things. He mentioned that if we have kids, he wants them to marry the opposite sex. That he might be a little bit ok with the girl being a lesbian but definitely not the boy. I told him that my children will be allowed to be who they are and that I cannot be with someone who will not love them unconditionally and accept them for who they are and they will be allowed to be with whomever they want. In the end he agreed and if we do someday marry and such thoughts do come true, I know he won’t like it but I’m taking him at his word that he’ll be accepting. But he also thinks it will be a little ok because we won’t be living in China. In fact, most of the things he’s “ok” with is becaus we won’t be living in China. Most often to me that means that if we were going to live in China, he and I would not be together. But we’ll see how things go.

    I think it’s too bad that your situation is like that. I think no matter what, you guys need to think of what is most important to you. It is all important but what can you live with? If you’re committed and want to spend the rest of your life together, there will need to be sacrifices and you’re probably going to hate losing any of it. But decide what’s more important to you and go from there.

  10. I am English and haved lived in China for 2 years. I have spent a year and half of that time with my Chinese boyfriend. I have been happy almost all of the time. His family do not know and neither do most of his friends, however those friends that do know have not changed their opinion of him and us. In fact, some of them actually like him more….Not just for being gay, but for being open.
    Yes Chinese familes have a deep culture thats not just about their children, its about honor. As they can only have one child, they want to ensure their child is the best possible child they can have, and if they feel they have a gay child, they dont want this to be seen as unhonorable to the family. They may feel embarresssed when talking with other families.
    His family do not know he is gay, but they often say ‘if we are too each other than that as too our wives we will make our wives the happiest people alive’….we both even joke with them….oh we are wives together……China is not as open as the West, but its becoming increasingly common to be more open open….In fact, i personally dont think his parents would mind…but his parents have sacrifised alot for him and he said when the time comes that he can sacrifice for them, he shall tell them…

    I can agree with both sides….Chinese parents only have one child…they want to ensure this child has / is the best and will do everything in thier power to do so….Once their child has protected their parents too, they will start to understand.

    Culture is different…but Love will never change.

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