After a long stretch of Grace stepping up and saving the day by writing the articles, Laura is back and excited to talk about Golden Orchid associations. The Golden Orchid was a collection of organizations in South China that began during the Qing dynasty and existed from approximately 1644 to 1949, when they were banned because they were associated with an attempt to overthrow the Manchu Emperor. Over the course of 300 years, however, they created an order of women who stood in solidarity with other women against heterosexual marriages that were oppressive at best and far too often abusive. While some women in this movement were possibly heterosexual themselves and avoiding marriage for reasons not involving their sexuality, it was common for members of the association to be lesbians or bisexual, as they found safety and family in the Golden Orchid that their biological relatives had never provided them.
The culture of marriage in China prior to the time Golden Orchid groups began was not wildly different than many other cultures views on marriage. If a family had a cisgender daughter, their best option was to find a man to marry her so they could possibly raise their station and profit from the marriage. A cisgender woman’s actions and/or accomplishments were generally not considered important unless they were attracting a potential husband or helping the family. Once this woman was married, she was to do as her husband said and hopefully produce a son for him. For women who were attracted exclusively to other women, this was obviously not a tempting option. Also many other women, heterosexual or otherwise, were not pleased with the idea of having to marry men they often had no attraction to. This is not a radically different situation than the one most women faced in other cultures, so we are not meaning to say that China was in any way behind anyone else, or more sexist. Women were treated terribly in the majority of the world at the time, don’t worry.
The Golden Orchid associations provided something, however, that many other cultures lacked: two options solve these women’s marriage problem. The first option was to get married to another woman - shocking, we know. While these marriages were not always romantic or sexual, it was common for the women getting married to be romantically and/or sexually attracted to each other, and this was not looked down upon. They had a similar courtship ritual as many heterosexual couples in China did at that time:
[Within the sisterhood], if two women have intentions towards each other, one of them would prepare peanut candy, dates and other goods as a gift to show her intent. If the other woman accepts the gift, she is now bound by honor to her suitor. If she refuses the gift, it is a rejection of the proposal. A contract-signing ceremony follows the acceptance. Those with the financial resources would invite their friends who come in droves to congratulate the couple and celebrate by drinking through the night. -Hu Pu'an "A Record of China's Customs: Guangdong"
That is not to say, though, that the practice was completely supported by society. It was still expected for women to marry men, and when they instead formed a union with another woman, it was seen as an act of rebellion. Often despite a family’s disapproval of these same sex marriages, they were forced into accepting their daughter’s decision due to a practice in Golden Orchid associations where, when a woman was betrothed to a man without her consent, she was to reject any and all of his advances on the wedding night. If the men tried to force themselves on the women, the women often defended themselves physically, thus breaching the terms of the marriage contract. Brides who did this were generally sent home as rejected wives, which made them virtually unweddable - to men, that is. So when a woman proposed to the rejected wife, the families were often more open to the concept, as it would save them from the societal shame of having an unmarried daughter who had been rejected by her husband and freed them of financial responsibility for her. The reason that these marriages could happen in the first place was because of the silk industry growing and giving women jobs. Two women could be financially independent, so many families found no reason to object and accepted their new daughter-in-law happily.
While it was rebellious to choose to marry another woman, that didn’t mean society didn’t accept it and disallow them to be families. In fact, it was completely acceptable for same sex couples to adopt and raise a daughter. Their children were allowed to inherit property, even though at the time women were not allowed to inherit property if they were the product of a non-Golden Orchid relationship.
That is not to say, of course, that the Golden Orchid associations was perfect. If a women broke the oath of marriage by engaging in a heterosexual relationship, she would be publicly shamed and often beaten. At the time in China, though it was accepted for transgender women to present as they wished, it was seen as a practice and not as an identity, so they were not considered women and were not included as members of the Golden Orchid associations. This was still a step towards progress, however, particularly progress in a direction that many queer communities now still struggle to move in: progress towards the inclusion of aromantic and asexual individuals in the queer community.
At the time when women in China were married, they would have their hair combed in a different way to signal to society and any men interested in courting them that they were not available. While the terms we use now for asexual or aromantic did not exist yet, the Golden Orchid societies had a system set up for women who wanted to avoid both marriage options, and any romantic or sexual partnership, by introducing “self-combing women.” These women would comb their hair into the style of a woman that was married and often even had a ceremony to celebrate such a decision, similar to a marriage ceremony. For asexual women who were romantically attracted to other women, the marriages were often non-sexual - a decision that was supported by most Golden Orchid associations. Again, these associations were not perfect: if a woman after making this oath were to engage in a sexual or romantic partnership, she would face the same consequence that women married to other women would have if they had a relationship with a man.
But despite its flaws, the societal existence of the Golden Orchid was incredibly progressive for its time, not to mention for ours.
The queer community as it stands still has a lot of growing to do. Cisgender, white, gay men are regularly seen as the face of our movement. Women who are romantically or sexually attracted to women are often pushed aside, as is much of the trans community, but it is these communities, too, we find parts that respond aggressively to the even less well known communities of aromantics and asexuals. There is a history of these two marginalized groups accepting each other, yet modernity sees them being driven apart by internalized biases. It seems that we have to look at the past to see what we need to be doing in our future. A society that grew into the purpose of protecting women learned that it must protect all women in a stunning display of intersectionality. Today, as we see feminism ignore the struggles of queer women, and the queer community ignore the struggles of the asexual and aromantic community, there is much we can learn from the Golden Orchid’s growth. There is much we can learn from history, and usually when we say that we mean we can learn from the mistakes of our past. In this case, however, we must learn from its successes.