Can same-sex couples get married in Beijing?

The (gradually) changing stance on LGBT nuptials in the capital

Julian Gosengfiao

This has been a stonkingly good year for LGBT rights worldwide, particularly equal marriage, which has now been legalised in 16 countries and a growing number of US states. Closer to home, even communist Vietnam and conservative Thailand may soon become the first Asian nations to recognise same-sex civil unions.

For the time being, China’s marriage law remains ironclad, but the authorities have voiced no opposition to foreign embassies and consulates performing same- sex marriages and civil unions on their own premises. However, very few nations currently offer this option. While embassy staff have been able to bring same-sex partners into China as a legal dependant since around 2008, foreign couples living in China, in most cases regardless of orientation or gender, can’t get married at their embassy.

Times are slowly changing, however, with the high-profile wedding of Brian Davidson, 50, British consul-general to Shanghai, who married his American partner Scott Chang, 33, at the official residence of the UK ambassador to China in Beijing on September 6.

While the ceremony was described as a ‘private affair’ by the UK Foreign Office, pictures soon emerged on Chinese social media, sparking a little maelstrom of commentary from Chinese netizens. Some of it was typically hate-filled – ‘last days of Rome’ was one vitriolic classic – but most of it was warm, positive and congratulatory. Local activists and LGBT rights campaigners were in attendance, as were family members from both sides of the aisle.

But, before you start choosing bridesmaid outfits, there’s some bad news. If you are both Chinese nationals, you can forget about a Beijing wedding. Although petitions are regularly submitted to the National People’s Congress calling on the Government to legalise same-sex civil unions, the response is always the same – ‘China isn’t ready’.

What about in the city's embassies? Of those we were able to get a firm response from, the embassies of France, Brazil, New Zealand and the Netherlands confirmed that their own laws prohibit embassy staff from performing any marriages or civil unions – even if both parties are non-Chinese. A number of countries, including the US, Canada, Australia, Norway and Finland have similar restrictions in place.

There’s better news for some. The embassy of Sweden, a country with gender-neutral marriage laws, told us that they were able to perform same-sex marriage or civil ceremonies on their premises, provided neither party is a Chinese national. The British Embassy is able to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, provided one party is a British national. The partner can be of any other nationality, including Chinese.

Plus, we were told it might be ‘theoretically possible’ by consular staff at the New Zealand, German and Irish embassies, though none were keen to give a definitive answer.

So what do you do if none of the above applies to your situation? Well, thankfully, most countries that legally recognise same-sex civil unions and/or marriages offer a ‘marriage visitor visa’ that permit nationals living overseas to marry their foreign same-sex partner without the need for green cards or other bureaucratic nightmares. While plenty of forward planning is essential (heck, it’s a wedding), the process by which some foreigners can happily and legally marry their same-sex Chinese partner outside of China is relatively smooth.

Most countries require couples to apply in person for a marriage or civil partnership licence about a year in advance of the ceremony, which necessitates a trip home (again, usually with your partner on a unique visa) for the purposes of an interview with a registrar or other civil official. There’s usually a required residency period of a few days, typically a week, before this interview can take place. Next, you will have to either book a licensed wedding venue (US, Canada, UK, South Africa and New Zealand) or secure an appointment at a civic building (most EU nations). This will lock in your wedding date and the issuance of a marriage licence, and then it’s over to you to plan the party. Contact the local registry office or equivalent in your registered domicile for detailed information.

For those who really want to celebrate in China there is, of course, nothing stopping you from holding a Chinese-style wedding banquet right here in Beijing. Plus, you can avoid the additional charges from venues and 18-month waiting lists that now come bundled with a traditional, opposite-sex wedding in Beijing! Just beware of smartphone- toting rubberneckers attempting to descend on the knees-up, and bear in mind that a formal ceremony, particularly with a religious or civil official, is likely to draw unwelcome attention from the police.

In the meantime, take heart in the fact that the Chinese authorities have shown little interest in interfering in equal marriages performed outside the country – even those involving Chinese nationals. When it comes to same-sex love, for better or for worse, it seems the Government is choosing to remain blind.

CORRECTION: This feature has been amended from the print version, as the situation has changed since the article was written. British nationals can now marry their same-sex Chinese-national partner at the British Embassy in Beijing.