Kathy, a 28-year-old small business owner, has been struggling for the past four months about whether to divorce her husband, who admitted he was gay after being confronted by Kathy and her mother. The couple has a 28-month-old son.
"I never met any gay man in my life, and I never suspected such a thing," Shanghai-native Kathy (not her real name) tells Shanghai Daily in an interview. "At first it felt like the end of the world."
Her spouse, a successful businessman who also talked to Shanghai Daily, is not unkind, just indifferent; he is a patient father. But they never had sex after their child was born. While she never thought to complain, he had a boyfriend who was openly gay among friends. Kathy and her mother suspected a mistress and did some snooping. The truth was a bombshell.
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community in China is slowly coming out of the closet and the shadows, with more support groups and online communities, larger gay pride parades, more homosexual weddings (not legally recognized in China) and franker discussions of many issues.
The ongoing ShanghaiPRIDE (www.shpride.com), which runs through Saturday, is a celebration of all about being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual. It includes drama, exhibition, a film festival (running through Thursday) featuring homosexuality-related short and feature-length movies and ends with a BBQ party.
Many gay men still choose to marry, however, since they face enormous family and social pressure in China to wed, have a baby and carry on the family bloodline. Prominent sexologist Zhang Beichuan in Qingdao, Shandong Province, estimates that at least 10 million women in China are married to gay men. He says more than 80 percent of homosexual men are married or will eventually marry.
Gay men are called nan tong xing lian and their wives are tong qi, or gay man's wife.
"I feel sorry and embarrassed, but I didn't really have a choice about getting married," Kathy's husband tells Shanghai Daily.
As single child, like many of his peers under the one-child policy, he is expected to wed and sire a child. Kathy's husband, now in his early 30s, once told his parents that he didn't ever intend to marry - and he was severely criticized and threatened with loss of inheritance.
His father warned that he would jeopardize his career as a rising star in a state-owned enterprise if he remained single. Bosses and colleagues would think him eccentric, unstable and unfit for higher leadership without a happy family. His father also threatened to disown him.
"I couldn't reason with him, to say nothing about coming out to him, but he was right in some ways," says the man who naturally remains unidentified. "I was almost 30 then and many older women in the office were curious about my marriage status. They kept asking if I had a girlfriend and kept trying to set up blind dates for me."
This insistence on marriage and continuous bloodline is even stronger in rural areas and smaller cities where homosexuality is still believed to be a disease that can be cured. Divorce is unthinkable.
The tong qi are themselves just emerging from the shadows and getting considerable attention. They tell very sad stories and have drawn great sympathy.
Wu Youjian, the first Chinese mother to support her homosexual son on TV, has organized support groups and sharing meetings for these women.
Many more gay wives are too mortified to discuss their situation publicly and only share through a dozen online support groups, started over three years. Those who do venture online are cautious about giving too many details. Many wouldn't dream of going online.
The first book about these spouses, "A Survey on the Status of Gay Wives in China," was published last summer.
It revealed the difficult situations of many spouses of gay men, including no sex life, indifference and neglect by husbands.
In some cases, there's even violence inflicted by frustrated men who cannot cope with the pressure to hide their sexual orientation and take it out on their wives.
"As soon as I gave birth to my son, my husband stopped having sex with me," says Kathy, who runs a small PR company. "At first, I thought he was considerate about my well-being after giving birth and I figured he was tired because of financial pressure."
Reared by a conservative single mother, she was too shy to ask for sex and didn't get suspicious until a year later when she finally talked to a girlfriend who said it was normal not to have sex. She quoted her friend as saying, "You are married and have a child, you're not passionate love birds - it's pretty common."
This is also a story about lack of common-sense sex education. Kathy waited six more months before she asked her mother, who suspected a mistress and helped her investigate by checking his cell phone and e-mails. It was revealed that the "mistress" was indeed a man.
Some wives of gay men never complain or get suspicious about lack of sex for many years. One 52-year-old woman told an online group that she had no sex for nearly 20 years and wasn't bothered until one day her daughter asked her about intimacy. She was too embarrassed to consult anyone and had thought it was normal - after being married for many years, sex is not a necessity, she had told her skeptical daughter.
Kathy, who never met any openly gay man, was overwhelmed by the truth.
She has plenty of company in distraught wives.
Last summer in Sichuan Province, Luo Hongling, a college teacher and recent bride in her 20s, jumped from the 13th floor of her apartment building when she discovered that her new husband was gay.
The news drew a great deal of attention to the tong qi community and Luo's parents filed suit against her husband, accusing him of deception in marriage and demanding compensation.
In January, a court ruled that lawsuit had no legal basis.
"You can't sue a man for being gay, nor should the law allow that," Shanghai divorce lawyer Mike Liang tells Shanghai Daily. "You can sue him for having other relationships during the marriage, but that's difficult to prove legally, especially when the other relationship is with a man."
He says the legal situation "has definitely improved" and judges are more enlightened today, adding that in the past there were cases in big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou where judges ruled in favor of compensation for women seeking divorce from homosexual husbands.
Liang notes that many women prefer not to reveal that their husbands are homosexual, which weakens their case for alienation and incompatibility.
Today, many women, especially in less-developed areas, are still afraid to be labeled as divorced and difficulties in court are only one of many reasons they hesitate to split.
"My mom warns me of the danger and pressure of being labeled as a divorced woman, a situation she confronted when she was young," says Kathy. "You can say everything you like about society being more open, which is true, but the truth is that people still look at divorced women with pity or discrimination. And I want neither."
In January, the First Intermediate People's Court of Beijing made a legal proposal to allow women who discover their spouses are homosexual to file for annulment rather than divorce; thus, their legal status would revert to single, rather than divorced.
Experts say this would help many spouses of gay men, fearful of being stigmatized, find a way out of a difficult marriage. But it's only a proposal at this stage.
Divorced women in less-developed areas also find it very difficult to support themselves after a divorce.
"I'm much happier now that I'm divorced," says Juan Zi, a divorced wife of a gay man, in an online interview. "But it took me five years to decide. It isn't easy to make living as a single mother, and I've gone through many difficulties, but I'm still glad I did it."