The gay marriage proposal that's the talk of China

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A marriage proposal on the Beijing underground has been the talk of Chinese social media - because it took place between two men.

It might not seem like the most romantic place to pop the question, but when a man knelt in front of his boyfriend on a Beijing subway train, commuters whipped smartphones out of pockets to record the event. Thousands have been talking about the proposal on the Twitter-like Weibo service using the hashtag "Mid-autumn festival man proposes to his boyfriend." One clip was uploaded by user Bai Yiyan Vina, who commented: "As usual, I was taking the subway home, but contrary to what I was expecting, I encountered a couple's love... I think this is really incredible."

image copyrightWeibo / Bai Yiyan Vina
image captionAs the man kneels, he says "Today I invite all the people we know and do not know to bear witness".
image copyrightWeibo / Bai Yiyan Vina
image captionAs the other riders look on, several people can be heard shouting “disgusting” or “sin” in the background
image copyrightWeibo / Bai Yiyan Vina
image captionThe boyfriend says yes and his partner presents him with a watch
image copyrightWeibo / Bai Yiyan Vina
image captionAs the two men embrace the carriage breaks out in spontaneous applause, drowning out the shouters

The two men won't actually be able to get hitched in China - there's no gay marriage or same-sex union procedure under Chinese law, although couples have travelled to the United States to get married, including seven who won a contest sponsored by the Chinese online retailing giant Alibaba. But despite the shouts of "sin" or "disgusting" by some commuters audible in the video, in fact most of those commenting on Weibo expressed support for the couple.

"Those who say this is disgusting, you are not qualified to judge others," read one remark that was liked more than 600 times, while another popular comment said said: "You should admire their courage. Just because they are people you don't understand, and even with the pressures of those looking down on them as 'sinful', they are still brave to express their love." A small proportion of users disagreed, however, and several women lamented their inability to find a partner: "I feel as though the whole world has become gay, and yet I'm still single."

As BBC Trending reported in July, the US Supreme Court decision to legalise same-sex marriage kicked off a parallel debate in China. But the two countries have very different dynamics when it comes to the political debate over gay marriage, according to Timothy Hildebrandt, an assistant professor of social policy at the London School of Economics who has studied the LGBT movement in China.

"Part of the rural/urban divide on this issue in the US is religious, but that's not what's going on in China," Hildebrandt says. "If people are homophobic, it's not as part of a religious doctrine."

Hildebrandt says Chinese attitudes towards homosexuality vary hugely. Some have never encountered a gay person and don't know what homosexuality is, others are aware of homosexuality but don't believe it exists in China. But at the same time, there is increasing acceptance of gay people in urban areas.

Homosexuality was removed from the Chinese Psychiatric Association's list of mental illnesses in 2001, and Hildebrandt says AIDS campaigns have offered gay rights groups an opening to talk about broader issues. But he also notes that the lingering effects of China's one-child policy have increased pressure on only children who are gay. Under the policy, which has been relaxed in recent years, many Chinese can be fined for having two or more children.

"Parents will think that if their only child is gay, that will end their hopes for grandchildren. It's family pressure which creates a disproportionate pressure on gays and lesbians," he says. "However attitudes are shifting as they've shifted in a lot of places around the world… through Weibo and other social media, people have learned about gay rights."

Reporting by Kerry Allen, BBC Monitoring

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