From China to Canada

How important is legal recognition of same-sex marriage to Chinese LGBT folks?

From China to Canada

In May 2019, Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage, marking it the first jurisdiction in Asia endorsing same-sex marriage and giving hope to other Chinese societies with significant influences of Confucianism such as mainland China. This landmark movement for LGBT rights in Asia serves as an example to rebut the idea that homosexuality is a western concept that has no place in Chinese societies.

Following Taiwan’s success, China’s LGBT community recently pushed China’s top legislative body to legalize same-sex marriage in its new Civil Code. Unsurprisingly, same-sex marriage did not make its way into China’s new Civil Code, which will come into effect in January 2021. This news, however, is not devastating for LGBT folks who understand that a change in state law would not necessarily translate into a positive change in their daily lives.

While some LGBT activists in China have been fighting for marriage equality for a long time, Chinese LGBT folks have relatively low interest in securing marriage rights. For most queer women I met in China, the pressure to enter a heterosexual marriage is the greatest source of stress. Chinese LGBT folks have developed various strategies over the years to cope with a hostile society that attaches stigmas to unmarried individuals. Some lesbians and gay men marry each other to protect themselves from legal and social discriminations against unmarried individuals and sexual minorities.

The lack of interest in marriage equality primarily results from the fact that marriage and kinship are considered to be closely related in Chinese societies. Entering into heterosexual marriage does not indicate an unquestioning embrace of heterosexual marriage per se; instead it reveals queer individuals’ effort to preserve familial and community relationships. This close linkage between kinship and marriage leaves me worrying about Chinese LGBT folks who live in so-called queer-friendly countries such as Canada.

While Canada is celebrating and proud of the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, little attention has been paid to the experience of LGBT folks who are greatly influenced by the cultural expectation to link marriage with kinship. It is highly possible that some of them are caught between the Canadian value of diversity and the Chinese value of “fitting in.” The latter is often further reinforced by the strong desire to fulfill filial piety, a central value of family life and a lynchpin for social orders for many Chinese that requires the younger generation to take care of the older generation physically and emotionally. This identity struggle could lead to devastating consequences for some LGBT folks. Nevertheless, the struggle among these LGBT folks is often “invisible” in Canada, as it appears on the surface that their right to marry is secured because of the acknowledgement of same-sex marriage in the Canadian legal system.

Although I admire the important work done by LGBT activists to advocate for marriage equality in China and elsewhere, this short piece aims to reiterate the fact that legal recognition of same-sex marriage may have different impacts on people with diverse backgrounds. Without more attention to how state law’s acknowledgement of same-sex marriage interacts with other layers of social ordering that are important to the individual involved, marriage equality is a romanticized assumption rather than a fact.