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38-year-old Ma Ge is a family man. Five years ago the marketing professional in Nanjing met his wife online and they had a son not long after. But Ge has also asked I use his childhood nickname because like an estimated 16 million of the married men in China he is gay. But unlike them his wife not only knows about his sexuality, it doesn't bother her. Because she's gay too.

Ge tells me over the messenger tool QQ that he first realised he was gay in second year university, and to this day has yet to come out to his parents. "Their mindset is pretty old-fashioned, they wouldn't be able to accept it", he says. Which means in his late 20s his parents did what Ge says, "over 90% of parents in China do". They started pressuring him to find a girlfriend.

It is difficult for most foreigners to truly appreciate the effect of living under the kind of heavy and constant admonishment that Chinese parents excel at, without offering to drill a hole in their brain. But Ming of the Beijing-based NGO Common Language says "family pressure" extends beyond individual parents into extended families, social networks and permeates Chinese culture, which in turn pressurizes parents (to pressure their children).

In the course of Ming's research many interviewees talked of wanting to continue generational lines and the role marriage plays in feeling one has "grown-up". And that China was simply "no country for old men", particularly when China's system of elderly care falls exclusively on the shoulders of children. "Here sexual orientation is connected to your ability to have children, your financial independence, and social credibility," says Ming. 

Ge met his wife on Nanjing Tongtian, a website designed to connect gay people interested in xinghun or "the form of marriage" (without substance). Remembering that marriage made for love is a relatively modern concept, the promises they made to one another look much like the promises made between married couples for thousands of years: to live together, care for one another's parents, bear children, and do so for the rest of their lives.

But the absence of sex would be one critical difference (or sometimes, not so different), and as the two got to know one another Ge says their relationship went from "roommate" to "brother and sister". Their 2008 wedding was a low-key dinner party at a hotel, with Ge's best friend (also gay) acting as master of ceremonies. Says Ge of the day, "I remember feeling like my life is a play."

"Sometimes I don't understand who I'm living for. Certainly not for myself," he adds. "If I think about it too much it makes me sad.

Ge says the couple's pregnancy involved syringes, without a clinic. And the moment he first laid eyes on his son in the hospital he began to cry. "I was feeling every kind of emotion: happy, excited, and a bitter sweetness about life's struggles," he says. Their son is now five years old, and Ge says he likes cartoons, toy guns, can be a little stubborn and looks more like his father more than his mother.

Having a sex-free, romance-free marriage is one thing, but having a sex-free, romance-free life is another. Ge says these days he doesn't have much time to date, and only has the occasional hookup. But there was once someone in his life, a man living in Hangzhou. Back then there was no high-speed rail linking the two cities as there is today. Yet every weekend someone would take the five-hour drive so they could be together. 

"Yesterday was his birthday," he tells me. "We broke up so many years ago but I still remember it." 

Ge and his wife make childrearing decisions together and share the financial burden, although without a joint bank account. If you consider their marriage to be surprisingly functional, it's wise to remember it has required navigating a minefield of expectations and requirements for which there is no guidebook. Nor will all xinghun couples find themselves with someone so compatible. Yet for those who feel themselves in dire straits, it can remain preferable to pianhun (marrying a straight person unaware of their partner's true sexual orientation.)

China has a long way to go before it can be called accepting of homosexuality. Public violence towards homosexuals is rare, but there's a large gap between what's acceptable in society at large and in one's own family. Ming tells of one middle-aged street cleaner who was asked her thoughts on homosexuality. "She smiled and said that it was simply one-way to live your life and homosexuals shouldn't be discriminated against," says Ming. "But when followed with, 'and if your child is gay?' She immediately replied, 'absolutely not OK.'

From the perspective of advancing China's gay rights movement, Ming hopes more and more lesbians will be brave enough to "resist and challenge hegemonic concepts of marriage and family." But at the same time she understands each person's situation is different. A 2010 investigation conducted by Common Language, found almost half of 900 lesbians surveyed had experienced from parents, and a quarter faced malignant bodily harm. Sexual orientation played a key role in the vast majority of cases.

"A few tales of successfully 'coming out' doesn't represent every person's ability to do the same," Ming says. "Likewise, xinghun might work for some, but it's by no means representative of marital success because there can be a price to pay in terms of time, effort, money and even tears."

Ge says if he was 10 years younger, things might be different. “'Coming out of the closet' are such simple words, and such a simple thing to do," he says, "but somehow I still can't bring myself to do it." And though he is supportive of gay rights, like so many Chinese people he considers himself "low-key" in all respects, hence why he chose xinghun, adding, "No option is perfect."

For Gang Lei, Director of the Aibai Chengdu LGBT Youth Center, xinghun couples will ideally still come out to their parents. In that case the marriage acts as a front to wider society (which may include neighbours, family friends and colleagues) but does not exist on paper. Lei says many homosexuals in China are beginning to realise the concept of filial piety shouldn't involve simply doing whatever a parent asks. "So-called 'filial piety' is first and foremost a dialogue between two equals," he says.

Lei's own coming out tale involves what he calls a "Chinese-style approach." He first approached his parents by laying down some groundwork. "In China it's important to let parents know their child's happiness is their own. I gradually made them understand they couldn't interfere with my private life and encouraged them to find their own purpose in life. Unlike other Chinese parents for whom children are the be all and end all."

Lei says that although it took a long period of adjustment, his parents not only came to respect him and his life choices, but also his right to lead his own life. After doing so he was able to introduce them to his boyfriend, with whom he has now lived for over 10 years. He also stresses marriage is not the only option for those hoping to have children, as currently there is no law barring homosexuals (as single parents) from adopting.

There will come a day that homosexuality will no longer be contradictory with traditional, Confucian ideals of family. And coming out to Chinese parents is just one small, but powerful, piece of change required to make that day a reality. For Lei, if every gay person in China can make these tiny inroads, coming out to their parents, workmates, classmates or friends, together it creates a large social movement.

But for Ge and his wife, the question of coming out might now be more pertinent to their child than their parents. At the moment his son is too small to understand his parents' relationship is different to those of others, but I ask Ge if they've considered the day he will be. "We'll see. It depends on my son's ability to accept these things," he replies. "And how enlightened society is by then."