Born in 1974 during the last days of the Cultural Revolution, Zhou Dan grew up in a society where being gay was regarded as a crime and a mental illness. Back then, the only information he could find on homosexuality was in his law school’s library. It was only while riding his bicycle past a popular gay meeting spot in his native Shanghai in the early 1990s that he chanced upon meeting other men like himself. Now, Zhou is proud to call himself the only openly gay lawyer specialising in serving the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. In 2003, he started the Shanghai Hotline for Sexual Minorities. He continues to give free legal advice on a near-daily basis. Homosexuality was a crime until 1997, and classified as a mental illness until 2001.
When did you become openly gay?
I came out in 2003 in an interview with a small local newspaper in Shanghai, but not many people noticed then. But two years later, Time magazine profiled me and I’ve since been interviewed by many local and international media. I think it’s important to talk openly about LGBT issues. For a long time in China, being gay was taboo. But recently there has been a marked increase in the visibility of dynamic LGBT communities, especially in the big cities. In August the United Nations Development Programme sponsored a national LGBT conference in Beijing, and that was a major breakthrough. LGBT issues have now become “speakable” in public – it might still be controversial, but there is debate and dialogue.
How did you start helping LGBT people with legal issues?
I went to law school in the early 1990s. Being gay then was still seen as a crime and an illness. My major was in intellectual property and copyright. I never thought I’d be a gay-rights lawyer. I first started giving legal advice in 1998 when the internet was just getting started in China. I joined some LGBT discussion forums, where I gave advice and commentary. Then at the turn of the century, there was an internet boom, and that helped LGBT communities to develop rapidly. Now everyone knows they can call me any time if they need help.
What do people usually ask for help or advice about?
They usually ask about marriage and relationship issues. For example, if a gay couple want to spend their lives together, even if they cannot get married, there are ways for them to make legal arrangements reflecting their commitment. They can agree to have joint ownership of an apartment, or write up wills in the event of death. And although gay couples cannot adopt a child together, a single gay man or a single lesbian woman can adopt a child, so I could help with inheritance arrangements. Most other times, they’re concerned about marriage issues. I give advice over the phone for nothing, but I don’t usually provide pro bono legal services.
Do people ask you about “co-operative marriages”?
Certainly. Ten years ago, this social phenomenon was rare, but now with the internet it’s becoming quite popular. “Co-operative marriage” is where a gay man and a lesbian woman marry each other and pretend to be a straight couple. Those who think this might sound odd have to understand that many LGBT people spend their whole lives “in the closet”. If they were openly gay they would risk discrimination, violence, bullying and harassment. The pressure to get married and have children is particularly strong in Chinese society. So LGBT people think of co-operative marriages as a more attractive alternative to marrying a straight person and having to lie to them.
What are the legal issues for co-operative marriages?
A lot of people don’t realise that co-operative marriages come with complicated legal risks. Some people only have a wedding ceremony but don’t sign a marriage licence, so they think they’re fine because they are not married in a legal sense. But even then, those considering a co-operative marriages should have some serious discussions and then sign an agreement with each other. Before getting married, they should first decide on things such as how to share property, costs of living, and whether or not they want a child and how the child would be raised. They should also be prepared for serious conflicts to arise around parents-in-law and children. Sometimes, people will try to agree that they won’t have to take care of each other’s parents and grandparents. But under Chinese law that is illegal, because it is a legal duty for sons and daughters to take care of their parents. It can also become a problem when people don’t decide before getting married whether or not to have children and how to take care of children. Co-operative marriage couples often prefer to live apart, but that can be more difficult with children.
How about “mixed marriages”, when a gay person marries a straight person?
This type of marriage has been common for a long time. It’s often the reason I need to go to court. I’ve seen a rising number of cases in which the straight spouse sues for divorce and seeks damages from the gay spouse. Straight people are often very angry at the idea of mixed marriages, because they think it’s a kind of cheating or fraud. It’s a very controversial issue. Technically, if you look at Chinese marriage and divorce law, if you hide your true sexual orientation from a spouse, that doesn’t mean you have committed “fraud”. It’s understandable that straight spouses would be upset, but we should also understand why these types of marriages are so widespread. People feel very strong pressure to marry and have a child, and continue the family blood line.
Have you ever considered either arrangement for yourself because of family or social pressure?
No, I have been living with my partner in Shanghai for 10 years. We don’t plan on raising a child. My parents are very supportive. I think it’s a kind of inevitability. Parents have to accept their children for who they are. My parents have always been very supportive of my choice of legal career, too, and didn’t push me to specialise in types of law where I would make more money. I didn’t become a lawyer to make money. Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to study law so I could fight for justice and fairness.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition on October 20, 3013 as Lawyer advises LGBT people