Every time Benjamin Zhang talks about marriage, he uses the following words in abundance: "job," "duty," "my parents," "problem," and "urgent".
"The most urgent matter for me now is to find a spouse. I'm not young anymore. I see my peers getting married one by one and having kids, and I have nothing. I just feel very dejected," said the 31-year-old native of the northeastern city of Harbin -- who also admits he loves children and hopes to have his own one day. "When I'm married and have a child, I'd have done my job as a son. That's most important for me."
Benjamin shares the anxiety of millions other bachelors in China, where it's almost a given that people of a marriageable age set off to start a family.
But unlike most of them, Benjamin is looking for a lesbian wife.
Benjamin is gay, and he's trying to obtain a xinghun - a new Chinese term coined to describe a "cooperative marriage" between a gay man and a lesbian woman. The marriage, essentially, is a sham: both the husband and wife continue to have their own same-sex partners and may not even live together.
Experts and members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community say that the fact LGBT people still feel compelled to conform to social norms, marry someone of the opposite sex and bear a child proves that they still have their work cut out for them in trying to change traditional societal attitudes and eliminate discrimination against homosexuality.
For decades, closeted gay men have married unsuspecting straight women to hide their homosexuality. Zhang Beichuan, a professor at Qingdao University's Medical School who researches gay issues, estimated that there are 20 million gay and bisexual men in China, of whom around 80 percent have married straight women. This means that around 16 million heterosexual women in China today are married to gay men. Typically experienced behind closed doors, the issue was thrust into the spotlight last June, when a 31-year-old bride from Sichuan Province jumped to her death after discovering that her husband was gay.
Not all gay people in China are satisfied with this arrangement. "It's very irresponsible. You know you can't have a normal sexual relationship with the woman. You're hurting her," said Benjamin, whose parents and colleagues, unaware of his sexuality, have tried to match him with about 20 girls over the years.
"I'll agree to go for the blind date, and I'll come home saying she's not suitable. Every time I reject a girl, I feel like I'm helping her, because I ... there's nothing I can do," he sighed.
Xinghun is seen as a less hurtful and an increasingly popular way of dealing with societal and parental expectations for LGBT people to enter into heterosexual marriages. Chinagayles.com, one of China's earliest and largest online portals for xinghun match-making, has more than 160,000 registered members and claims to have successfully matched nearly 20,000 couples since its establishment in 2005. As in other social networks, individuals upload personal details like their occupation, monthly income, educational qualification, and hukou status.
"If you ask me whether I feel helpless, yes, of course I do. But what can I do? If I got together with my male partner, what would my parents do? They are very traditional. They won't be able to accept it," he admitted. "I also want them to be able to tell their friends that their son is also a 'normal' man, is married and has a family."
The pressure from his parents became so overwhelming that Benjamin ultimately moved to Malaysia.
The cultural concept of "continuing the bloodline" is of paramount importance in Chinese culture. Mencius, the ancient philosopher, argued that of the three ways a son can be disloyal to his parents, the worst is to have no offspring; in the Chinese language, to curse that someone dies without a son remains a strong profanity.
The One-Child Policy in China further complicates matters.
"I'm the only son in the family. I have to carry on the family line. I have to answer to my family," said Benjamin. "Sometimes I'll wonder, if my parents had two kids, what would happen? But because they only have me, if I selfishly insist on maintaining my gay lifestyle and remain single, I feel like I'm letting them down, that I'm hurting them."
Patrick Cai, 27, remembers how pained his parents were when he came out to them two years ago.
"They refused to believe it. They broke down and cried so hard and were so hysterical and flustered that it's almost like they just heard their loved one had suddenly experienced a major disaster," said the Zhejiang native, who has a boyfriend of three years. "They're more rational now, but at that time I really didn't expect their reaction to be that intense."
It doesn't help that in China, homosexual content in movies and on websites is usually censored. But Geng Le, CEO of danlan.org, China's largest gay website, said there's already greater room and scope for the discussion of LGBT issues and same-sex marriage online than off in China, because the government's control of the internet is weaker than that of newspapers. A poll this February by Sina.com, a popular news portal which also runs China's Twitter-like Weibo service, showed that a majority of respondents support same-sex marriage. QQ.com, an instant messaging site, conducted a similar survey, and more than 90 percent of the respondents said yes to the legalization of same-sex marriage.
A common refrain, however, among LGBT activists is that even the well-educated, web-savvy urbanites who profess to be understanding towards homosexuals are in fact not all that accepting.
"Many parents say it's the personal choice of those people, but when it happens to their children, it's immediately a big no-no for them," said Dian Dian, a graduate student in Hong Kong and a volunteer at the Beijing-based lesbian, bisexual women and transgendered rights group Common Language.
"For the families of many LGBT people, the heterosexual nature of marriage is non-negotiable. They are thus expected to marry someone of the opposite sex to give themselves 'family and social cover,'" said Rebecca Karl, associate professor of East Asian studies at New York University.
"Most of the gay couples I know, even if their parents know that they're gay and are perfectly ok with that, experience pressure to have a formal marriage to a member of the opposite sex that that results in a child," Karl explained.
"Many parents say it's the personal choice of those people, but when it happens to their children, it's immediately a big no-no for them."
Dian Dian is one such example.
"My uncle thinks I'll 'change' one day. He very clearly told me that I can date a girl, but one day, I have to get married and have my own family, by which he means a heterosexual marriage," said the 24-year-old.
Dian Dian's mother, on the other hand, has never objected to her daughter's homosexuality. But even she thinks homosexuals don't absolutely need to marry.
"She probably sees the traditional value in marriage, because since ancient times, we've used the phrase cheng jia li ye (setting up a family and establishing a career), and 'setting up a family' for them naturally involves a man and a woman," Dian explained.
Members of the LGBT community also point to the chronic discrimination against homosexuals in the workplace - including obstacles to promotion - as a roadblock to changing societal attitudes.
"In the civil service, if you want a promotion, you need to have a 'traditional' family. Single men who reach 30, and single women around 27 or 28, are considered abnormal. Tongues will wag," said Lily Chen, 23, a graduate student, and a closeted lesbian. If she comes out to her parents, Lily says, they might send her to a hospital, lock her up in the house, or force her to marry a man.
It's against this backdrop of widespread and entrenched bias against homosexuals in society that LGBT groups have rallied behind same-sex marriage as a means to an end of raising public awareness and popular understanding of homosexuality.
"China is a country which emphasizes family structure, so same-sex marriage is an issue that people find relatively easy to identify with," said Wei Xiaogang, executive director of Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, and founder of Queer Comrades, China's only non-profit LGBT webcast.
Marriage is a "magical word" for Chinese parents, explained Stijn Deklerck, 35, a producer at Queer Comrades. "It resonates with society and therefore same-sex marriage advocacy actions tend to be publicized a lot in China," he said. "LGBT NGOs use the slogan of same-sex marriage in their publications to make an impact in the media and society in general."
Last month, Li Yinhe, a professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who has worked on legalizing same-sex marriage since 2003, sent letters to deputies of the National People's Congress (NPC), the highest legislative organ in China, urging them to support a proposal for marriage law reform.
On the ground changes seem afoot. China saw its first public gay marriage - which is not protected under the law - in the southwestern city of Chengdu in 2010. This January, a wedding reception in Beijing's outskirts held by an elderly gay couple triggered widespread discussion about gay rights in China.
"Homosexuality is not in violation of any Chinese laws. Homosexuals have all the rights of other Chinese citizens. Their right to marriage does not conflict with their rights as a citizen, and therefore should be recognized," Li's proposal read. The document must first be submitted by a National People's Committee (NPC) deputy and seconded by at least 30 others before it can become official, but despite the presence of nearly 3,000 deputies Li's proposal was turned down. To this day, no government official or NPC deputy has ever made a statement about same-sex marriage.
The legalization of same-sex marriage is intimately linked with many rights and privileges associated with marriage, such as property rights, inheritance rights, parenting rights, and medical rights, said Xin Ying, a program director at the Beijing LGBT Center. Xin tried to register for marriage under the pseudonym Ma Yuyu with her lesbian partner in Beijing this February, but was rejected.
The call has proven effective even among members of the LGBT community who aren't too keen on marriage themselves.
Under Chairman Mao Zedong, homosexuality was labeled a psychological disorder and a form of hooliganism, and a campaign was waged to wipe it out.
"I'm someone who doesn't really approve of marriage to begin with," said Jianping, 37, who asked that his name be changed for this article because he hasn't come out yet. "But for the LGBT community, it's necessary that gay marriage be legalized because it symbolizes equal rights - you need to have that option available, whether or not people want to exercise it. It'll also encourage a better understanding and acceptance of homosexuality in this country."
Others are calling for an alternative to marriage as the traditional model of partnership.
"I'm in favor of a Partnership Law, which will be more inclusive and forward-looking," said Xin. She referred to the version of a Partnership Law being pushed in Taiwan in recent years, and said it's worth paying attention to and learning from. "The definition of a 'family' isn't limited to one man and one woman, but should be allowed to include a single person, multiple persons, and no gender restrictions. This is the kind of diversity we're hoping for."
The problem with all these reform proposals, though, is that the rule of law is not even mature in China, said Ling Jueding, head of feizan.com, a leading gay social networking site in China.
"If I ask an American how to legalize gay marriage, he might be able to tell me the specific legal processes from national law, to state law, to local law," Ling explained. But the Chinese legal system is not transparent, and even some LGBT activists themselves - while outspoken about the legalization of gay marriage - have no idea how to bring about its actual realization.
A more achievable goal for now is therefore public education -- and China certainly has a long way to go. Under Chairman Mao Zedong, homosexuality was labeled a psychological disorder and a form of hooliganism, and a campaign was waged to wipe it out. It was only decriminalized in 1997, and declassified as a mental illness in 2001.
"People need to recognize that homosexuality is a normal phenomenon for a minority of people in society. It's no big deal. Regardless of whether you're heterosexual or homosexual, we're all normal people, we're all the same," said Zhang Beichuan, professor at Qingdao University's Medical School.
"It might take the hard work of an entire generation to bring about such a mindset change. It's only after this that we can apply rights consciousness to the issue."
Before these goals are reached, xinghun - marriage between a gay man and a lesbian woman - remains the next best alternative, although some are still fiercely opposed to it.
"I won't do it. It's impossible," snapped Zheng Lilin, 21, from the southern province of Fujian, who has a boyfriend of seven years. "It's almost like I'm with this person only because I need to fulfill other people's expectations. I need to act, and this offends my principles. Even if I can't belong (legally) to my partner, at least I want to be faithful to him."
Others say they're just being practical.
"I think at a certain point in your life, you'll begin to wish that you had your own child, and that desire only grows stronger as you age," said Jianping. "If China can be like other countries where single people can have kids without marrying, then I won't even need to xinghun. But as a matter of fact, in China, you can't obtain the permit to have a child if you're not married, and a child born out of wedlock cannot be registered for a hukou (a Chinese piece of identification that operates like a domestic passport). So it's very troublesome." There are also restrictions to adoption by single people, including a stipulation that there should be at least a 40-year age difference if a man wishes to adopt a female child.
Benjamin Zhang recognizes the pitfalls of xinghun, including bringing up the child in a "non-traditional" family, and the splitting of assets in the event of a divorce, but is confident these can be resolved.
"I think we'll have an agreement before the marriage that if she has her own house, she'll definitely keep it if we were divorced. Other little things here and there, I don't think we need to be too calculating," said Benjamin.
"And when I have my own child, I'll do everything within my own means to bring him or her up well. I mean, many heterosexual couples abuse their kids. Won't the child be better off with homosexual parents who really love him?" he questioned. "Even if the child hates us in future, there's nothing we can do. But I'll still try my best to give him happiness."