The language of sexual minorities

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Nathan Hopson writes from a conference at Nagoya, Japan:

One of the discussants just mentioned that the words tóngqī 同妻・ tóngfū 同夫 are recently being used in China to refer respectively to a "wife with a homosexual husband" and a "husband with a homosexual wife".

Since these are neologisms, there are no established English translations for either of the terms.  Consequently, instead of offering translations for these terms, I will try to explain what they mean, and then invite Language Log readers to suggest their own translations.

We may think of tóngqī 同妻 as an abbreviation for tóngxìngliàn zhàngfū de qīzi 同性恋丈夫的妻子 ("a wife who has a gay / homosexual husband") and tóngfū 同夫 might be thought of as an abbreviation for tóngxìngliàn qīzi de zhàngfū 同性恋妻子的丈夫 ("a husband who has a lesbian / homosexual wife").

This may sound very odd to American readers, but the general context for these terms is that Chinese law doesn't permit same sex marriage. Consequently, a gay man, under external pressure (mainly from family) to marry, will enter into a tóngqī 同妻 arrangement with a woman who is willing to accommodate him, and vice versa for a tóngfū 同夫.

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng and Yixue Yang]


  1. Luis said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 6:22 pm

    The English [partial] reflex I know is the slang term "beard".

  2. Bob Crossley said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 6:23 pm

    Well we've only had gay marriage in the Anglosphere for short while, and arrangements like this were common enough in the past, so the why has Chinese evolved these terms while English didn't? Or at least I can't think of any. "Beard" as gay slang didn't get wider currency until fairly recently, and still isn't much known or used in straight circles, at least in the UK.

  3. Brendan said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 6:47 pm

    I'd immediately gone for "beard" as a possible translation for tóngqī and tóngfū as well — I think it'd probably be fairly widely known in the US at this point. My main objection to the translation would be that "beard" doesn't necessarily imply marriage, as both of the Chinese words do.

  4. Chris C. said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 7:54 pm

    Such things weren't all that uncommon in the West either, at least until relatively recently. Many of the gay men I know who are 45 or older were once married and have kids.

  5. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 8:02 pm

    Maybe the reason Chinese has more specific words for this (as opposed to "beard" which doesn't imply marriage) is that homosexuality is a much more known quantity than it used to be when such arrangements existed in the West. That is, China has the same old stigma but with more knowledge of the thing they're stigmatizing.

  6. Bloix said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 8:11 pm

    The English term is "lavender marriage." Google will give you a couple of million hits.

  7. Aaron said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 10:07 pm

    Since they're also called marriages of convenience (though that's a bit of a broader term), perhaps "spouse of convenience" could serve to translate the Chinese terms.

  8. minus273 said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 10:22 pm

    Lavender marriage is the correct equivalent, as 同妻/同夫 strongly implies fraudulence on the part of the homosexual partner. As a consensual arrangement, the term would be 形婚.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 10:49 pm

    Exalting Life as a Single in China

    New York Times- February 2, 2015‎

    BEIJING — “You must marry!” It’s a phrase many single Chinese are steeling themselves to hear from well-meaning but busybody relatives during the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins on Feb. 7, when millions of Chinese will return home.

  10. dxy said,

    February 3, 2016 @ 12:47 am

    There's no question of VM getting it wrong, but lavender marriage — as you put forward– is not quite correct, either. Although both terms imply the fraudulent nature of the social/personal union, lavender marriage seems to be gender-free, orientation-free and can involve more than one party of the marriage ( yet you see 同妻 way more frequently than 同夫 in China, and the other part, the 同性恋 is often a "confirmed" homosexual, morally corrupt, socially incapable and always censured on a family level– well, indeed, much talk on this in China is about "family" itself), while 同妻、同夫 appeared, one by another, as neologisms some years ago with a strong stress on the victimhood of the non-homosexual wife — not the husband!– and issues on social injustice, domestic violence, etc.

    But you are correct that by no means do they mean a pre-arranged accommodation.

  11. Abby said,

    February 3, 2016 @ 1:40 am

    This is unrelated to the original post, but I encountered a debate about whether or not this sentence was grammatically correct: "His mom called me a monster.. but I, to this day, believe it was he who the monster be."

    This seems like a wrong execution of the subjunctive – is it?

    Found here:

  12. minus273 said,

    February 3, 2016 @ 8:47 am

    Thanks! You are of course right. I think the "morally corrupt, socially incapable and always censured on a family level" is a bit too strong, though. Male homosexuals are considered unfortunate and a little shameful for their families; but in the work and public life, they are not considered morally corrupt, just effeminate as the inhabitants of Lower Yangtze Basin and Taiwan.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    February 3, 2016 @ 10:15 am

    Though I'm not familiar with the term lavender marriage, it seems safe to assume the term refers to the marriage, not the one of the people within the marriage. Thus it cannot be equivalent to a term that means "wife with a homosexual husband" or "husband with a homosexual wife", even if it refers to the same situation.

  14. Bloix said,

    February 3, 2016 @ 7:06 pm

    Ellen K – the point is that the idea of a phony marriage involving a gay person does not sound "very odd" to many American readers. Google Tom Cruise Katie Holmes and you'll see how familiar many American readers are with the concept.

  15. Yuvlomov said,

    February 4, 2016 @ 12:10 am

    Why only peek into the past… Coin a term for it!
    Here, I'll go first. If you are worried that lavender marriage does not refer to the relevant entity, How about lavengirl (married to a homosexual man) and lavenboy (married to a lesbian)? Or lavenspouse, having a more mature marital air to it, but alas, not the same ring (pardon the pun).

    Or: Lavenwife… Lavenbroom…
    I'll rest now.

  16. STS said,

    February 4, 2016 @ 9:45 pm

    Since Brokeback Mountain came out, I've heard the term "brokeback marriage" used to refer to a couple in which the woman is attracted to men but the man is gay. I have never come across "lavender marriage" before.

  17. marie-lucie said,

    February 5, 2016 @ 8:19 am

    In the case of gay men who married and had children, most of them struggled with their identity and the wives were not "accommodating" but did not know about their husbands' true nature, which was only revealed in the last few years as society became more tolerant, causing many divorces as the men wanted to stop "living a lie". Sexless marriages did occur between gay men and lesbians who were friends and lived "as brother and sister", providing a social façade but not deceiving themselves or each other.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    February 5, 2016 @ 6:56 pm

    "Chinese Rent Fake Partners to Show Mom And Dad at New Year" (2/4/16)

  19. marie-lucie said,

    February 5, 2016 @ 9:53 pm

    < men and lesbians who were friends and lived "as brother and sister"

    Correction: I meant "like brother and sister" (not "pretending to be brother and sister").

  20. Martha said,

    February 6, 2016 @ 2:38 am

    In the Chinese marriages in question, is the gay spouse hiding the fact that they're gay, or is the person known to be gay, but they're getting married because that's what one does? If it's the latter, than "beard" wouldn't work as a translation. At least the way I've heard it used, which is to describe someone who's in cahoots with the closeted person.

    Likewise, if the tóngqī/tóngfū doesn't realize that's what they are, I wouldn't call them a beard, either.

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