Together for 50 years, a lawsuit reminds China that love and marriage are very different things

Phoebe Zhang
·4-min read

After more than 50 years of living with her partner, a Chinese lesbian woman in her late 70s faced a lawsuit from her partner’s family to return money, jewellery and even appliances that they shared.

The ruling came despite the judge’s acknowledgement that the couple, who are surnamed Yuan and Li, would be considered a couple by society’s standards, just not the law’s.

A recent lawsuit over financial property has brought into the spotlight an area where LGBT couples do not enjoy the same legal benefits as heterosexual married couples. Illustration: Tom Leung
A recent lawsuit over financial property has brought into the spotlight an area where LGBT couples do not enjoy the same legal benefits as heterosexual married couples. Illustration: Tom Leung

The case, which took place in Shenyang in China’s northeastern Liaoning province between the families of the former lesbian couple, has underlined legal gaps that can make it impossible for the LGBT community to find lawful recourse to disputes because same-sex marriage is illegal in China.

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Both Yuan and Li were born in 1942 and, in 2019, Yuan was diagnosed with cerebellar atrophy and, suffering from memory loss, a local court made her sister her legal guardian.

It is in this context that Yuan sued Li for the return of 294,000 yuan (US$45,327) that was in a bank account owned by Yuan, but that Li could use.

Li then countersued, requesting Yuan pay her 125,000 yuan (US$19,271) or her share in a property they had bought together and were planning to sell. But, it turned out, Yuan’s sister had already sold the property in June 2020 for 250,000 yuan (US$38,543).

The court ruled that while there was no disputing the couple were long-term lovers, their relationship was not legally binding and marriage laws did not protect their property.

The judge ruled against giving Li half the money for sold property because their shared property isn’t protected under the marriage law, so she couldn’t get her half.

Yuan appealed the ruling and demanded items including gold necklaces, rings, a television, refrigerator and washing machine. Li argued that she was no longer in possession of the jewellery and the electrical goods were items they shared during their life together and she was still using them.

Ah Qiang, a spokesman for the Guangzhou-based PFLAG China, a non-governmental peer support group for families and friends of the queer community, said cases such as these were not unusual.

“As the court said in the sentencing, they are not protected by the marriage law. Even after a couple lived together for more than 50 years, the family member of one party can still become a guardian and fight over possessions against the partner.”

Qiang said the case highlighted the importance of continuing to fight for same-sex marriage.

Two women embrace as a man holds a candle at a memorial vigil in Beijing for the victims of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in the US in 2016. Photo: Getty Images
Two women embrace as a man holds a candle at a memorial vigil in Beijing for the victims of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in the US in 2016. Photo: Getty Images

The lack of protection for same-sex couples is not unique to property disputes. When China banned unmarried women from using assisted reproductive technologies to give birth, it applied to lesbian couples because they were, legally speaking, classified as single.

Dong Xiaoying, a Guangzhou-based lawyer and founder of the Advocates for a Diverse Family Network, said:

“The system for giving birth is largely bound to the marriage system in China, and gay marriage isn’t protected, which means lesbians have a hard time giving birth that is legally recognised.”

Dong said as a lesbian couple’s marriage isn’t recognised, only the birth parent could be the child’s legal guardian.

In July 2020, a Chinese lesbian couple launched a landmark court battle over custody of their daughter after breaking up. In Xiamen, a port city in China’s southeastern Fujian province, a court ruled the child, who was the biological child of one of the women, be returned to her partner because she had been the person who gave birth to the baby.

A legal change in 2019 has created a possible loophole to give same-sex couples more legal protections without getting married.

China granted permission for residents of any age to appoint their own legal guardian in the event of diminished mental capacity, including making decisions on medical treatment. Previously, only the elderly were able to appoint a guardian to take care of their matters.

The change resulted in more than a dozen same-sex couples appointing their partner as a legal guardian, giving them a layer of legal ownership over property and decision-making over the fate of their loved one should he or she become incapacitated.

“Many Chinese do not usually think about leaving a will or getting their property notarised, but when they reach a certain age, it may already be too late,” Ah Qiang said.

Had this law existed years ago, it may have made it far more transparent for Yuan and Li about who had legal rights over their property.

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