For seven Chinese gay couples, a trip to California offered something that wasn't legal at home: marriage certificates.
The couples were among hundreds who entered a high-profile online contest offering an all-expenses-paid American dream wedding.
On Tuesday, they wed at the West Hollywood Library — the same place where, two summers ago, gay couples married en masse after same-sex marriage became legal in California.
As camera crews surrounded her, Xue Mengyao sneaked a look at her bride-to-be, Xu Na, getting her makeup done and wearing a long white dress with lace and pearls.
Asked how Xu looked, Xue couldn't answer. She said if she did, she would start crying and ruin her own makeup.
“First sight,” she said, recalling when she first knew she would fall in love with Xu. “First sight.”
The women, both in their 20s, met while volunteering at the Beijing LGBT Center. They were in a crowded, noisy room, but there in the middle, Xue spotted a woman who just radiated beauty and confidence.
Seeing Xu for the first time struck Xue so deeply that she would remember the moment down to the outfit Xu had on: black sweater, blue scarf. Both artists, the women have been together for two years.
Despite the media attention that came from the contest, Xue said she has not told her family she is a lesbian. She wanted to get married, legally, and show her parents the joy in the photos so they would know: This is what a happy couple looks like. This is what acceptance looks like.
The “We Do” contest, as it was called, was sponsored by the e-commerce behemoth Alibaba and its shopping site Taobao, as well as China's largest gay dating app, Blued. The couples got marriage licenses at the Beverly Hills Courthouse this week. Though their marriages will not be recognized in China, they are legal in the U.S.
For reasons of social acceptance and parental pressure, many gay men in China — up to 80% by some estimates — will marry women. Homosexuality was severely punished during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 under a statute forbidding “hooliganism.” Officially, gay sex was a criminal offense until 1997.
“In the past, homosexuality, gambling and prostitution were all considered dirty subjects and not allowed in the media,” said Li Yinhe, a Chinese sociologist and sexologist.
But as the country's economy has developed and tolerance has grown, the Chinese government has taken a somewhat agnostic approach toward homosexuality, neither banning nor endorsing it, Li said.
Gay dating apps are popular in China, and gay weddings are increasingly attracting public interest. Last September, a gay British diplomat in China married his Chinese American partner at the British ambassador's residence in Beijing. (Gay marriage is legal in Britain.) News of the ceremony went viral on Chinese social media.
Despite all the attention on the We Do contest and all the cameras in the room, Tuesday's West Hollywood ceremony was intensely personal for Duan Rongfeng, 38, and Li Tao, 30, of Shanghai.
The couple, who run an advertising business together, wore matching pale blue tuxedos and white rose boutonnieres. They've been together for 11 years. For much of that time, they were closeted, introducing each other only as “good friends.” Despite their fears, their families supported them when they came out. Li's mother even moved in with them.
Before the ceremony, Li read a text message in Chinese that his mom had sent that morning: “This must be a very exciting moment in your life. As your mom, I wish you all the happiness ... forever.”
The couples walked down the aisle holding hands. When “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” started playing softly over the loudspeaker, Duan quietly mouthed the words. He touched his partner's knee as the other couples took their turns to wed, with West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey Horvath officiating.
One man grabbed his partner as Horvath spoke, unable to wait until she had finished the vows to kiss him.
“Clearly,” Horvath said, laughing, “you have sealed these vows with a kiss.”
Xue adjusted the train on Xu's dress before they walked down the aisle and wept tears of joy when Xu put a ring on her finger. Her new wife gently wiped away her tears.
When Horvath told Duan he could give his new husband the ring he had been provided by the contest, he whipped a surprise ring out of his jacket pocket: a gold Tiffany band with three diamonds. Li broke down, crying.
Duan had bought the ring weeks ago as a surprise because Li always teased him that he “wasn't romantic enough.” He had struggled to keep it a secret, but he knew he wouldn't have to go through the experience again.
“I have to buy a wedding ring only once,” he said, smiling at his new husband.
Branson-Potts reported from West Hollywood. Makinen reported from Beijing. Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.