Thanks to a County in Utah, Same-Sex Couples Can Get Married—In China

When Juying attended her son Yangming’s wedding this summer, she was not in a banquet hall or a church but in her apartment. On Zoom, she watched Yangming—3,000 kilometers away in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou—stand next to his husband-to-be, Zhu, in their living room decorated with balloons for the occasion.

Juying was joyous to see her child grow up to wed, but she was also pained. “When I thought about how their marriage would not be recognized in China today,” Juying told me, “I couldn’t hold back my tears.” It further weighed on her that this would be just one of many difficulties Yangming and Zhu would have to endure as a gay couple.

But Juying could still take solace in the fact that the young couple was “making it official.” “Official” because, though physically in China, they were, legally speaking, getting married somewhere else. At the end of the ceremony, the wedding’s officiant, who appeared on Zoom among the gallery of guests, lawfully pronounced them husband and husband from across the ocean in a government office in Provo, Utah.

Provo is the seat of the Utah county government, though perhaps it is better known as the home of Brigham Young University, named after the religious figure who led the Mormons to Utah’s Salt Lake Valley. As fate would have it, the Utah county government started conducting weddings online right before the pandemic, and, according to Utah law, marriage applicants need not be residents of the state.

With time, word of this reached China’s gay community halfway around the world. I first heard the news in June 2022 from an article originally posted in a lesbian discussion group with more than 100,000 members on the social media site Douban. According to the author, the first version of the article had been censored, so she reposted it with potentially sensitive terms like “same-sex couple” translated into English to evade detection. As this information spread, many couples leapt at the opportunity. Personally, I know more than 20 same-sex couples who married “in” Utah county this past summer alone—including me and my husband.

Thanks to Utah county, Yangming and Zhu didn’t have to apply for visas or spend a fortune traversing continents to get a marriage license. The whole affair cost less than U.S.$300: $70 for the marriage license, $35 for the ceremony fee, and the rest for clothes and decorations. In a bit of a hiccup, the suits Yangming and Zhu ordered online did not arrive in time. Hoping to retain a degree of formality for the ceremony, they rushed out to buy button-down shirts. (They later got refunds for the suits.)

Slapdash logistics aside, Yangming and Zhu invested serious care into crafting their vows. “Marriage is an expression of love and a promise,” Yangming told me, and he wanted his vows to be beautiful. “With the deepest love, you’ve accompanied me through everything—even through dark times,” Yangming told Zhu as tears streamed down their faces. “Your smile, like a ray of sunshine, would cure all my sadness.” Yangming promised to Zhu “to always trust and respect you, and to always cry and laugh together with you.” Yangming appreciated how the officiant added to the atmosphere by venturing beyond the legally required procedures to share some reflections on how to sustain a loving marriage. “It all made the ceremony feel quite sacred,” Yangming said.

But after the clerk wed the couple, nothing had changed as far as the Chinese government was concerned. China does not legally recognize same-sex relationships, whether through marriage, civil unions, or some other form. A local court in 2020 even ruled that same-sex partnerships “violate public order and good morals.” Despite such stigmatizing signals, visibility and support in society has grown for gays and lesbians over the past several decades, leading many people, including myself, to believe that China will eventually legalize same-sex marriage.

Even without legal status in China for now, many gay couples like Yangming and Zhu have told me that marriage has made their relationships feel more secure. And, as one friend told me, when he and his husband go to a place where marriage equality is the law of the land, their marriage means that they “will be treated like a family and not like strangers.”

Looking back a few years ago, the gay couples who married the old-fashioned in-person way had to jump through many more hoops than the digital newlyweds. One such couple, Tao and Duan, literally had to enter a competition to get to the altar. Initially, Tao had no intention of ever marrying after his parents bitterly divorced. But, in 2015, China’s biggest ecommerce site, Taobao, announced a contest that would select 10 same-sex couples to go on an all-expenses-paid trip to West Hollywood to marry. Duan persuaded Tao that they should submit a video introducing themselves to try their luck. Shocked, they won enough of the 75,000 votes cast online to make the cut. Unfortunately, three of the 10 selected couples had to drop out after the United States rejected their visa applications.

Thinking about the ceremony still takes Tao’s breath away. “I looked at Duan with his neat hair and his chest gently rising and falling under his pressed suit, the warmth of his hand emanating into mine,” Tao recalled. “It felt like everything went silent except for my beating heart.” Onlookers, online and off, were also moved. When Taobao posted a video of the group wedding ceremony, it received over 10 million views.

Just seven years later, today’s same-sex newlyweds face a far different online environment. Shortly after their wedding, Yangming and Zhu uploaded a clip of their ceremony to WeChat Channels, a video-sharing platform like TikTok. The clip quickly racked up over 800,000 views only to be attacked by an army of trolls who posted nasty comments and mass reported the video for content violations. One commenter wrote, “you can live quietly, but do not publicize yourselves online. This will corrupt the youth. They will chase this fad and become gay.” Soon after, WeChat Channels blocked all the videos on Yangming’s account and disabled its posting function indefinitely.

Such incidents are common. On Bilibili, a site popular among Chinese youth, people have denounced gay people for using the word tongzhi (“comrade”) to refer to one another. This decades-old expression arose because “gay” (tongxinglian, meaning “same-sex love”) and “comrade” (tongzhi, meaning “same will”) both begin with the character for “same.” The Chinese Internet’s growing number of keyboard warriors claim that using tongzhi as slang for a “gay person” insults China’s revolutionary martyrs, a criminal act. Even the phrase “come out of the closet” has become “sensitive” on several social media sites. Some users now separate out the phrase’s component parts to throw off the algorithms that flag posts for deletion. When I recently looked for the original viral video of Tao’s wedding, it was gone. That Taobao had helped same-sex couples go to the United States to marry—not even all that long ago—now feels more like a bizarre dream than a memory.

While public space is shrinking, I have seen more and more gay people find support among their families and friends. My friend’s parents recently illustrated these contrasting trends when they urged him and his husband not to be too public about their marriage, not because they were ashamed, but because they didn’t want the outside world to disrupt their lives.

Juying finds this unfair: “Why can’t my son have a big spectacular wedding like most heterosexual couples?” Regardless, she is comforted knowing her son and his husband will have each other, “I hope they can support each other through tough times and live happily until their hair turns grey.”

“And when I make it to Guangzhou,” Juying said, “I am going to bring them their wedding rings and a red envelope full of cash.”