When Piao Chunmei's son told her he was gay, she reacted the way many Chinese parents do, sleepless and crying for days due to the lingering shame of same sex relationships in China. But she eventually accepted her son and is now part of an expanding network of gays and their parents who help other families cope with the stress of coming out in a country which until 2001, classified homosexuality as a mental illness.
Deep-seated cultural expectations for each generation to produce a male heir — heightened by China's "one-child policy," which expanded to two in 2015 — added to the pressure to conform. But a new generation is more willing to take a stand on their sexuality, despite what their relatives may think. Piao and her fellow volunteers bridge the generation gap.
"We don't want to shut them in the closet where no one can see them," says Piao, an effervescent 54-year-old who works for a Shanghai cosmetics equipment company.
Taiwan's top court recently ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, Shanghai's low-key annual gay pride festival is in its ninth year, and opinion surveys increasingly indicate greater public acceptance of China's gays. On May 20, "Lover's Day" in China, a group of mothers, affiliated with the U.S.-founded PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), caused a stir by appearing at a Shanghai park where parents regularly display advertisements seeking marriage matches for their heterosexual children. The gate-crashing parents did the same for their gay children — before police escorted them out.
But coming-out in family-oriented China remains traumatic, often tearing households apart or leading to suicides. The fears are so intense that advocacy groups estimate millions lead a double life — hiding their identity by marrying heterosexuals.
"Family is the most important part (of coming out) in terms of our emotions, but it's the hardest area to break through," says Duan Rongfeng, a 40-year-old gay Shanghai architect.
Bridging the gap
Volunteers for PFLAG say they are seeing more people confident enough to come out, especially in cosmopolitan cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, which are have more relaxed attitudes than rural areas. PFLAG organizes various discreet events but earlier this month arranged its biggest yet, a four-day ship cruise from Shanghai to Japan, which organizers said drew more than 1,000 people. The group took to sea to avoid interference from authorities, as LGBT events are often abruptly shut down.
But Duan, also a volunteer, estimates more than 100,000 parents and children nationwide have been helped by PFLAG's loose network, which he said is expanding to smaller cities and China's interior. Piao's initial devastated reaction to her son's announcement reflects the lack of understanding common among Chinese parents. She wondered whether she had caused it by giving him too much candy as a child or if he was corrupted at university or by foreigners. She asked him to seek a medical cure. But after reading about gay suicides, she relented.
"I was afraid he would disappear before my eyes," she says.
'He can't change'
Anguished parents reach out to Piao daily by phone, social media, or in person. To some, she is affectionately called "Big Sister Mei," but others accuse her of corrupting their kids. Her unwavering message: You can't change your child's sexual identity.
"I would give my life away to make him change," she admits of her own son. "But he can't."
Piao said most Shanghai parents eventually come around and families end up stronger, but success is less assured outside major cities. Fearing ostracism, Piao and her son relocated several years ago from northeastern China to Shanghai.
The support network helped He Fenglan, 55, pull out of a year-long spiral of despair after her son came out three years ago. "The first thing I thought was, how could I face relatives? How could I face society? How could I face close friends? The problem of 'face' is very important," said He, who was "repulsed" by homosexuality. But she added: "You see more and more gays coming out, as well as their parents. You feel you are not alone in this world."
Today she embraces her son's identity and the prospect of his relationships with a uniquely Chinese twist. "Having two sons is even better. My one son has turned into two."
This article originally appeared at PRI's The World.