What you need to know
PFLAG volunteer tells Sixth Tone how he and his transgender son learned to stand up for each other.
Jiancheng is the father of a 23-year-old transgender man. He’s also gay himself — a fact to which his wife is glumly resigned. Since 2013, Jiancheng has volunteered with PFLAG China to help parents accept their LGBT children.
PFLAG China was established in 2008, inspired by other PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) groups worldwide. The network has since grown in size and geographic spread to more than 1,200 volunteers nationwide, with regular meetings in around 50 cities, including Jiancheng’s hometown in northern China’s Hebei province.
In May, a group of PFLAG mothers was forced out of People’s Park in Shanghai when they tried to participate in the city’s longstanding matchmaking market to increase the visibility of LGBT people.
Jiancheng’s own sexual orientation has given him firsthand experience of the silence, hurt, and judgment that LGBT individuals face. But he, too, struggled to support his son, who was raised as a girl.
“I worried my child might be a lesbian, and I really didn’t want to see her following in my footsteps,” Jiancheng says. But over time, Jiancheng and his child, Qing, found they could draw on each other for strength and understanding. It was through researching together online in 2014 that Qing came to recognize himself as a transgender man.
This is their family’s story, as told to Sixth Tone and edited for brevity and clarity. Pronouns are not gendered in spoken Chinese, but we have used “she” when Jiancheng refers to Qing as his daughter and “he” when referring to Qing in the present day. The names of all family members, including Jiancheng and Qing, have been changed to protect their privacy.
Grow Up, Get Married, Come Out
When I was a child, I had no idea that boys could like boys. I was fond of girls then, and I remember I even said to my mother that I wanted to marry the prettiest girl in my class.
I was born in 1968 in a small city in Hebei province, in China’s north. I had my first sexual experience at age 11 when an older boy gave me a hand job, and then I tried it with other boys.
I thought that was just how boys played and behaved. The others grew up straight and married women, so I thought it was just curiosity and raging hormones. I told myself everything would be fine once I got married, even though I couldn’t stop thinking about men.
Nowadays, young gays and lesbians struggle with whether they should enter a heterosexual marriage because they’re self-aware, but back then I didn’t feel any pain or conflict because I didn’t know any different. My wife and I were introduced to each other by our desperate parents in 1992 when we were both 24, and we got married a few months later.
I didn’t realize I was gay until 1999, when I first surfed the internet. I felt so guilty afterward. I asked myself, "Should I keep this a secret until I’m on my deathbed, and then confess to my wife, 'You’re the person I feel the deepest remorse toward because I love men?'"
I ended up telling her I was gay and wanted a divorce in 2007, during a petty fight when I was drunk. “You need to correct it” was her initial reaction.
Sixth Tone: Many clinics in China continue to offer therapy to “turn gays and lesbians straight.” In 2014, a gay man successfully sued a clinic that had conducted electroshock “conversion” therapy on him. The court ruled that homosexuality is not a mental illness — it had been removed from China’s classification of mental disorders in 2001 — and ordered the clinic to apologize and compensate the plaintiff.
We decided not to get a divorce. We worried it would devastate our parents, since three of them were in poor health. Instead, we agreed that I would move to another city for work.
We decided we would split up for good once our child went off to college and all our parents had passed away. That hasn’t happened yet: my mother is still alive.
At the time, we also didn’t know whether our child, then 13, would understand. But I suggested to my wife that our daughter might be homosexual as well.
Like father, like son
Our daughter, Qing, was born in 1994. I noticed she liked to play with boys’ toys and dress like a boy. I tried everything to make my daughter wear skirts and play with Barbies like other little girls, but after a while, I realized she couldn’t be changed.
My wife and I had a huge fight in 2011. I was drunk, and she was complaining about me being gay. Qing stormed out of her room and yelled, “What’s wrong with being gay?”
A few months later, her teacher at boarding school told us our daughter liked to sleep under the same covers as other female students. The teacher was too embarrassed to even use the word “lesbian.” It felt like a punch to my heart. The last thing I wanted as a gay man was to know that my child would have to go through what I’d been through. My wife couldn’t help but cry.
“You go talk to her,” she said to me. “You two are the same kind of people.”
I pulled Qing out of the closet, so to speak. I told her it didn’t matter if she was gay; I would always love her and stand by her. She didn’t say anything but kept nodding her head.
We have been very close ever since. I had always thought my child might be a “tomboy” lesbian, though Qing had been telling me since he was three that he considered himself a boy. After researching online together in 2014, we now understand that he’s a transgender man.
He tells me everything, from what he does on the weekends to whom he’s dating. He barely talks to his mother, though. My wife is still sad, but she’s not against us anymore. In the worst-case scenario, she says, the three of us will just live our own lives, separately.
Sixth Tone: It is estimated that there could be more than 4 million transgender people in China. However, many individuals who don’t conform to traditional gender roles assume they must be gay or lesbian because there are so few visible examples of transgender people — particularly trans men — in public life. But people are increasingly realizing that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things, each with infinite possible variations.
In 2013, I began to volunteer with PFLAG in Hebei to help other parents accept their LGBT kids. I have talked to hundreds of parents over the years through WeChat and QQ — the most popular messaging platforms in China.
In most cases, it’s the children who ask their parents to talk to me. Many of these parents beg me to “correct” their kids. When I explain to them that sexual orientation and gender identity can’t be “corrected,” some yell at me and curse me to die childless.
I believe homosexuality is genetic. One of my sisters is a lesbian, and she has lived with her girlfriend for over 20 years. My nephew is gay, and my niece is a lesbian.
While volunteering with PFLAG, I discovered that many fathers of gay sons were gay themselves. Some weren’t aware of their sexual orientation, but others chose to hide it from their children and spouses. I’m in no position to expose them and force them to come out.
Sixth Tone: Under social pressure to marry, some younger gays and lesbians set up sham marriages for cover. Others, especially the older generations in China’s less developed regions, believe that men must marry women for reproduction.
I was naive to believe that compared with straight parents, gay parents would understand and support their gay children more. In reality, some gay fathers still force their sons to marry women. They think that since they are gay but married women and had kids themselves, why can’t their sons do the same?
I don’t disclose my sexual orientation to other parents. I did when I first started, but they would assume that I was only able to accept their kids because I was part of it, too. They would imagine that gays belonged to an evil organization and that I had brainwashed their kids. Now I just tell them that my child is gay, and that’s why I volunteer with PFLAG. I don’t elaborate that he’s transgender because it’s too much information for them to digest.
Few parents I have met are open-minded. Most want their children to “correct” their sexual preferences. They’ll take their children to the hospital for treatment, and some even use violence. They will psychologically blackmail their kids — crying, pretending they’re sick, threatening to kill themselves.
I have heard so many parents say they want to commit suicide, but so far none have. However, a few gay kids I know have ended their own lives.
At the end of 2015, I managed to persuade a stubborn father to accept his gay son after their relationship had been on the rocks for years. But he still refused to call his son because he couldn’t swallow his pride. A few months later, during Chinese New Year — when families all over the country gather to celebrate — his son killed himself. The son had wanted to go home for the holiday but was afraid of his parents’ disapproval. I never saw the father online again.
Many parents do change their attitudes. I would say maybe 80 percent of parents I talk to come around eventually. “After all, we just want our kids to be happy and healthy,” I tell them. “Forcing your gay children to marry the opposite sex is like forcing someone who can’t handle spicy food to eat chilies.”
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.
TNL Editor: Olivia Yang