China wants in on same-sex marriage

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Less than 24 hours after the US Supreme Court announced its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, Beijing’s gay elite gathered in a private garden club near the Temple of Earth to celebrate a marriage of their own. The tone of the ceremony was demure and traditional, but the timing spoke loudly: We want in on same-sex marriage too.

“This is day we will all remember,” introduces the salt-and-pepper haired master of ceremonies. “The United States has legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty of its states. President Obama has called it a great step forward for gay rights.”

The crowd applauds. Same-sex marriage is not recognized in China, nor are wedding ceremonies between two grooms a common sight. Last year, two men who held a quiet wedding in the capital unintentionally became social media sensations overnight. If this wedding is unofficial, however, it is anything but informal. Everything is in its place, from the lime-green ribbons adorning the furniture to the rows of snappily dressed groomsmen and bridesmaids in white lace.

Only after his speech about America does our MC get to the grooms. The first down the aisle is Ling Jueding, the founder and CEO of Zank, one of China’s most popular gay social apps. Zank claims over 10 million users, and recently pulled in a reported 20 million yuan in private funding to wrestle with its main competitor Blued.

Ling walks with a broad-chested, rock-star swagger. I had never met him or seen his face before the wedding, but the instant I saw him walking through the crowd, round sunglasses hovering over pencil moustache, I knew who he was. This is a man who owns the place.

His boyfriend, sexual health advocate Gino Chen, is at least six inches taller, but plays the comic sidekick to Ling’s action hero. While Ling takes over the ceremony, Chen grins, clasps his hands, plays with his bow-tie, and mugs for the cameras.

Oh yes, the cameras.

The whole wedding is decked out like a movie set, complete with a robotic crane-mounted camera above the isle. Four uniformed photographers lugging professional lenses dart in and out of the crowd, snapping pictures against the the picturesque pavilions and bamboo trees of the Nobles Club. Behind the stage stands an eight-foot screen that, during the ceremony, plays a slickly produced montage of Ling and Chen’s photogenic love affair.

The set-up is especially impressive because the venue switched locations at the last moment, and everything had to be dragged from one place to another. This dance with local authority is familiar to Ling; he had to relocate the press conference for Zank’s recent funding round twice.

The whole wedding gives the impression of a photo-op that will be packaged and sent off for post-production before the bundles of white roses are wilted. The decorations are even printed with a clever Chinese slogan alluding to Zank. Among the invitees are all the most familiar faces in the Beijing gay scene: organizers, bar owners, activists and entertainers.

In a short, smoothly produced ceremony, we are treated to videos of Ling and Chen holding hands in a park, walking down a city street with their blazers jauntily tossed over their shoulders, and making out furiously in various scenic Beijing locations. There is a tasteful, but jaunty amount of tongue.

The video ends. Rings are exchanged. Promises are made. Two groomsmen burst into tears. The grooms kiss, and the crowd applauds madly. Nobody mentions that this wedding will receive no legal recognition. Its symbolic significance is obvious.

In the dining hall, the MC pushes us all gently in the direction of social media. High quality photos of the wedding are already filtering online from the photographers, huddled around a hive of laptops in the corner. “Share, share, share!” we are urged.

This is a wedding meant to send a message.