I love my best guy, who also happens to be gay, but could I marry him? Sorry bud, but I think it’s going to have to be a “no” on that. No doubt then that the idea of marrying a complete gay stranger would be completely out of the question. And yet, this phenomenon is no rare occurrence in China.
Beards for life! That’s right, gay men and women are marrying each other in a country where homosexuality is legal, but same-sex marriage is not. Why? Filmmaker Sophia Luvara explores the possible reasons in her new documentary, Inside the Chinese Closet.
The film follows two residents of Shanghai: Andy, a gay architect, and Cherry, a lesbian that works in finance. They’re both in their early thirties and therefore got caught up in China’s one child policy, meaning they’re their families’ only chance of continuing the family name.
As you can probably imagine, there are a lot of gay men and lesbians in China suffering through the same situation. To serve them, matchmaking websites and fake marriage markets have popped up. In one of the most intriguing scenes of the film, we actually see how these things work. It’s like the most honest speed dating event you’ll ever witness. Some of the most common requirements? Be a convincing fake, be open to having a kid through IVF, be willing to live with your spouse and let each other have relationships outside the marriage.
Of course, living in a big city like Shanghai allows a lot of freedom, which has drawn a lot of rural gays there. That’s the case for Cherry, who got caught up in some controversy back home and is now married (to a gay man she wants to divorce) and trying to get a baby. As in illegally getting one from a hospital if need be.
Why so much emphasis on a baby? Well besides the importance of family in Chinese society, there’s the onus on children to take care of their parents financially in old age. But why couldn’t Cherry just have a baby instead of getting married? Because, as a woman, the stigma of being a spinster can be almost as damaging as being known as a lesbian.
That’s the past Cherry essentially ran away from. When she was younger, her entire school found out about her first love and she was expelled. What’s more, they told her parents and her dad beat her. After that, her whole village knew what had happened. The villagers haven’t stopped talking since–not even after she got married. The talk drives Cherry’s mother’s wish for a grandchild even further.
So obviously Cherry’s parents know about her past. They likely even suspect she’s still interested in women. Even Andy’s dad knows how super gay his son is. But they’re both in the same boat: their parents went into the closet as they tried to get out of it.
Social stigmatization is big in China. Despite homosexuality being legal there, the government still frowns on it. A recent example of this is the government’s banning of portrayals of same-sex relationships on TV.
By the way, homosexuality hasn’t been considered a mental disease in China since 2001. And yet in another interesting scene, we see a woman visiting a pathologist and secretly filming as she’s promised she can be made normal for $50 an hour. That’s not uncommon.
How do gay and lesbian individuals put up with all this? For her part, Cherry explains that because she loves her parents she’s protecting them from the truth. That, and she’s also worried her dad would beat her to death if faced with the full facts.
It’s easy to judge, but we shouldn’t. It speaks volumes that most Chinese lesbians and gays who won’t be entering a fake marriage have at least thought about it.
Luvara doesn’t judge or try to tell a story that’s not really hers to tell. There are no voiceovers or interviews with experts. There’s no archival footage used and Luvara almost never inserts herself into the film. Instead, it feels as though the film’s subjects, their families, friends and the world around them drive what we see. The Chinese government certainly didn’t want us to see this, as they didn’t give Luvara and her crew permission to film in the country. She made it happen anyway and I am so glad she did.
Inside the Chinese Closet is having its North American premiere in Toronto on April 6 as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.