BEIJING - There may be as many as 16 million women on the Chinese mainland who are married to homosexual men, a leading expert has estimated.
Professor Zhang Bei-chuan at Qingdao University, an authority on AIDS and HIV, says that due to traditional family values in China, about 90 per cent of homosexual men get married because of pressure to conform.
"But their wives are struggling to cope and their plight should be recognized," he said on Thursday.
Xiao Yao, a 29-year-old magazine editor in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, divorced her gay husband in 2008.
"Most gay men's wives I've known are silently suffering at the hands of husbands who could never love them, and like me, some even got abused by husbands who were also under great pressure," she said.
Xiao now runs a website called "Homeland of gays' wives", which has 1,200 registered users and provides support and advice.
"The website makes them feel they're not alone and empowers them to make the right choices," she said.
Zhang said that getting their voice heard was the first step to raising public awareness.
However, some within the gay community think otherwise.
Xiao Dong, a 36-year-old gay man, who heads a civil organization in HIV/AIDS prevention and control, said: "Zhang's estimation is unsubstantiated and I even feel it's pointless to research the issue."
Whether to get married or not is too complicated a question among the gay population and it is almost impossible to project the number of married gay men by simple calculation, he said.
"To put gays' wives under the spotlight might cause more public misunderstanding or even hatred toward the gay population, which does not help defuse existing social discrimination against them," he added.
However, Meng Lin, an openly gay man from Beijing, believed that Zhang's estimation was reasonable.
"I myself almost married a woman many years ago, but finally gave up when I learnt I was HIV positive," said Meng, now 50.
He stressed he had told the woman that he was gay.
"Gay men and gays' wives are both victims of social discrimination and stigma, so we should not simply blame one party," he said.
Wang Zi (not his real name), a 27-year-old gay man, said he did not want a heterosexual marriage, but maybe one day he would be forced into it because he did not want to hurt the feelings of his parents.
Wang, a graduate student majoring in Chinese, said he would never tell his parents the truth. They still worked on the land at his hometown village .
"I may marry a lesbian and we can keep going with our own lifestyle more honestly," he said.
He claimed that online matchmaking services were available to help homosexuals marry.