You’re at a dinner party. You’re attracted to someone sitting across the table. You ask them out on a date. You start doing everything together. You fall in love. You’re exclusive. You move in together. You’re a couple for three years. You want to get married.
You live in Beijing. You’re American. Your partner is Chinese. You’re gay.
This is the story of Steven Hill and Bei Hai, who met in Beijing in 2010. Hill had lived there for three years, teaching math in an English immersion program at China Agricultural University before he met Hai, who worked as a retail trainer for MAC Cosmetics.
“I just wanted to be with him all the time,” says Hill, a tall, trim and tan twenty-eight-year-old with a slight beard, and never without glasses over his bright blue eyes. He’d had trouble finding a connection with Chinese guys until then, dating expats like himself, but when he met Hai there was just an instant understanding. And for Hai, a fit twenty-nine-year-old with dark coiffed hair and deep brown eyes, it felt the same, with an added bonus.
“Steven is my ideal man: handsome, sweet,” Hai says, adding, “And if I were in a relationship with a Chinese guy, there is no future, no marriage, no adoption, nothing.”
Being gay in China is less taboo than many people may assume. Because China’s is not a religious society, there is no moral outrage rooted in Christian or other spiritual values. Nor is there much of a vocal, divisive political discussion over gay rights. As an issue, it is largely invisible to the public. The real cultural focus is on progeny and male children, which a gay relationship makes impossible. That is the stem of its unacceptability in China: a practical, familial consideration to end the family line.
Hill had always intended to leave Beijing in 2011, after his three-year tenure at the university was up. He is a well-educated, bilingual American and, as he approached thirty, wanted to pursue a higher-paying career back home. But once he met Hai, Hill was forced to chose between his love and his home. There was no way for Hai to easily immigrate to the U.S. since they couldn’t simply apply for a green card, move there together and get married, like heterosexual couples do.
Because immigration is a wholly federal process, it didn’t matter that Hill is from — and would return to — Maryland, a state in which gay marriage was legalized in 2012. The Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996, barred same-sex couples from receiving federal marriage benefits, including the right to sponsor foreign partners for permanent residence.
“That’s why DOMA was so bad,” Hill says. “Even as states were changing laws, it didn’t really matter for the real things gay couples were going through.”
And so from 2011 to 2013, Hill and Hai recommitted to living in Beijing, and embarked on months of in-depth research to find out where they could move, together. They lived week-to-week, never making big plans for the future. They had many friends, including several other gay couples, and an active social life. They moved in together, sharing a great apartment in Beijing, as well as two cats, then took their first big vacation together to the Philippines. They were both out in their everyday life in the city, not hiding their relationship at work or among peers. But the couple felt they had reached a plateau, with no way to take their lives to the next level, including marriage and kids.
During these years, Hill largely gave up on the idea of ever permanently living in America again.
“The U.S. was never on the list,” he says. But many other countries were. He applied to dozens of jobs in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, all of which have common domestic partner laws that recognize couples who can prove they have lived together for at least one year. On his smartphone, Hill kept a large Evernote file entitled “Mission: Move To Canada,” including hundreds of articles about obtaining a Canadian visa. Yet none of these opportunities came through.
In early 2013, Hill moved home to Maryland. At the very least, they thought, they would continue a long-distance relationship while Hill made a plan of action from the U.S. Hai came with him, intending to visit with Hill’s family for a few weeks, and was granted a six-month tourist visa. This gave them time to plan.
DOMA was under review by the Supreme Court at this time, and the couple knew that if the law was repealed, they’d have a shot at filing paperwork and getting married during Hai’s stay. If not, Hai would be forced to return to China. But Hill was hopeful. Despite the steep uphill battle, he felt that something — marriage equality or immigration reform — had to give.
They went on a road trip across the country for a few weeks, a much-needed reprieve from the relentless paperwork and stress. Hill showed off America. When they were in Vegas after what Hill described as “an exceptionally positive gambling stint,” they bought a ring and officially got engaged. They couldn’t elope in Nevada — where gay marriage is illegal — and getting married back in Maryland wouldn’t help Hai’s immigration status, but they went forward on the hope that DOMA would be repealed.