Gay marriage isn’t legal in China, and it won’t be any time soon. But because of the U.S Supreme Court and its decision last week to legalize same-sex unions, the subject suddenly is a national topic of conversation. Leading newspapers and academics are weighing in; Chinese social media, the surest barometer of Chinese middle-class opinion, are awash with posts and tweets; and Chinese e-commerce companies are posting gay pride rainbow flags on their sites. After going down in the U.S. history books, Obergefell v. Hodges one day could enter China’s.
At the very least, the case has given China’s gay rights discussion a needed jolt. China decriminalized homosexuality only in 1997 and removed it from its official list of mental illnesses in 2001. Since then, homosexuality has been treated with an approach informally known as “the three nots”: not approved, not disapproved, not promoted.
But even in the absence of government pressure, cultural prejudices remain. Traditional Chinese culture emphasizes the importance of continuing family lines, and a child’s first duty is understood to be providing his parents a grandchild. For gay Chinese, those expectations can be suffocating, leading to the widespread proliferation of so-called “fake marriages,” whereby gay Chinese marry people of the opposite gender and have children to satisfy their parents. Chinese state media, which tends to downplay gay life in China, has estimated there are between 10 to 16 million such relationships in the country.
Gay culture has always existed in China, however, and over the past decade it has become increasingly visible online, where there’s no shortage of chat rooms and dating websites catering to gays and lesbians. Chinese tech companies also have emulated their Silicon Valley counterparts in promoting themselves as friendly to gay rights. In February, for example, Taobao, the massive online marketplace owned by Jack Ma’s Alibaba, co-sponsored “We Do,” an online contest where gay and lesbian couples competed to win an expense-paid wedding in West Hollywood. The winners, and their weddings, received extensive media attention in China — a small but significant challenge to the Chinese government’s semi-official policy of ignoring homosexuality.
By the time the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision last Friday, a relatively small online Chinese demographic was primed to pore over it. But a single sentence in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion transformed what might have been a niche discussion into a national conversation. “Confucius taught that marriage lies at the foundation of government,” he wrote, citing China’s foundational philosopher and his Book of Rites. The invocation of Confucius, the very bedrock of China’s traditional culture and a cultural touchstone for President Xi Jinping, to advocate for gay marriage was a provocation for most Chinese — and, as the best provocations do, it served as an invitation to debate. Images of the passage in question have been shared widely, mostly with approving comments, on Chinese social media.
Kennedy does have his Chinese detractors. Over the weekend Zeng Yi, a prominent philosopher at Shanghai’s Tongji University, published a widely circulated OpEd arguing Confucius primarily was interested in marriage as a means of procreation and continuing family lines — an entirely plausible argument. He went on to say Kennedy had a “superficial” understanding of the sage and accused him, along with the rest of the Supreme Court and President Barack Obama, of committing a “crime against humanity.”
So far, the Chinese government has had little to say on the matter, though its willingness to allow the conversation to happen itself is worth noting. The closest thing to an official statement came from an editorial by the Global Times, a stridently nationalist Communist Party-owned newspaper. “Society needs to show increasing tolerance for gay marriage,” it declared, before adding, “But it’s unnecessary to hype it up to induce potential homosexuals.” Nonetheless, for a Party that’s long been unwilling to acknowledge the existence of gays in Chinese society, the editorial offered an unexpected grace note in conclusion: “We hope for the harmony of diversities.”
But China’s gay community clearly hopes their government eventually will offer them more meaningful equality, not just a vague promise of social harmony. And if that shift happens, China likely will look back on Obergefell v. Hodges as the catalyst for the transformation.
Adam Minter is based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk.