SHANGHAI, China—"I'm here to find a lesbian, to be with me and to build a home," No. 11 says to the crowd clustered on floor cushions at a sunlit yoga studio in Shanghai. No. 11 is a muscular man in a flannel shirt and cargo pants, and he easily commands the attention of the crowd of 40 or so young men and women who are gingerly sipping glasses of wine and whispering to their neighbors.
"In my view, a 30-year-old man should start thinking about having a family, but two men can't hold each other's hands in the street. We're not allowed to be a family," he says. The crowd nods.
I'm at a fake-marriage market, where Chinese lesbians and gay men meet to find a potential husband or wife. In China, the pressure to form a heterosexual marriage is so acute that 80 percent of China's gay population marries straight people, according to sexologist Li Yinhe, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. To avoid such unions, six months ago, Shanghai's biggest gay Web site, inlemon.cn, started to hold marriage markets once a month.
Thirty minutes earlier, I triple-checked the address scrawled in my notebook. The studio—located in a high-rise apartment complex—seems an unlikely spot for a fake-marriage market. "The boss of the yoga studio is very kind to us," says Fen Ye, my guide. Slipping off my shoes at the doorway, I pad up stairs lined with Buddhas in the red plastic flip-flops provided. When Fen slides open a door to reveal men and women chatting quietly, conversation falters. "They weren't expecting a foreigner," he whispers, adding, "and don't tell anyone you're a reporter. I'll just say you're my lesbian friend." He bustles me to a cushion on the floor and hands me a glass of Chinese red wine.
Precautions are necessary for an event like this. Though there are an estimated 30 million to 40 million gay people in China—there has been no official count—even simple actions such as trying to access Wikipedia's "LGBT" page often result in a "This webpage is not available" message. Chinese society has adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. A 2007 survey by Li Yinhe found that 70 percent of Chinese people think homosexuality is either "a little" or "completely" wrong, and only 7.5 percent of respondents said they knew a gay person.
While past generations buried their sexuality in straight marriages, the people gathered at the yoga studio are trying a new approach. No. 8 (the men sport numbered buttons in a pleasing shade of blue, the women's are pink), a pretty 22-year-old woman with curly dyed chestnut hair, skinny jeans, and Snoopy slippers wants a fake marriage to ease parental pressure, but she doesn't want a baby. No. 15, a strikingly tall man with side-swept bangs, says: "I want to get married for my parents, but I think lying to them will make me feel terrible. So I want to have a fake marriage with a lesbian girl, but just for one or two years, and then I want a divorce to show my parents that I am not a marriage type." There's one constant: All the participants talk about pleasing their parents.
Influential Zhou Dynasty Confucian scholar Mencius said that the "most serious" way to be unfilial is to not produce an heir. It's an idea that still reverberates through China's family-centric culture. In contemporary slang, single women over the age of 27 are known as sheng nu or "leftovers."
"I could absolutely not come out to my parents. If I could tell them I was gay, I wouldn't have needed to get married," says my guide, 30-year-old Fen, as we sit in a converted Shanghainese shikumen lane house near the popular tourist spot People's Park. We're talking about his lesbian wife, whom he met on inlemon.cn.
"I had a big, traditional Chinese wedding. It lasted for three days, and there were maybe 500 people there. My parents were so happy," says Fen, who knew his wife for seven months before they married. "In your job, in your social life, and for family gatherings, you need to bring a partner. It's hard to do these things alone in China. My grandfather and grandmother … everyone was waiting for me to get married. The wedding felt like a task I needed to accomplish, something I needed to get through step-by-step, a bit like doing homework."
For many gay men, the chance to experience parenthood—and to provide a grandchild for longing parents—is a distinct advantage of these unions. At the yoga studio marriage market, almost every man says he wants a baby, Fen included. "[On the Web site] I said that I didn't want to have a sex life with my wife—absolutely none." Although he says he and his wife are not "very good friends," they have discussed having a child. "For a baby we will maybe use artificial insemination," he says.
Past generations did things differently. The Lai Lai dancehall, in a rundown corner of Shanghai's Hongkou district, is a refuge for gay but married men. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, about 200 men crowd the dance floor in their mismatched suits, twirling together in the green light and cigarette smoke. When they're not dancing, they sit in groups around the edge, nursing flasks of tea, though beer is available for 75 cents a glass.