The second season of Qipa Shuo, a popular Chinese talk show, featured an episode on the issue of whether gays and lesbians should come out to their parents. It brought tens of millions of clicks to the online video platform iQiyi and quickly became a hot topic of conversation. Then the episode was taken down by censors, on the grounds that it dealt with “sensitive issues.”
In LGBTQ circles, coming out is a dividing line. Most of those who cross it have made up their minds to be themselves, or to free themselves from a long-held mental burden.
But what happens once you’re out?
Chinese society is becoming more and more tolerant, and online programs can now discuss issues like coming out. But tolerance isn’t the same as equality. You can talk about coming out, but you can’t openly embrace your identity.
According to the “Third Annual China LGBTQ Community Survey,” published by Work for LGBT in late 2016, in mainland China only very few LGBTQ people, around 5%, are fully out of the closet (to their families, friends, and coworkers). Around 20% have come out to some family members, 56% have come out to their friends, and 30% are entirely closeted.
We interviewed seven members of the younger generation who have already come out to at least one of their parents. While none of the seven were rejected by their families, that doesn’t mean that everything’s out in the open.
“出柜”，也就是“你身边人知道你是同性恋吗？”，在 LGBTQ （同性恋、双性恋、跨性别者和酷儿）的圈子里是一条“线”。跨过这条线的时候，大多数人是抱着“我要做我自己”的决心，或者是卸下自己心理上积累的负担。
根据 2016 年底由“同志商务”统计的“第三届年度中国 LGBTQ 群体生活消费调查报告”显示，在中国大陆 LGBTQ 人群中，完全出柜（包括亲属、朋友和同事）的人群甚少，仅占5%。有 20% 对一些家人出柜； 56% 对好友出柜；还有 30％ 的 LGBTQ 完全没有出柜。
Keep It to Yourself
“Over Chinese New Year I told my parents I wanted to meet them for dinner,” says Songbanniu, who’s in his thirties. “They were talking about who had gotten married, so I took the opportunity to say, ‘I’m not going to get married to a woman. But I’ll still get married, so don’t worry about me ending up alone.’ The mood turned serious. My mom cried out, ‘Are you trying to kill us?’ But my father said, ‘I always knew.'”
Even though he’d prepared, Songbanniu says he still broke out in a cold sweat at the table that day.
That dinner was, in essence, a way for Songbanniu to fulfill what he saw as his duty to be open with his parents. It was a roundabout but powerful way of saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve found love.” “I think they can probably accept it themselves, but they’re worried about other people. They don’t want me to tell anyone else—they’re afraid I could lose my job.”
Since dinner that evening, Songbanniu says, “my family has never mentioned it again.”
Sitting next to Songbanniu is his boyfriend, Daxiong. “I think that in China most people who face pressure choose not to come out,” he says. “That’s the case with almost all of my friends.”
Pressure often comes from parents’ worries about their children—especially in a country like China, where family occupies such an important place. In families that aren’t as close, by contrast, there’s naturally less pressure.
In his first year of university, Daxiong bought a DVD copy of the gay comedy Formula 17 and hid it in his backpack. It was soon discovered by his mother, who had a habit of going through his things. Yet mother and son tacitly agreed not to bring it up.
“Then one evening much later, when we were lying in bed together, back to back. Out of the blue, she asked me, ‘You like boys, don’t you?’ I began to sweat! I said, ‘I’m still not sure what I like.’ A year later, when she asked me again, I said ‘Yes, I do.'”
Today Daxiong and his mother, who’s divorced, still have a good relationship. “At home, I never encountered anything negative because of my sexuality. My mom practically raised me as a girl. When I was a kid she had me wear dresses—I guess she thought it was fun. Now the only thing she’s worried about is that I’ll get sick,” Daxiong laughs.
But Daxiong’s father, who’s not really involved in his life, is still unaware of his son’s sexuality. “Actually, when my parents got divorced, I went to live with my dad. I think he definitely knows, we just haven’t come out and said it.”
在大雄大一的时候，他买了《17 岁的天空》的“同志喜剧” DVD，放在包里没有拿出来，当时就被爱翻包的妈妈发现了，但母子二人都默契地选择了不提。
Having open-minded parents isn’t necessarily a precondition for coming out. In fact, there’s a certain correlation between how distant family relationships are and how easy it is to come out.
Parents who are distant from their children often lead very independent lives. Whether or not their children are queer is like whether or not they have a tattoo, or which city they live in: it’s their life.
Le, a teacher in his thirties, says, “When I came out I didn’t feel any pressure. Now my parents know. After I told them, nothing changed, because I was never very close to them . . . My parents are the kind of people who don’t want trouble. They’re open-minded in the sense that they don’t want to be bothered.”
In China, who decide to come out to their family often think their parents will eventually come around since they love them so much. And most parents of LGBTQ children do in fact accept them. Yet such acceptance comes qualified with a request: keep it quiet. It’s as though they don’t want the family’s dirty laundry to be aired in public.
Almost every young person in China today is an only child, and most parents have poured all their love and energy into them. No matter what their child does, they’re forgiving, tolerant, and accepting. But even though parents can find a way to accept their children, once they face the outside world, they’re again beset by worries: “This isn’t good,” they think. “This isn’t natural.”
Unlike the men above, Chuizi has always been close to her parents. When she was growing up, there was nothing they couldn’t talk about.
“When I was in middle school, I told my teacher to make my parents take me to a psychologist,” recalls Chuizi.
She was in boarding school when she first realized she was different. “I confessed to my parents that I liked girls. I was really sad . . . I don’t know what prompted it, probably a kind of middle-school terror.”
A visit to the doctor didn’t reveal any medical problems, of course. “In the hallway of the clinic, waiting for the so-called doctor to talk to me, it suddenly made sense: I liked girls, so what?”
“But back then I was still young. Maybe my parents thought I was joking—they didn’t take it very seriously,” she says. “But they must have known. I wasn’t like other kids, I gave them more than a few headaches . . . Actually I planted a seed, and they began to worry.”
Chuizi’s parents really came to understand her sexual orientation when she was in college because she’d often talk to them about her romantic problems. “I used to take walks with my mom, and I’d talk about which girls I liked, that sort of thing. I wanted to share it with them. That’s also why I came out: I wanted to be closer to them,” she recalls.
Her whole coming out process, and her parents’ process of acceptance, took a long time, but eventually, they came around.
“Now, at family gatherings during Chinese New Year, when my relatives ask questions like when I’m planning to get married, they’ll deflect them for me, and say ‘she’s still young, she still needs to work,’ that sort of thing,” says Chuizi. “Though even that’s really great.”
Crown had a very different experience. Her mother took the news very calmly, in an ordinary moment over a meal. “She just asked me point-blank—’Are you?’ She said my grandmother wanted to know. I said I was. Then she replied, ‘Oh,’ and went on eating her noodles.”
It was Crown who didn’t take it calmly. The next day, she excitedly told her friends. It just seemed so rare: not every mother can ask such a question and calmly accept the answer. Crown says her mother has a very Western way of thinking. “She really respects my private life. She rarely stops by, and even when she does, she politely waits at the door. She’s not like other parents, who just intrude. I think my mom is unusually open-minded—she’s really awesome.”
真正不淡定的反而是 Crown，她隔天就告诉了好友妈妈开口问她性取向的事，因为这太难得了，不是所有母亲都有问出这个问题并坦然接受的能力。Crown 说妈妈的思想一直很西化，“她很尊重我的私人生活。她很少造访我家，即使要来，也会先礼貌地站在家门口，不会像其他家长那样主动侵入。我觉得我妈妈特别开明，特别牛。”
Like Chuizi, Crown feels she’s had a closer relationship with her mom since she opened up about her sexuality. A lot of things she couldn’t say in the past she can now gradually start to talk about. “But sometimes my mom thinks she did something wrong, or wonders whether I turned out a lesbian because of something she did,” she says. “Whenever she says that, I always object, and say, ‘No, it’s not! I was born this way.'”
Side by Side
For LGBTQ groups, the challenge is to overcome society’s prejudice and injustice, and to speak out for themselves—for ourselves—and for the community.
For the parents of LGBTQ people, the question is how to accept something that doesn’t fit with—or is even at odds with—their values, how to accept being forced to mentally change sides.
It’s hard to reexamine an entire value system and overturn long-held beliefs. In this sense, it’s not LGBTQ people themselves who face the biggest challenge in coming out—it’s their parents.
对于 LGBTQ 群体来说，他们的挑战在于战胜社会的不公和偏见，为自己、为这个群体发声。
对于 LGBTQ 的父母们来说，他们面临的问题是如何让自己接受已有价值观里不存在的，或者是反感的存在，如何被迫接受这一场“内心的倒戈”。
Bon’s mother learned of her sexual orientation when she eloped with her college girlfriend.
“I was with my girlfriend at the time, and her parents were opposed to us being together, so we eloped. After that, both sets of parents met and made a scene—it was really ugly,” she recalls. “But my parents actually didn’t put up any opposition. They’re very open-minded, so there was no struggle. Looking back on it now, I think the way I acted was really not right. Later on, my mother met other girlfriends of mine.”
Now that Bon has a stable girlfriend, her mother often comes to eat with them, and she treats them as a couple.
At breakfast one day, her mother said, “I accept you. Unlike other parents, I accept you. I just want you to be happy. For me, it’s like I have two daughters now—I’m pretty lucky.”
“I just want you to be happy”: often parents say this for their own sake. But wanting their children to be happy is reason enough for them to stand by their side—and to stand up to the world’s prejudices.
“我和当时的女友在一起，她家里人不同意，我们就私奔了。然后双方父母都见了面，闹得很难看。” Bon 说，“但其实我父母没什么不同意的，他们是很开明的父母，没有什么斗争吧。现在想起来，觉得当时自己的做法欠妥。后来我妈妈也见过我的一些历任女友。”
而现在的 Bon 和女友维持着稳定的感情，她的妈妈也常会来一起吃饭，见到她俩成双入对。
Of all the people we interviewed, only Kiya had experience with a sham marriage.
The marriage was mainly her family’s idea. They didn’t pressure Kiya herself but targeted her mother, who was in poor health. “Look what you did to your daughter!” they’d say. “At her age, she’ll never get married.” Such comments had their effect. “My mom’s the kind of person who cares about appearances,” Kiya says. “So she also wanted me to get married. She said that if I didn’t, she would never be able to look them in the eye.”
她的形婚，很大程度上因为亲戚的压力。他们并不施压于 Kiya 本人，转而对准 Kiya 身体抱恙的母亲。他们跟 Kiya 的母亲说，“你看都是因为你影响了你女儿”、“到那么大了还嫁不出去”，这样的话，听上去简直像针似的扎人。“我妈妈一开始还算是个比较要面子的人吧。”Kiya 说，“所以她也希望我结婚，觉得我不这么做的话，会让她在亲戚面前有点抬不起头来。”
She decided to get married when she was 33. “The pressure from my mother was too great,” she says.
“I found a gay man, and we started planning a sham marriage. At first, everything was very clear. I said I wasn’t going to have children, so we’d split everything split down the middle. Then everything would be handled normally. We did a lot of preparatory work,” she says.
She also talked to a lawyer friend about many of the issues involved. Almost everything was ready. But then something inside snapped.
在 33 岁的时候，Kiya 决定踏出这一步，因为“妈妈压力太大了”。
“我找了个 Gay，准备形婚。一开始都说得很清楚，我说我不生孩子，所有东西都 AA 制。然后所有东西都按照正常程序处理，做很多准备工作吧。”
“My lawyer friend said, ‘an agreement is just an agreement. If you go ahead and get legally married, everything is subject to the law.’ When I got home that day, I’m not sure why, I suddenly broke down. I went back to my mom and said, ‘Mom! I’m not getting married, okay?’ I remember I spent the whole day crying. I just can’t lie. I thought, if I get married, how many excuses will I have to come up with to fill out that lie? What’s the point in putting on this show?”
Seeing her daughter burst into sobs, Kiya’s mother also began crying.
Through tears, mother and daughter finally saw eye to eye.
在 Kiya 压抑已久的痛哭声中，妈妈也泪流满面。
The day we stopped by Kiya’s home, her mother happened to be there too, and she knew why we’d come. She greeted us with excitement, then quietly closed the door behind her and went to cook dinner for her daughter. As dinner time approached, she opened the door again and asked if we’d like to eat with them.
Her mother’s accepting attitude had gradually formed a protective cover around Kiya, providing a source of strength and motivation. She’ll no longer have to fight alone. When neighbors see Kiya and her girlfriend nearby and start to ask nosy questions, her mother makes a point of saying, “That’s my adopted daughter!” and Kiya beams with delight.
我们到访 Kiya 家里的那天，她的母亲正好也在，也了解我们究竟缘何而来。一阵热闹寒暄后，她悄悄带上门去为女儿烧晚饭。临近饭点时，Kiya 的妈妈还热情地推开门来，问我们要不要一起留下吃个便饭。
母亲的接受态度，慢慢在她周围形成了保护罩，给她勇气，也给她动力。她不再会像从前那样一个人孤军奋战，Kiya 说，现在还有些街坊邻居会看到 Kiya 和女友在附近活动，转而来问东问西的时候，她妈妈就会主动和别人说：“啊，那是我干女儿！”在 Kiya 向我们形容的语气里，满是幸福。
How Much Further?
Many LGBTQ people in China encounter incomprehension, coldness, or verbal abuse when they come out to their parents. Sometimes parents even break off contact. The seven people we interviewed happen to all be fortunate, but their good fortune is a far cry from widespread acceptance.
The parents of the people we interviewed mostly had the following reactions:
“I still love you.”
“Your happiness is all that’s important.”
Yet even the most accepting parents are seldom willing to say, “Gays and lesbians are regular people. I’ll come out with you.” They accept their children, but ultimately what they’re accepting is how their children are different, not how they’re the same as everybody else. Their acceptance comes most often out of love.
This shows that there’s hope, but also that progress in society at large still has a long way to go.
Our last interviewee, Kiya, told us, “Just two months ago, I accidentally hurt my foot and had to get surgery. At the time I really wanted my girlfriend to sign some consent forms for me at the hospital, but they wouldn’t let her. I can’t help but think, when I’m older, if something really serious happens, my girlfriend will have no way to sign in my place, since she’s not my ‘family.’ Maybe they won’t even let her in the operating room. What do I do then?”
After coming out, there’s still a long road ahead.
On this long road, hopefully the people you love and who love you will walk alongside you, lighting your way.