The wedding photographer is patient but businesslike. He painstakingly directs the couple for each shot, maneuvering bride and groom into traditional poses as they smile carefully for the camera.
There are some hints that something is different here: one bride wears running shoes while a delicate groom preens in a neon green and white dinner jacket. Neither looks particularly happy. But such is the world of fake marriages for gays and lesbians in China, shown by Inside the Chinese Closet, a new documentary by Sophia Luvara.
Andy is 31 years old. He works as an architect in Shanghai, living in a tidy, upscale apartment downtown. Soft-spoken and shy, Andy is on the lookout for a wife who will please his parents, bear a child and never expect him to sleep with her.
“We should have similar values and become good friends,” he says. “Best friends would be good.”
Left to his own devices, Andy would likely continue hanging out with friends, cooking and occasionally dating. But his father, despite knowing and understanding that his son is gay, is nonetheless adamant that the young man find a suitable girl and settle down.
So Andy spends hours scrolling through online sites devoted to gays and lesbians looking for faux marriages. He even attends speed-dating nights set up by other LGBT folk looking for social respectability with a sympathetic partner. Like any matchmaking effort, the results aren’t all they could be.
Wendy is one possible fake-wife contender, but she has several pre-requisites before moving forward. First off, there will be no natural conception of a child. And she wants her potential husband to take full part in the caretaking of any children.
(Courtesy of Films Transit International Inc)
She asks if she will be expected to be a traditional daughter-in-law? Will she be required to care for Andy’s parents as they grow old and potentially ill? “No,” Andy says. “Just showing up is good enough.”
They part cordially, and Andy relays details of the meeting to his father over the phone. “Is she fat like you?” his dad asks, before expressing concerns about his potential daughter-in-law’s age in relation to childbearing. “The quality can be affected,” he advises. “She’s not that young anymore.”
Zhouying was in a similar situation, pressured by her family into a marriage with a gay man that is headed for divorce. Now at 29 years of age, the onus is on having a child — which the butch dyke firmly refuses to bear. She and her mother strategize over the logistics of bribing a hospital to allow them to take home one of the many female newborns left each year. It’s a startlingly blunt conversation.
“Mother, have you asked around for a baby?” Zhouying asks as the two prepare dinner.
“There are still kids on the market for three thousand or four thousand dollars,” her mother answers matter-of-factly.
Zhouying’s main concern is buying a baby that is healthy, while her mom focuses more on the future. “We raised kids so we will be taken care of when we are old,” she says. “If [Zhouying] doesn’t have a child, who will take care of her?”
Family and social pressure on these men and women is enormous. While many are out of the closet, there is still an expectation to maintain the veneer of a heterosexual lifestyle to avoid scrutiny or notoriety. Some parents, like Andy’s father and Zhouying’s mother, are fairly accepting of their children’s orientation. Others not so much.
“[My father] would beat me to death if I would tell him,” Zhouying says. “I know him. He would do it.”
There are, of course, other options for placating one’s parents with a grandchild. With no real potential fake wife on the horizon, Andy decides to give surrogacy a shot. He’s heard that Thailand is a popular choice, though recent changes in their laws regarding surrogacy have made this more difficult.
His father expresses cautious enthusiasm, but counsels his son to also continue looking for a wife. None of this seems to be what Andy wants out of life, but he will continue on the path his father has chosen for him.
“I’m not strong enough to say no,” he says sadly. “I can do it for my dad. I’m pathetic, okay?”