In China, homosexuality has been legal since 1997, yet the social stigmatization of LGBT people pervades, with gay relationships largely frowned upon by the state. This week, the Chinese government banned portrayals of same-sex relationships from television, having previously removed videos that featured LGBT couples from the internet. No wonder many young gays and lesbians in the country are having to find innovative ways to conceal their sexuality and save their families the perceived shame of having an unmarried child.
One answer to this has been the rise of fake heterosexual weddings between gay men and lesbians. Inside the Chinese Closet, a new documentary from Italian filmmaker Sophia Luvarà, has all the hallmarks of a classic, sappy romcom: awkward matchmaking, failed attempts to find "the one," and potentially life-ruining in-laws. The only difference is, the film doesn't follow people looking for true love, but rather a fake partnership.
The film focuses on a hapless gay man named Andy and a lesbian named Cherry as they each search for a sham suitor in speed dating-style scenarios. They attend "wedding fairs," which match gay men and women who are looking for the same thing; someone who can convincingly pose a spouse, maybe have a kid via IVF, and live under the same roof. It's like a professional beard service, only the arrangement is meant to last a lifetime.
To find out more about why young Chinese LGBT people don't just abandon their disapproving parents, move to the UK, and spend the rest of their days in leather bars, we talked to Luvarà about her experiences making the documentary. What are these gay matchmaking fairs like? What happens after the wedding? And are they really that different from "real" marriages anyway?
VICE: You have such intimate access to the people in this film. How did you find them?
Sophia Luvarà: It took two years to research the whole thing, and the hardest part was finding characters that would be in the film. I started going out to gay clubs every night with my researcher—it was fun but tiring. We were desperate. Shanghai is a big city: There are 23 million people, and apparently, there are very few openly gay guys. We spoke to people and kept getting given the same names. Eventually, I met my protagonist, Andy, through friends of friends of friends. He was the perfect character I was looking for—he's so troubled, constantly battling with himself and his father figure. And then Cherry [a lesbian looking for a fake marriage] came along much later by chance. I wasn't looking for another character, but I met her, and she was so charismatic that she had to be in the film.
What's the social climate like for gay people in China, from what you saw making the film?
Well, since 2001, it's no longer been considered a mental disease to be homosexual, but you still find clinics where they say they can cure you—they give you pills or electric shock therapy. Although you can't go to prison for homosexuality, on a social level, it is problematic. Firstly, your family most likely wants you to have a child, especially because of the one child policy in China, which means that it's likely you're the only child and the only one who can continue the family name. The second problem is the workplace—there is still a lot of discrimination that might mean it is unlikely you get a promotion, for example, if you are openly gay.
In the film, Andy came out to his parents and then was kind of asked by them to retract it and find a wife. Was Cherry ever open with her family? Were they just in denial?
She never came out completely but she hinted. The mother probably understood, and the father too, because when she was at school, the principal found out she was having a relationship with another girl. But because they come from a small rural town, people just don't fully understand what gayness is. They think she's simply rebelling. People are very ignorant, which actually means that gay people don't seem to worry about the way they look or sound as a giveaway.
Why didn't they abandon the parents altogether?
It's a cultural thing. In Chinese society, the family is the most important thing. At the same time, I did choose people who struggled to please their parents, wanted to be accepted, and wanted their parents to be proud. I felt that the film would be stronger because, on a human level, this need connects everyone—we've all at some point in our lives tried to please our parents.
What was the atmosphere at the matchmaking fair like?
It's bizarre! Very controlled. You have to go and say openly what you're looking for—money, baby, marriage terms. It's very pragmatic. It's funny to listen to that as an outsider. It was like a market where you can sell vegetables or eggs; it's so unemotional. It makes perfect sense, though, because both parties need the same thing. Sometimes, it ends well in marriage; other times, it ends badly, especially for the woman who might, somewhere down the line, be pushed into having a baby by the husband's parents. It can be quite distressing for both parties.
Why did you decide to end the film before a sham marriage, before either of your protagonists had found their fake love?
I did find people already in marriages—some successful, others less so. But I didn't want to take the focus away from these two protagonists. I didn't want to wait for Andy to get married because it's not the focus of the film. It's much more about his personal quest. And also, who knows if he will get married, he still hasn't found anyone.
How was it working out for the people you met who were in sham marriages?
I had one particular case where four people lived together, a male couple and a female couple, and one of the boys was married to one of the girls. They are all having a baby together. It's like a commune. The big question is: What is love if you think about it? In the beginning, sure, people are sexually attracted to each other, but then it often does turn into a friendship. It's the same for these gay couples.
So, in making a film about this, were you hoping to change anything? Can you even show the film in China?
I talked to my characters, and they don't want the film to be shown in China. Also, if you want to show a film on TV, you have to have a green stamp from the state, which I obviously didn't get because the film is so controversial to the government. We will show it at LGBT festivals in China, though: They country has two, one in Beijing and one in Shanghai. I'll also use the LGBT networks of people we met there. We hope it can help. Especially in raising awareness about homosexuality in more rural areas. We definitely want it to reach other people who are going through this.
Inside the Chinese Closet is showing at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, March 9–18.