Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, G20, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, LGBTQ, Population

CHINA: Wives of Gays Struggle Alone

Kit Gillet

BEIJING, Jun 17 2010 (IPS) - Wang Yibing had been married three years before she found out her husband was gay. He had known all along, yet, like many homosexual men in China, had chosen to enter into a traditional marriage to reduce the pressure he was feeling from his family and society.

“Everything was quite normal and sweet at the beginning,” says the 33-year- old Beijing native. Yet three years into their marriage, Wang said her husband became cold and emotionally detached, and, after finding a letter written to him by an ex-boyfriend wanting him to give the relationship another try, she confronted him and he admitted that he was gay.

While devastating for Wang, this is not an uncommon situation in China. Some estimate that up to 90 percent of gay men in China enter into marriage with heterosexual women, but figures are of course difficult to come by.

Known as ‘tongqi’ (the wives of ‘comrades’, a Mandarin slang term for homosexuals) these women are often stuck in a loveless marriage, yet many feel unable to seek a divorce because of the pressure young couples receive from their families to have children, and because they fear the reactions of those around them.

“The number of women in this situation has actually decreased in recent years,” says Zhang Beichuan, director of the China Sexology Association and founder of ‘Friends Exchange’ magazine, a publication aimed at helping educate and support people dealing with issues related to homosexuality. But this is little consolation for those women stuck in a loveless marriage.

“Many of these women struggle with their own self-respect and feel they have been used like a shield by their husbands,” Zhang told IPS.

Wang says that she and her husband initially had what she considers a good sex life, but that after all stopped after he admitted his sexuality. “I once tried to find a one-night-stand partner online, but didn’t have the courage to go through with it in the end,” she told IPS.

Despite this, Wang felt unable to divorce her husband. Finally, when a work opportunity arose that meant she would have to move to a different city, Wang decided to take it. Now, while still officially married, the couple lives apart.

Qingdao native Wen Xiao, 42, had a different experience. “My husband never kissed me or hugged me during our nine years of marriage,” she says. “He made me feel like I had done something wrong all the time.” The situation was so upsetting that Wen visited a psychiatrist and took medication to cure her depression, but to no avail.

Although she began to have suspicions a year into their marriage, it took seven more years for Wen to fully come to terms with her husband’s sexuality. “It was a long and painful process to go through,” she says.

Groups and websites have sprung up around China to try to help these women come to terms with their situation, make them realise that they are not alone, and give them support as they make their decisions. Cities like Beijing have small support groups where women could go to hear the testimony of other wives in similar situations, and to let their emotional guards down.

“The condition of these ‘homowives is extremely tragic,” wrote Li Yinhe, a professor of sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and one of the leading advocates for these women, in a recent blogpost. “Most days they wash their faces with tears.”

Despite this, many of the women remain in the marriages. “Only a few of these women choose to divorce their husbands,” says Zhang. “Usually these have a higher educational background and are more independent financially. Also, most of those who choose to get a divorce don’t have children with their husbands.”

This was not the case for Wen, who eventually decided to ask for a divorce a year after finding out the truth. “I struggled with the decision, especially since we had a daughter together and I didn’t want her growing up without a father. But I didn’t want her growing up in a twisted family either,” she explains.

“While gay husbands cannot satisfy their wives sexually, some can still be good fathers and care for their families,” says Zhang. “But to these wives, the hardest thing is mental or emotional abuse rather than physical abuse. Their husbands don’t love them, some are even disgusted by any physical contact, and this is the hardest thing for any women.

“One woman once told me that at night, while they were both asleep, she unconsciously put her arm on her husband’s body. All of a sudden he took her arm and brutally pushed it away. She woke up shocked, and, of course, heartbroken.”

Even after the divorce went through, Wen felt unable to tell her parents the reason for it. Social pressure, and a lack of understanding and acceptance of homosexuality, means it is hard for women in China to realise that the situations they find themselves in are not their fault, let alone persuade their parents of this truth.

“I couldn’t tell anyone who knows me in real life,” says Wang. “But I go to tongqi gatherings and seek help from people who have the same fate as I do.” Wang is still struggling to understand the end of her marriage. “We spent all those years together to build a family. Can this be so easily destroyed by another man and desire? Sex is not the only bond that ties a couple together.”

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