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Undaunted By China's Rule Book, Lesbian Couple Welcomes Their Newborn Twins

Chinese lesbian couple Rui Cai (left) and Cleo Wu play with their twin babies, born last month. China does not allow same-sex marriages, and only married, heterosexual couples have access to assisted reproduction. The women went through in vitro fertilization in the U.S., and the children were born in China.
Courtesy of Rui Cai and Cleo Wu
Chinese lesbian couple Rui Cai (left) and Cleo Wu play with their twin babies, born last month. China does not allow same-sex marriages, and only married, heterosexual couples have access to assisted reproduction. The women went through in vitro fertilization in the U.S., and the children were born in China.

Chinese women Rui Cai and Cleo Wu gave birth to twins last month, following a successful in vitro fertilization. It wasn't simple.

Cai took two eggs from Wu, added sperm from a U.S. sperm bank, had them put in her womb at a clinic in Portland, Ore., then returned to China to give birth.

The lesbian couple is one of the first in China known to have used this form of assisted reproduction.

The birth is seen as a sort of milestone in China, which has become a more tolerant place for gay couples over the past nearly four decades.

However, same-sex couples are not allowed to marry in China, where policies and laws still favor traditional families. Only heterosexual, married couples are allowed to have children and, if needed, get access to reproductive services such as surrogacy.

On a visit to Cai and Wu's apartment, the couple and their parents are cleaning up after dinner. Cai's mother is changing the babies' diapers and getting them to bed.

"You've got to believe that you will make your dream come true, like making a baby," says Cai, reflecting on what was for her a personal victory against the odds.

"You have to be very confident about your partnership," she adds. "Although you're a lesbian couple, it should be as strong as the other couples."

More Resources Than Most

Cai and Wu were comparatively lucky. They could afford to study in Britain and get reproductive services in the U.S.

Most LGBT couples cannot. To have families, they often resort to fake marriages and black market services, which are fraught with moral, financial and health risks.

Cai and Wu chose to give birth at a private hospital in Beijing, which respected their privacy. Such alternatives to state-run hospitals have only sprung up in Beijing in the past couple of decades.

"What we wanted was a straightforward attitude and equality of service," Cai says, "somewhere where we didn't have to explain everything or be met with discriminatory, judgmental looks."

Cai and Wu may face obstacles further down the road, when they try to register their children for school or government ID cards.

But they've already resolved one big issue: winning the support of their parents. As it turns out, they cared less about the marriage than the children.

That's not surprising, as elderly Chinese rely on children and grandchildren to take care of them.

"They think it's OK for us to choose this homosexual lifestyle," Cai says. "But we've got to have offspring. It's a compromise or a precondition we must meet for them to accept our lifestyle."

"If you get accepted by your parents, basically you solve most of your problems of being gay in China," says Xu Bin, the founder of Common Language, a Beijing-based LGBT rights group.

Changing Attitudes

Xu notes that in pre-communist days, before 1949, China's traditional society and religions were relatively tolerant of homosexuality.

"Our parents' generation thinks that homosexuality is a kind of sickness or something fearful," says Wu. "But they don't think of it as a sin. What Chinese are afraid of is being different."

Parents' concerns, Wu argues, are mostly practical. They don't want their children discriminated against or disadvantaged in the competition for homes, jobs and other resources and services because they are part of a minority group.

China's medical establishment declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 2001. And in recent years, Xu adds, the growth of the Internet and civil society has changed attitudes and created more space for gay and lesbian couples in China.

"People who were born in '80s, or after '80s, who grew up in this more open society towards gay people and who are now around 30 years old and have steady jobs and relationships, there's a huge need of having babies of their own," Xu says.

But major hurdles remain.

For the first time last month, a gay couple in southern Hunan province sued the government for the right to marry. They lost.

Lifting The One-Child Policy

And in January, for the first time in 35 years, Chinese citizens were allowed to have two children, instead of just one.

It's an admission that China's society is aging, the labor pool is shrinking and the country needs more babies. But, Xu points out, it's still up to the government to decide just who can have them.

"To have a child is really a personal right, is a human right," Xu argues. "But then you have to have permission from the state. It might be difficult for non-Chinese people to imagine or understand this situation, but this is the reality we face."

Xu predicts that with legal marriage out of reach for the moment, forming families will be the main battlefront for China's LGBT community.

And that is why many in the community are following the experiences of Rui Cai and Cleo Wu.

Cai and Wu have formed a chat group on social media where they share their experiences with other lesbian couples seeking to start a family.

They review hospitals based on their privacy and equality of service, and share workarounds to bureaucratic obstacles to, for example, registering children with authorities.

But Cai describes her victory as a temporary one. She says she still struggles to free her mind from doubts and traditions.

"We can only keep reminding ourselves," Cai says. "For example, we sometimes consider: Would we support our children if they pick a same-sex partner?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.