Life of misery for Chinese 'gay wives'
Beijing - In the eight years since Tianlei told his parents he was gay, they've put relentless pressure on him to act straight and marry.
"My parents push me to deceive a girl into marrying me," said Tianlei, a 28-year-old company manager in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan, using a nickname.
"They just want a grandson to save face in front of others and don't care how she would suffer... I would rather die than do it."
But in China, a great many men give in to the pressure.
An estimated 10 million Chinese women are married to gay men, according to retired Qingdao University professor Zhang Beichuan, often trapping wives in unhappy unions they can't easily leave due to Chinese law and social stigma.
Zhang estimates that 80 to 90% of gay men in China intend to marry or have married, citing a survey of more than 1 500 Chinese gay men.
Such marital arrangements occur in many societies, especially where traditional customs prevail, but China's Confucian tradition coupled with its one-child policy have increased pressure on gays to conform to heterosexual norms.
"Having no progeny is considered in the traditional Chinese culture the worst kind of unfilial conduct," said Zhang. "And under China's one-child policy, the only son is under even greater pressure from his parents who want a grandson."
For Fang Fang, a 46-year-old woman living in eastern China, her unwitting marriage to a gay man led to a lifetime of misery.
Twenty-six years after she spent her wedding night alone, she finally came to realise that her husband was gay, and she was "a movie prop used to complete his straight-man disguise".
"He took advantage of my naivety and weak personality, set up a string of traps and lured me in," said Fang, who would not give her real name to protect her privacy.
Like many Chinese gays of his generation, Fang's husband, born in the late 1950s, found his sexual orientation humiliating and wanted to become a "normal" man by marrying a woman and, more importantly, having a child to carry his family name.
Breaking free of such marriages is not easy in China.
Divorce is rapidly rising but is still considered shameful, especially for women. Chinese law is vague on the issue and offers little help to women who might have difficulty proving their husbands are in homosexual relationships and thus can't seek recourse in divorce.
"Homosexuality is never seriously discussed in China's legislatures - the government just wants to avoid talking about it," said a lawyer surnamed Liu who was previously married to a gay man.
The Chinese government largely ignores homosexuals, but some social scientists say a lack of sex education in schools contributes to hostile social attitudes towards gays.
Even when divorce is an optdion, the stigma of once having been married to a gay man haunts many former wives.
"When I told guys I dated that my ex-husband was gay, some of them immediately worried that I was an HIV carrier, since that's the image attached to gays in Chinese minds," said Xiao Yao, the founder of a website named "Tongqijiayuan" (Gay wives' family).
After discovering in 2007 that her newly married husband was gay, Xiao launched a desperate search on the internet for information about women facing predicaments like her own, but her search proved futile.
She divorced her husband a year later following several incidents of domestic violence and poured all her savings into building and running the website, where members seek help from each other, psychologists and law professionals.
Many of the website's younger and educated members are talking about seeking legal protections.
But any legal reforms, while welcome, will come too late for those like Fang Fang, who carries emotional scars.
"I respect gays as any another human beings and understand their pains," she said, still moved to tears after so many years. "But I also want them to see how much pain their wives suffer, so that gay men won't rashly marry a woman any more."