Not long into the pandemic, Michael Foley, a radio host and licensed marriage officiant in Utah, was contacted with an unusual question: could he officiate a completely online marriage ceremony for a same-sex couple living in China?
Foley called the county clerk’s office in Provo, Utah, to find out. Somewhat to his surprise, the office told him that as long as the couple were of age and their identities could be verified, it was legal. Foley has since performed enough online weddings for same-sex couples in China to establish a routine: wake up at 3am, put on a suit, go to his kitchen – where he has a green-screen – to perform the wedding over Zoom, then go back to sleep.
The couples have sometimes been waiting years to get married. They’re not necessarily weeping or effusive, but “it shines through, that sense of ‘this is finally happening,’” Foley told the Guardian. “That this is a long time coming, that they’ve finally found a way to do it.”
From Xi’an to Utah
In the predawn dark one June night in Xi’an, China, Shin and her girlfriend sat down in front of their laptop, the TV unit behind them adorned in silver and gold balloons. In the slightly lopsided marriage video, with animal emojis occasionally obscuring her face, Shin looked at her fiancee beside her.
“I cannot imagine a future without you, so that’s why I want to marry you and that’s why I’m here,” she said.
About 10,000km away in daylit Utah, an elderly celebrant in a shirt and tie with his phone peeking from his pocket sat in front of his screen. He swung in his chair and grinned, asking the witnesses – two friends of the couple who had dialed into the ceremony from home – to give their support and assent to the marriage.
Shin told the Guardian that she and her girlfriend learned from social media about Utah marriages, and that the process was pretty straightforward.
“We just did it at home because in public, it’s illegal – so we couldn’t do it outside,” she said.
“We invited our family and friends to the Zoom meeting and decorated our room together. My girlfriend drew a picture of us saying ‘marry me’. It was super cute.”
The marriages have no legal weight in China, where same-sex marriage is illegal, but couples are eager to solemnize their commitment in the eyes of the state – even if it’s not their state.
Foley said that he’s done about a dozen marriages for gay couples in China, though most of the time the couples are non-Chinese residents of China, or mixed couples where one person is a Chinese national and the other is not Chinese but lives in China. He is frequently contacted by people in the Philippines, where same-sex marriage is also illegal, as well.
Rest of World, an online magazine, estimates that about 200 Chinese LGBTQ+ couples have been married in Utah since 2021, though the number may be higher. Writing recently in ChinaFile, a publication of the Asia Society, Chinese writer Zhijun Hu said that he and his husband married in Utah and know at least 20 other same-sex couples who have as well.
“Even without legal status in China for now, many gay couples … have told me that marriage has made their relationships feel more secure,” Hu wrote. “And, as one friend told me, when he and his husband go to a place where marriage equality is the law of the land, their marriage means that they ‘will be treated like a family and not like strangers.’”
That Utah – a heavily Republican state where the conservative Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon church, holds significant sway – has become the legal venue of choice for gay couples abroad is due in part to a legal quirk: Utah has no residency or citizenship requirements for marriage licences, and Provo, the state’s fourth-largest city, allows online international marriages.
‘It just makes me happy’
Utah County, where Provo is located, began encouraging virtual weddings after Covid-19 forced it to close its physical offices. Trans-national couples, whether straight or gay, usually face daunting immigration and legal hurdles, particularly if the parties met online and live in different countries; they’ve flocked to avail themselves of Utah’s flexibility.
“They’re some of the most emotional ones I’ve had,” Foley said. “One of them was a groom in Russia and a bride in Ukraine. There were bombs going off in the background.”
In China, pandemic restrictions have made it difficult for visitors to arrive or citizens to leave the country, and the Utah marriages have enabled some overseas reunions through spousal visas for the China-based partners. Similarly, although same-sex marriage is illegal in Hong Kong, the law there recognises overseas marriages for tax purposes and also allows Hongkongers to apply for dependant visas for their same-sex spouses.
News of the Utah loophole began to spread on gay and lesbian chat groups in China, who learned to work around the government’s pervasive censorship, replacing phrases like “same-sex” with coded euphemisms like “best friends”.
After mostly leaving LGBTQ+ groups alone during the early days of Xi Jinping’s rule, Chinese authorities have increasingly targeted the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Activists and civil society groups have seen their online accounts and spaces shut down in recent years, and police have interrogated Pride event organisers.
The government also banned portrayals of “effeminate” men in media and has made it official education policy to foster “masculinity” in schools.
Shin said that the opposition comes mostly from government, not society.
“The internet lets people know there are so many countries where same-sex marriage is legal. Many people in my generation and Gen Z are supportive, and older people are talking about how they’re OK if their kids or friends are gay,” she said.
“I think currently the society has reduced bias towards us as a group, and in the future China will gradually develop policy that protects the rights of LGBTQ groups.”
The paperwork for an online wedding in Utah costs about $100, and applicants must submit proof of identity. “To verify who they are,” Foley said, “to make sure they’re of age, that it’s not part of some kind of scam, that it’s not some kind of human trafficking.”
Foley said he charges about $100 for his services as officiant. Zoom weddings are typically short, joyful and cost-effective, since dozens of guests can join from anywhere in the world.
“It just makes me happy,” Foley said. “That’s the stuff that makes me get up at three o’clock in the morning to do it.”
Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu and Chi Hui Lin