BEIJING — Liu Xin and his boyfriend, Hu Zhidong, have opted for a destination wedding. They’re not heading to Venice, Hawaii or even Mexico. Rather, in June they’ll be flying across the Pacific Ocean with nine other LGBT couples headed for Los Angeles, a place that offers something they can’t get in China: a marriage certificate.
The 10 lucky couples are winners of the “We Do” contest hosted by Taobao, the online shopping platform owned by the Chinese Internet behemoth Alibaba. In February, Taobao teamed up with four Chinese LGBT rights groups and a vendor on its sister site to sponsor the event. The sponsors are sending the 10 couples on an all-expenses-paid weeklong glamor spree in Los Angeles, including a group wedding attended by the mayor of West Hollywood.
China doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions. Activists and academics have begun proposing amendments to Chinese law, but the legalization and recognition of gay marriage still appears to be a ways off.
For Liu, 31, the trip is about finally getting to step into that special moment.
“It’s the same way a girl is always looking forward to the feeling she’ll have the moment when she puts on a wedding dress,” Liu told The WorldPost. “Even if this ceremony isn’t recognized here in China, it’s still something we really hope for in our hearts. It’s a moment that we all want to experience for ourselves.”
Taobao featured the “We Do” contest prominently on its Valentine’s Day page this year. Couples were asked to submit a short video about their relationship and what marriage would mean to them, and Taobao’s partners helped narrow down the submissions to 20 couples. Visitors to the site got to vote for the winners, with more than 75,000 votes cast to select the final 10 pairs.
Liu and Hu’s video described the most important moment early in their relationship: Hu took a ring off his own finger and, without saying a word, put it on Liu’s hand. Seven years and three months after making that silent promise, Liu and Hu will get a chance this June to turn that promise into a marriage that is legally recognized (in the United States, at least).
In some ways, the couple’s history couldn’t be more ordinary. Liu and Hu met through friends at a party. They began dating soon after, but didn’t become official for another year. The time they’ve spent together has been smooth, except for one mini-breakup in the middle. As they enter their early 30s, the urge to be a parent has crept into their lives.
The only thing that separates Liu and Hu from millions of other happy couples around the world is that their country and culture don’t acknowledge the commitment they’ve made to each other. In the U.S., the average length of a marriage that ends in divorce is about eight years. Liu has been wearing Hu’s ring for nearly that long. But the couple is going strong, and Liu says marriage will help give him and other LGBT Chinese a sense of security in their relationships.
Taobao teamed up with Bliss, a bedding company, and Blued, a gay dating app, to sponsor the travel.
“By holding this campaign, we want to demonstrate our respect toward the aspirations and dreams of same-sex couples,” a spokeswoman for Taobao told The WorldPost. “This campaign also showcases the uniqueness and individuality of the Taobao platform.”
By coming out publicly as an LGBT ally, Taobao and its parent company Alibaba have entered largely uncharted waters in China. Recent reports suggest that LGBT shoppers represent a vast and untapped market — $300 billion a year in mainland China, according to one research group. But while Chinese millennials are more accepting of homosexuality, many older Chinese disapprove of LGBT relationships and are aghast if their own child comes out of the closet.
Liu Xin (right) and Hu Zhidong (left) celebrated their seven-year anniversary last week.
That reaction is partly rooted in practical concerns: Chinese parents are notorious for their obsession with grandchildren, and gay Chinese couples are currently not allowed to adopt. The production of grandchildren is considered a central filial duty by many traditional Chinese, and the pressure to form a family drives many LGBT adults into opposite-sex marriages — sometimes even fake “contract marriages” with other LGBT Chinese.
Liu lost a prior boyfriend to a heterosexual marriage, and he and Hu’s one brief breakup was rooted in the same issue. Now Liu and Hu are both “half out of the closet,” having come out to close friends and co-workers but not their family members. Still, Liu is open enough to hold hands with his boyfriend around town and to post their “We Do” video to the country’s largest shopping website.
“I want to take things as they come,” he said. “I’m not directly coming out to my family, but when they happen to find out, I’ll already be fully prepared to explain it to them.”
Liu says he still doesn’t know how his mother will react, and he won’t venture a guess as to when same-sex marriage will be legal in China. But for now, he has something special on the horizon.
“There’s not much I can do on my own to push forward legalizing gay marriage in all of China,” Liu told The WorldPost. ”But when I attend this kind of ceremony, at the very least it’s going to be something that I really want for myself, something that will be worth remembering.”
CLARIFICATION: Language has been added to specify that eight years is the average length of an American marriage that ends in divorce.