What’s it like being a same-sex expat partner?

When I originally started writing the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide I immediately recognised how important it was going to be to include something about same-sex partners. Whilst accompanying someone to their job in another country can be hard for everyone, at least most of us don’t have to consider whether the move could actually put our lives in danger. Not only that, but how about living somewhere where the host country doesn’t even recognise our official marital status? Or where the only way you can get a visa is to pretend you work for your partner?

Finding people to talk about their experiences for the book wasn’t easy though. This can understandably be a very personal subject and not necessarily something people want to share with the world. I was very grateful to the two women who did speak to me and gave me some very interesting insight into the way they had to live their lives thanks to their LGBT status.

Up until recently though I hadn’t heard from any of the guys. Until Stefan responded to my call for men to take part in my Male Trailing Spouse series. Stefan provided some great answers (as well as my favourite ever picture on this blogsite) to my questions about his life accompanying his husband to China – but with the emphasis on his being a man rather than being gay. However he also put me in touch with a friend in China, Michael, who was also living there with his husband. And Michael very kindly agreed to answer some questions from a LGBT perspective. I think you will agree his replies were fascinating and very eye-opening for the rest of us.


Michael and his husband Juan Manuel


Welcome Michael and thank you for being part of this blog. First can you tell me a bit about yourself and your partner

I am from Los Angeles and Juan, my spouse is an Argentine diplomat born in Buenos Aires. We have lived together since 2009 and married in 2011. Prior to Beijing we were based in Tel Aviv for 3 years.

I am a TV producer having worked as an Executive Producer for networks such as ABC/DISNEY, NBC, MSNBC, MTV/Vh1, Spike, Bravo among others. I came to Beijing on a diplomatic visa (unofficially as the Chinese government would not issue me an ID card but “in their system” I am listed as the spouse with full rights and privileges) which meant I could not work and after a year (we weren’t sure we would stay given the ID issue) I took a position with CCTV which meant me changing from a diplomatic passport to an unofficial one.

I always loved traveling and exploring — I went to Israel as a teenager, lived in Italy and traveled much of Europe in my third year of university and enjoyed living abroad in Tel Aviv on account of having a boyfriend in Israel while I was beginning grad school in NYC. I consider meeting my husband a double blessing as his work takes us literally all over the globe and he’s a great guy!


As a same-sex couple, what sort of things did you have to consider before you moved to your current location?

We have to consider the political and social landscape of the country. After our government petitioned on account of the Vienna Convention for China to legally recognize us (which did not officially happen), our Foreign Ministry asked every Embassy to report back on the “status of same sex couples”. Places like Morocco dutifully reported “not only is it illegal, but it is punishable by death!” Cross that off our list. And less obvious places like the UAE state they will accept same-sex couples if the partner is listed as “member of the household” meaning ‘staff”.

Given the situation in China, we decided going forward that we would not choose countries where we could not live as a “out couple” or in a place with severe homophobia. We are 42 and 41; the way I see it, our lives are half over and we don’t need to burden ourselves with uncessesarry human rights issues in our house! We are healthy but some couples have to consider health concerns — places like India can be difficult for couples that are HIV positive because of the risk of infection due to hygenie or water issues.

michael in china
Please tell me a bit about your current location and how you have felt moving here as a same-sex couple. Have you been welcomed? Experienced prejudice? Felt no different from other, non-same-sex couples?

Tel Aviv was the best. Despite the political situation for 30% of the population there (Arab-Israelis/Palestinians) which is sad to say the least, being a gay couple is widely accepted and appreciated there so our life in Israel was amazing. Beijing is a bit more complicated.

Our feeling was that China is not homophobic per say, it’s more of an ignorance issue…however, upon receiving my job offer at CCTV (I was the 2nd foreign producer they ever hired in the English language news channel FEATURES department), my immediate boss, who is a thoughtful worldly person, told me not to “tell anyone you are gay…they won’t understand and therefore may lose “face” for you…they won’t respect you…”

As it turns out they hired me as a “single person” which was a big lie and surprising since CCTV is the mouthpiece of the government and my husband works for our Embassy and apparently there is a Chinese law that forbids foreign diplomatic spouses taking work at CCTV. Oops.


Has there been any differences between how you have been treated by the locals in your host country, and by other expats?

We are active with the LBGBT Center here and notice that many of the young, educated Chinese are not officially out (numbers put it at less than 10% of the population) and many still plan to have fake marriages for the sake of their parents — since it is the burden of the wife to take care of her husband’s parents. Ugh.

For expats, even in the Diplomatic circles, it definitely depends on the country We lived in a building with a few Arab diplomats and our relationship was not spoken of or ignored by them. Same with African countries and even our Thai diplomatic gay friend has to put up a cover when around us.

Have there been any special considerations you have had to make eg can you get a working visa? Is same-sex marriage recognised by your host country?

We heard same-sex couples can get VISAs in China, just not diplomats which is normally the reverse! Both the US and Argentina recognize same-sex marriage. We are legally married in Argentina and I have the same rights and privileges of straight spouses.

We spent nearly a year and a half with the Foreign Ministry here and our government trying to find a solution which was exhausting. Our legal reps at the Embassy demanded full recognition referencing the Vienna Convention and China balked saying “we never offer that” but apparently just this past September, their Ambassador in Buenos Aires asked our government to allow parents of Chinese diplomats to receive diplomatic immunity in Argentina so our Team asked for my recognition here which went unanswered.

We think eventually they will grant this status as it’s only a matter of time, and given the global social politics, being on team GAY is not only a smart political decision but also an economic one!

Do you think it has been harder for you as the “trailing spouse” than for your partner especially if they applied for and were appointed to their role before leaving your home country?

Absolutely. I gave up a very interesting, high-paying and successful career that only exists for me in the US. My spouse always said he would give up his career and try something else if we decided to go back to the US for my career which definitely softens the blow of working at a reduced capacity abroad!

What advice do you have for others in the same situation as yourselves?

Preproduction or pre-plan even the most minute detail. I thought it would “all fall into place” and when shit started not working in Beijing it really took a toll on our relationship and I suffered for nearly a year and a half stuck in limbo and not working. And literally going a bit mad! Our saving grace was that we made a lot of friends and created networks and we fell into place.

Thank you to Michael for answering my questions and providing such useful information. I would love to hear from other same-sex partners or about others in a similar position of you know of any. Please message below or email me clara@expatpartnersurvival.com.