Three years ago, on a warm evening in Agadir, Morocco, Yifan came out to her father.
Yifan, 27, who identifies as a lesbian, had already come out to her mother via WeChat a few months prior, when she was overwhelmed and had nowhere else to turn. It did not go well.
Despite having moved from their hometown of Qingdao to Morocco when Yifan was four years-old, both her parents remain very traditional.
When she returned to Morocco to celebrate Spring Festival with her family, her dad was still unaware, but could sense the tension between his wife and daughter. They went for a walk in a nearby park after dinner, and she came out to him then.
It did not go well either. “He slapped me,” she says, laughing lightly to downplay the painful anecdote. “He couldn’t accept it. We have had a very strange relationship ever since. We feel there’s something between us, but we can’t talk about it because it’s taboo for them.”
Spring Festival, the start of the Lunar Year and one of China’s most important annual holidays, is for many a series of reunion dinners and catching up with relatives, often packing a year’s worth of chatting, bonding and eating into a single week.
For many lesbian and queer-identifying Chinese women, however, a variety of burdens intersect every time they go home for Spring Festival. The pressure to get married (to a man) and have children before it is “too late,” coupled with intolerance and a lack of understanding about queer identities, create a particular cocktail of stress and sadness.
Some of these women are happily out and accepted in China’s more progressive big cities. But the disconnect between this and their families’ expectations back home often falls into painful relief during the Spring Festival, when they are exposed to relatives’ judgments and prying questions.
While coping mechanisms like sham marriages between gay men and lesbians in China have been well documented, what’s becoming more common for this generation of young queer women is to navigate the choppy waters of home visits and familial obligations without sacrificing their identity or personal happiness.
This can involve walking a tightrope of subtle omissions and elaborate lies, or occasionally revealing the whole truth about their identities and relationships, no matter the consequences.
Some young professionals like Pamela, 28, who was born in Harbin but grew up in Shanghai, choose to selectively share their identities with only a few most progressive family members. She is out as a lesbian to her Shanghainese mom who, thanks to what Pamela describes as her “open-minded, resilient personality,” took it quite well.
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Her Harbin-born father, however, is a product of his traditional upbringing. She has not come out to him or the rest of her family. Pamela spent her childhood and early adulthood celebrating Spring Festival in Harbin with her father’s side of the family, though she now tries to avoid it whenever possible.
“Whenever they’d ask me, ‘do you have a boyfriend?’, I don’t want to look too pathetic, so I say, ‘Oh yeah, I have a boyfriend,’ and then I just describe my girlfriend’s job and everything, as if she was a boy,” she says of the barrage of questions from her relatives. “But it’s quite tiring. Once you lie, you need to keep coming up with more and more lies.”
A garrulous young woman with a raspy laugh and sardonic sense of humor, Pamela is proud of her lesbian identity and rejects any adherence to tradition despite pressures from her family (her grandfather, before he died, told her that he’d buy her a sports car if she brought home a boyfriend; she laughed him off).
She doesn’t want children — “they are like vampires!” — and as much as she cares for her immediate family, she doesn’t feel any particular affinity for the annual reunions and traditions of Spring Festival.
“It’s too much pressure,” she says. “You have dinner and lunch every day with different family members, like aunties and uncles, so you have to socialize with people that you actually don’t really know that well. That’s why they always ask you about your boyfriend — because they don’t have anything else to talk to you about!”
She hopes that her brother, who is seven years younger, will go a more traditional route and get her off the hook. In the meantime, she’s trying to decide how to navigate telling her father and being more honest about living the life that she wants.
“I want to tell him, because I don’t want to hide anymore. It’s unnecessary, and I also feel like I don’t have any integrity,” she says. “But I’m scared, to be honest.”
After Yifan’s fateful Spring Festival three years ago, she and her parents did not speak for six months. Gradually, they began exchanging WeChat messages about banal things like their meals and the weather.
“I chose to give them time to accept it,” she says. But after returning home from an excruciatingly awkward Spring Festival last year, during which none of them addressed the elephant in the room, Yifan became depressed and sought medical help. Eventually her father flew back to China to make sure she was okay, and the two reconciled.
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Though they haven’t broached the topic of Yifan’s identity since, she feels that her father is “acting more and more gentle” toward her. “I won’t say he has accepted it, but I think he can understand more now,” she says.
“But for my mother, it’s still like the end of the world. It’s the death of her daughter, her perfect daughter.”
Irene, 25, who’s based in Shanghai and identifies as pansexual, hasn’t come out to anyone in her family yet. She’s particularly wary of how to explain her identity to her parents, especially her mom, with whom she’s very close. “Family is very important to me,” says Irene. “I’m very independent — but my mom calls me once a day at least. So it’s even harder for me to push her away and hide this one part of my life.”
A thoughtful, organized woman who studied philosophy as an undergraduate in Xiamen, Irene has meticulously devised a long-term plan to gradually come out to her parents. She posts articles about LGBTQ issues on her WeChat moments, which her parents follow, and then discusses them with her mom.
“I’m starting to plant the seeds,” Irene says. “The thing people are most afraid of is the unknown. So if you describe something to them, if you paint a picture, it will be easier for them to understand.
“I’m just trying to explain to them that you don’t have to live a conventional life to be happy.”
Irene spends Spring Festival either in Xiamen or with her father’s family in Singapore, a nation that is arguably even more conservative regarding LGBTQ rights.
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She explains a particularly awkward recent encounter with her relatives: “I was showing some photos of my friends, and one of my aunties said, ‘This girl seems a little bit gay. You are a good girl. You should keep yourself away from these kinds of people.’”
Though Irene used to feel unsure about hiding her identity from her family over the holidays, she sees it differently now.
“I hide being queer from [my family], but other relatives are probably hiding something, too,” she says. “They don’t actually all live wonderful lives, but they won’t tell you about their problems.
“In China, having conflict during Spring Festival is quite rude. It’s just considered not the right time. So everyone will try to appear very happy, just showing people what they want them to see. Maybe none of us are being our true selves.”
For the time being, she’s focusing on preparing her parents for her eventual coming out. “I ultimately have zero expectations,” she says. “But I will risk everything to live my own life.”
Ahead of this year’s Spring Festival, Yifan says she could feel the pressure build. “I didn’t want to go back at all this year,” she says. “But my mother insisted. I’m still their only daughter.”
In addition to wanting to repair the bond with her parents, Yifan is returning this year with a goal in mind: she hopes to broach the topic of her wife, who she married two years ago without her parents’ knowledge.
Yifan’s voice fills with tenderness when she speaks about her wife, who she met six years ago while she was studying in France. Despite their union not being recognized in China, they returned to Shanghai together this year so that her wife, who is also Chinese and struggled with the French language, could find work and be more comfortable.
Yifan’s parents already met her wife as “a friend” when the two were living together in France. She plans to first test the waters by explaining that she’s her girlfriend before revealing that they are married. Though she’s completely unsure how her parents will take it, this confession is an essential step in her goal to bring the people she cares about most together into one family.
“I’ve always liked celebrating festivals and anniversaries with people that I really care about,” she says. “One day, I want my parents to celebrate the holidays with me and my wife together. That is my ultimate wish.”
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