A cruise ship leaves Shanghai for a mass wedding of gay couples in defiance of China’s laws and social norms. Foreign Correspondent is on board to film the event.
One of the organisers is Shanghai activist and businessman Rongfeng Duan. This is his story.
As the traditional Chinese wedding song begins, I choke back tears and recall three marriages — all very different, all landmarks in my life.
I first met Li online. It was the early 2000s.
Back then there were no gay dating apps, so I used to check the BBS student website.
That’s where I saw photos of handsome Li. I added him as a friend on the Chinese chatting app QQ, and we started to talk online.
Maybe I touched an emotional chord when I said goodnight one time. Anyway, Li gave me his phone number.
I called him the next day. We talked for four hours — the longest phone call I ever had in my life. Our relationship was confirmed.
I was in Shanghai. Li was in Sichuan province, about 2,000 kilometres apart.
In two years of long-distance romance, we could only meet during holidays. We wrote more than 300 love letters to each other.
To save for travel expenses and phone calls, we mostly ate bread and instant noodles every day. But we felt warm and satisfied.
Li moved to Shanghai after he graduated and we rented a house together. It had some spare rooms, so we rented them to other gay guys to preserve our secret and avoid embarrassments.
When I started dating Li, I worried about how other — mostly straight — people would think. So I told only a trusted few.
Seeking a ‘marriage of convenience’
I’d known I was gay since my early teens at junior school, but hadn’t told anyone.
Years later, still in my home town of Lanzhou in central China, I plucked up the courage to tell my parents.
It went badly. I remember the night all too vividly: mother and father rushing to my apartment, the big fight, mum’s tears.
In the end, we agreed we wouldn’t talk about it anymore. I left Lanzhou.
And yet, even after I had been with Li for three years, even though my parents knew I was gay, even though I now lived far away from them, they were pressuring me to marry a woman.
Desperate to please them, I went back online. This time I was looking for a lesbian for a “marriage of convenience”.
So, in 2010, with the blessing of family, relatives and friends, I had my fake wedding.
But the fake marriage didn’t solve anything. It all felt bizarre.
There was conflict with my “wife” over money. The pretence made life difficult for both Li and me.
My parents were asking awkward questions, like why were there men’s undies but no bras in my room.
Coming out to Li’s mother
A year later it imploded. The lesbian I had married broke up with her girlfriend and also decided to end our marriage. Thankfully, we got divorced.
Soon Li and I met some volunteers from Pflag, an NGO for gay rights in China. We learned we had another choice if we were gay in this world — to come out of the closet.
We decided to tell Li’s mother. For ages she had regarded me as the “best and most reliable friend”.
She even once said that if Li had a sister, she would marry her to me. I was pleased she liked me, but I had never dared to tell her the truth.
So we summoned up the courage to tell her.
She was speechless. Stony-faced. Her silence lasted months.
Li and I persisted. We talked to her whenever we got a chance. Slowly, she began opening herself to us.
One day we got her to go along to a Pflag China gathering where she could meet other parents of gay children. Finally, it dawned on her that we could not change our sexual orientation.
Eventually, another big step: Li’s mum decided to move from Sichuan to Shanghai and live with us.
As for my parents, they sit on the fence. They neither object to Li and me, nor do they support us.
For now, I’m happy not to confront them. Maybe when we want to have a kid in the future, I will try to have a long talk with them.
But I did marry a woman once, so maybe it takes the pressure off me.
In 2015, after Li and I had been together 11 years, Pflag China joined with two websites to take selected gay couples to get legally married in the United States.
We decided to have a go. We told our love story via photos, videos and online.
Among the stories of 400 gay couples, ours stood out, according to the judges. We were on our way to the USA.
Wedding day: June 9, 2015, West Hollywood, California
All dressed up, Li and I waited impatiently to make our entrance to the ceremony. Even from outside we could hear applause and the clatter of cameras snapping photos.
The door opened. We held hands and walked in. I could tell Li was very nervous — his palm was sweaty.
After saying the oath, I took out the ring I had bought secretly in China. I placed it on Li’s finger.
At that moment, I was so excited. I felt the world was spinning.
All the sweet feelings and mixed emotions came out. Our tears fell like storm rain. We felt so in love with each other.
This year we celebrated our second anniversary by joining a special Pflag China event — a cruise ship adventure where nine gay couples would get married in traditional Chinese style.
As a volunteer, I was responsible for the stage equipment and sound.
The marriages would not be legally recognised in China, but when the nine couples entered in their exquisite red finery, with blessings and red envelopes from their parents and a traditional wedding song playing, I couldn’t stop my tears flowing.
In Chinese culture, it’s really important to have our parents’ blessing when we marry. Certainly, Li and I would have loved our parents to be present at our wedding.
A fake wedding, my real one, and the mass wedding
I often ask my gay friends if they can imagine marrying the one they love.
Most in stable relationships say marriage is what they want most of all, but that it remains an extravagant hope for them.
I think social pressure makes many people avoid the issue. But getting married means standing up, being yourself and fighting for your right to happiness.
So the weddings of nine couples on the cruise ship is not only their way to pursue happiness, but also shows their courage in making a stand for LGBT people.
That is why I cried.
So I experienced three gay weddings — a fake one, my real one, and the mass wedding on the ship. Each was different. I now feel we have momentum building.
One day, I hope, there will be many gay weddings — all recognised as legitimate in my home country, China.