Zhang Beichuan, a medical researcher at the Affiliated Hospital of Qingdao University, collects stories about some of the millions of Chinese heterosexuals who are married to homosexuals. Most of these tales involve deception, and sometimes violence and sexually transmitted diseases. But in an email interview this week, Mr. Zhang wondered whether the deception, and the emotional and physical suffering it brings, might — slowly — be diminishing.
“A woman I have been corresponding with for two years told me just this month that her high school-aged daughter, who knows the truth of her parents’ marriage, confronted her father about it,” Mr. Zhang wrote. “That girl told her father, ‘All these years you hurt my mom. I’m not at all prejudiced against homosexuals, but when people like you marry and hurt others, it’s really despicable.’ ”
To Mr. Zhang, this very open exchange suggested that, at least among younger people, “China is undergoing enormous changes.”
Most research into marriages between straight and gay partners in China, which have been estimated to involve about 40 million people, has focused on straight women who unwittingly married gay men and came to see themselves as victims. But in another sign of changing times, Chinese researchers have begun focusing on the other side of the gender coin: straight men married to lesbians.
Straight women married to gay men are known in China as tongqi (pronounced “tongchee”), which is taken from the Chinese slang for a gay person, tongzhi, or “comrade,” and qizi, meaning “wife.” Straight men married to lesbians are called tongfu, or “comrade’s husbands.”
Over the past three years, a team of researchers at the Harbin Institute of Technology, led by the sociologist Tang Kuiyu, has published about 10 papers on straight-gay marriages. In December, however, together with Yu Hui, a fellow researcher at the institute, Mr. Tang and his students published a rare academic paper that widens the focus to include tongfu.
One observation of the paper, titled “Staying Together and Splitting Up: A Comparison of Tongqi and Tongfu”:
“The situation of tongfu is very difficult. There are many of them, but because they are less likely to take their complaints online, and because some tongfu aren’t even aware that they are tongfu, they aren’t represented in self-help groups to the same degree as tongqi.”
Because of the difficulty of finding subjects willing to talk freely about their marriages, the researchers say they drew heavily on online resources, such as self-help groups or sites for people seeking sex partners. The researchers acknowledge that that skewed their data toward those who were aware of their situation and perhaps were seeking a change. Although they were able to interview 200 tongqi, they interviewed only 10 tongfu.
Yet over all, it seemed that the tongfu were better off than the tongqi in many respects, the Harbin researchers wrote.
Straight men were less likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases from their lesbian wives, they found, than their female counterparts were from their gay husbands. There was more sex between spouses in tongfu marriages, if only because a man can more easily obtain sex from a reluctant woman than the other way around.
Tongfu found it easier to divorce and were quicker to do so, because they generally were more financially secure than the women. If they found out about their wife’s homosexuality later in life, it was relatively easy to remarry and have a child, whereas an older woman married to a gay man might find it harder to start a new family.
For all these reasons, tongfu were also more likely to initiate divorce than tongqi, shrinking the numbers of such marriages, they wrote.
“No one in China has really studied tongfu, so there are no figures on the phenomenon,” Mr. Tang and his team wrote. “But we believe that it must be a group that numbers between two million and four million men, according to the most conservative estimates.”
Mr. Zhang estimates that powerful social pressures lead 80 percent of gay men, or about 16 million, to marry women. These include family expectations to produce an heir, especially when they themselves, like many men of marrying age today in China, may be an only son.
Beneath such marriages lies a complex knot of factors, including China’s decades-old one-child policy, concerns over old-age support and even the official residence system, which governs where people may legally live and work. These all drive gay people, whether male or female, to marry and then stay married, Mr. Tang said.
One of the researchers’ papers cites a country woman who married a gay city man, thereby obtaining a coveted urban residence permit. When she later confronted him about his sexuality, he retorted: “Why are you complaining? You married me for my permit, didn’t you?”
Said Mr. Tang: “In China, practical concerns definitely play a much larger role compared with Western countries.”
Mr. Zhang agreed: “Chinese male homosexuals are not the same as in the West,” where gay men may remain single or, where it is legal, marry other men. “They carry within them the influence of an old, agricultural society.”
Other reasons gay people marry straight partners in China, according to Mr. Tang and his team:
— Many do not know they are gay until after they marry, due to a cultural reluctance to discuss sexuality, and a lack of sex education at school.
— With both same-sex marriage and surrogate motherhood illegal, many choose to marry and have a child not just because their families expect them to, but because they fear growing old alone.
— Because the social security system is based on the assumption that children will be their elders’ primary support, many people fear a childless life and the poverty that may come in old age.