Our marriage: When lesbians marry gay men in China

16/01/2014

Kate HawkinsKate Hawkins

He Xiao Pei, a long-time partner and collaborator of the Sexuality and Development Programme and Pathways of Women’s Empowerment, recently launched a new documentary. I was lucky to attend a screening of the film at the University of Sussex just before Christmas. The film, Our Marriage, is an exploration of the lives of four lesbians who decided to marry gay men in order to secretly pursue their relationships with their girlfriends and at the same time fulfil their families’ deep-seated desire that they get married. The sense of respect and responsibility that the marriage partners feel towards their parents, and the avoidance of social ridicule and tricky questions about their child’s sexuality, also play a large role in their decision to stage elaborate and glamorous sham ceremonies. The film has already been shown in Thailand to positive reviews.

Heteronormativity in China
In China, as one of the women in the documentary explained, nobody is allowed to be single. Whilst a burgeoning lesbian social scene is becoming more visible in large cities, heteronormative attitudes force people, heterosexual and homosexual alike, into marriages which they would rather avoid. Marriage can provide social acceptance, but it also gives you certain economic benefits such as access to social housing. Whilst homosexuality is not illegal in China there are no plans to introduce same sex marriage. Activists like He have argued against campaigns for same sex marriage suggesting that the institution of marriage itself should be challenged as it supports patriarchal norms and is detrimental to all people, whether they are gay, straight or bisexual.

Searching for a spouse
The documentary is another reminder of the links between information and communication technologies and sexuality in low- and middle-income countries. Information about couples interested in a contract marriage and hook ups can be made online through QQ and other web platforms. These sites have also attracted heterosexuals looking for a contract marriage to reduce family pressure.

Getting wed
The film approaches the subject matter with a large dose of humour. In fact the documentary gently satirises and ridicules the institution of marriage itself. Usually plainly dressed women are shown in dramatic wedding dresses crooning love songs to their ‘fiancés’ in scenes that prompt giggles from the audiences. Stretch limos transport family members to huge, elaborate receptions. Displays of wealth and social networks are definitely a big part of saving face. But beneath the veneer of ‘respectability’ none of these marriages are real, and no legal marriage documents are ever signed.

That’s not to say that the couples involved don’t have a clear idea of the arrangement that they are entering into. Documents are drawn up by the marriage partners beforehand specifying that they will have no interference in each other’s finances and that they waive the right to inheritance, they agree to tell each other their whereabouts (as few couples actually live together after marriage), they discuss how they will raise potential children and where they would live, finally, there is an agreement that in the case of major illness the ‘marriage’ will be dissolved. No ‘till death us do part’ for these couples! But it is not like you can have a contract marriage with just anyone, being friends is important. One women’s potential husband asked her to have surgery to ‘fix’ her face so she would look pretty in front of his family and friends. Unsurprisingly his generous offer was rejected.

Accessing the film
To protect the identities of the lesbians in the film the documentary is not available online and it hasn’t been shown in China for the same reason. But the women involved felt strongly that they wanted their story to be told. Some feminists told them that they are cheats and liars for entering into contract marriages. That sham marriages are a compromise and that they should challenge convention by ‘coming out’. But these women wanted to document the difficult reality that they are facing. In many ways the documentary is a love story, a story of the love the women feel for their families and the lengths that they will go to in order to protect them. It deserves a wider airing. If you are interested in showing the film please contact He Xiao Pei directly on infopinkspace@gmail.com.

Kate Hawkins is a member of the Sexuality and Development Programme International Advisory Group. She is the Director of Pamoja Communications and recently co-edited Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure.

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Heteronormativity: why demystifying development’s unspoken assumptions benefits us all

06/11/2013

Stephen_Wood200Stephen Wood

Can I confess something? I’ve been a sexual rights activist for many years and am deeply immersed in the research undertaken by the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme, yet still I sometimes struggle to explain to the uninitiated what ‘heteronormativity’ means and why it is an incredibly important concept for those of us working in international development. It is a slippery concept to grasp hold of and gain an understanding of, but I feel it needs dragging out of academic spaces into the realities of our everyday lives.

Simply put, heteronormativity is a term that describes a fixed assumption in society that people fall into two distinct genders, each with natural roles and behaviours – and the subtle and unspoken ways in which how the world is organised on these lines to the exclusion of any other way of conceiving of it. These very specific understandings of ‘natural’ sexuality or gender roles are quietly written into the fabric of our institutions and relationships in ways that can be exclusionary, limiting and discriminatory.

Why is unmasking heteronormativity useful?

The IDS Sexuality and Development Programme has consistently argued that the heteronormative nature of much of the development industry impacts upon people’s experiences of their sexuality and that sexual rights remain integral to central development concerns such as poverty and well being. The norms and ideologies that underpin and shape development policies and funding priorities are rarely interrogated because for most people, they remain innocuous and common sense. This neglect can therefore result in ineffective policies that fail to reach those most in need and can in many cases actively constrain their rights.

As a consequence, the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme has just launched an online guide to heteronormativity on ELDIS to encourage a greater focus on the perils of ignoring heteronormativity in development interventions.

My colleagues Kate Hawkins, Georgina Aboud and myself have brought together a concise guide to the concept, its usefulness for development thinking and the ways in which it impacts upon gender, LGBT rights, economic justice, health care, human rights and law. We’ve also collected some key publications together on the topic for those wanting to explore it further, alongside research materials that show how it has proved useful in the field.

How we’ve used it in IDS work recently?

As part of the current theme of work around sexuality and poverty that IDS and a number of our partners are leading for DFID, we have had cause to use a critique of heteronormativity as a methodological lens to examine how poverty alleviation policies in a variety of areas such as education, housing, disability and family law are shaped by restrictive norms around sexuality and gender identity. It has enabled us to clearly view the hidden assumptions, the silences, exclusions and discriminatory practice that ensure that these policies remain ineffective in bringing marginalised communities out of economic poverty.

We hope that this new ‘unpacking/unmasking heteronormativity’ resource guide goes some way towards helping you and your networks identify ways in which normative assumptions around sexuality and gender can be identified and addressed in your context too. If you can think of ways in which we can make it even more useful, please don’t hesitate to contact me to give your feedback.

Stephen Wood is a researcher on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

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