Editor’s note: We have used LGBTQ to be inclusive but the documentary only addresses the issues facing gay men and lesbian women.
Often, when we talk about LGBTQ rights, we focus on legal battles – criminalization, marriage equality, adoption, and civil rights – but Sophia Luvara’s new documentary reminds us that social acceptance and cultural attitudes are just as important. Inside the Chinese Closet follows Andy and Cherry, a gay man and a lesbian woman who struggle to reconcile their desire to live truthfully with their families’ expectations of them.
Andy spends time trying to arrange a “fake” heterosexual marriage for himself through an LGBTQ dating service designed for that purpose. When asked what he’s looking for in a fake wife, he says that he wants someone who can be a best friend and that, in the long run, they’ll have to have some kind of love between them if they’re going to live together and raise children. During his conversations with potential matches, they have business-like discussions about who will be expected to do what in the relationship, whether they’re willing to adopt or have children through artificial insemination, and what their parents will want from a potential son or daughter-in-law. In between these exchanges, Andy takes phone calls from his father, who urges him to work harder at finding a wife, and to make more demands of potential candidates.
Cherry is in the process of ending her own fake marriage, and feels pressure from her parents to adopt a child. In China, there’s no legal way for her to adopt as a single parent or as a lesbian woman or lesbian couple, and her mother and father propose an outlandish scheme to buy unwanted babies from the hospital. Cherry says that the only time her father beat her was when he found out she was gay, and we learn from her mother that the neighbors make her feel ashamed for having a child-free daughter. They also contemplate the practical problem of who will take care of Cherry when she’s older, if she doesn’t have any children.
While Chinese laws criminalizing same-sex relationships have relaxed in the past 15 years, and Andy and Cherry are each out to at least one of their parents as well as their friend groups, they struggle with pressure to live up to their parents’ expectations, and to lead their lives as they wish. Even though it’s legal to be LGBTQ now, heteronormative cultural expectations still pathologize and stigmatize queer people by creating the sense that they aren’t living up to their adult responsibilities. It feels like Andy and Cherry are treated and viewed as the Chinese equivalent of American adults who live in their parents’ basements playing video games all day, while their parents urge them to find a job. The question of marriage equality or adoption by LGBTQ couples is so far off the table in China that the only way for Andy and Cherry to start a family, as they’re expected to do as adults, is to pretend to be straight.
Inside the Chinese Closet is an uneven film. The subject matter is interesting – and it certainly made me more aware of the nuances of LGBTQ identity in China – but it isn’t always clear why Luvara has chosen to follow these particular individuals. The press materials make it seem as if Andy’s major problem is finding a wife and Cherry’s major problem is finding a child, but it seems like the reverse is really true. As the film goes on, it seems as if Cherry is emotionally isolated, in love with a straight friend who doesn’t love her, and doesn’t actually want to have a child. Her struggle is in getting up the nerve to tell her mother to stop coming up with ridiculous schemes to buy a kid, because she doesn’t want one.
Andy, on the other hand, seems to really want a child. He blames it on his father when he discusses it with potential partners, but, from the way he talks, it sounds like he really would like to be a father. Andy’s biggest problem is that there’s no legal way for a gay man or gay couple to adopt a child in China – his dates with potential wives keep falling through, in part, because he’s afraid that they either won’t agree to have children, or will take the children when they break up with him or move abroad to live with a woman.
Many LGBTQ rights advocates in the U.S. and Canada would agree that the key changes in the last few decades have come not only from legislation but also from a growing acceptance in society of LGBTQ people. Homophobic hate groups have that right – we are promoting the message that it’s okay to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, pansexual, asexual, genderqueer, etc.; having more and more people accept that message has allowed many LGBTQ people to live fuller, more authentic lives. Inside the Chinese Closet is a reminder that, without that kind of social change – which comes slowly, and takes a lot of work – having the legal right to exist is only a small step forward. Andy and Cherry are still blocked from participating in the traditions and social structures they want to be a part of – they’re bombarded with messages that they should have families, but excluded from the joy of building families of their own with the people they love.
Compulsory heterosexuality and heteronormativity are still alive and well, and LGBTQ people still face stigmatization, even in countries with marriage equality. But Luvara’s film shines a light on how heteronormativity operates in an era where gay and lesbian people have enough savvy and technology to arrange fake marriages and cross-border adoptions from the comfort of their own apartments. It makes me wonder whether that’s going to speed up the march of LGBTQ rights in China or slow it even more.