Research by alum Dr Iris Po Yee LO reveals how non-heterosexual women in China navigate parenthood

Research by alum Dr Iris Po Yee LO reveals how non-heterosexual women in China navigate parenthood


Iris Lo

Alumna Dr Iris LO has explored how Chinese lesbians, who identify themselves as lalas, think and feel about having children, in a paper published in Sociology this month.

The research marks the first significant step towards examining how lalas, who have long been ignored within both the sociological literature and Chinese society, contemplate and actualise their paths to parenthood.

Much of the research done on the experiences of lesbian parents has been undertaken in Western developed countries, and this paper explores a new and unique context. Furthermore, the study develops the concept of ‘dialectical family imaginaries’ for exploring different forms and meanings of relatedness negotiated between the self, family and wider society.

The pressure on Chinese adults, especially women, to marry the opposite sex and have children is extraordinarily pronounced, due to both social norms and state policies favouring the heterosexual family model. Lalas are doubly marginalised due to their sexual identity and unmarried status in China, where coming out remains challenging and same-sex couples are denied access to marriage, civil partnerships, adoption or assisted reproductive technology.

By drawing on in-depth interviews with lalas in Beijing, Iris identifies three types of ‘dialectical family imaginaries’ within lalas’ accounts of parenthood. These family imaginaries – how people think and feel about ‘family’ – are dialectical in the sense that they (i) are grounded in relation to a variety of ‘others’, such as parents, relatives and social networks, who are integral to the Chinese relational self; and (ii) reveal how people (re-)interpret past and present family scripts. 

The first type of ‘imaginary’, which Iris terms ‘bridging’, sees lalas consider parenthood within the context of trying to bridge the divide between their heterosexual parents and themselves. For some lalas, having children is seen as a practical way of negotiating parental acceptance of their same-sex identity, fulfilling the important familial expectations towards having children.

The second ‘imaginary’ – ‘bonding’ – is when lalas consider having children as a way to cement and legitimise their same-sex relationship within this highly heteronormative and family-orientated society. The third, ‘self-fashioning’, sees lalas contemplate parenthood with relation to the Chinese social norm where it is one’s offspring, not the state, who provide care and support in later life. In this case, choosing to have children can be seen as a response to concern over welfare in old age.

Iris concludes that lalas’ reproductive decision-making should not be seen as rationally planned and carried out; instead their ‘dialectical family imaginaries’ and decisions are laden with emotions and shaped in relation to the wider family and other socio-political forces. Highlighting the dialectical nature of family ‘imaginaries’, this study reveals how the clash between traditional and new family beliefs, and reflections about intergenerational relationships between lalas, their parents and their (prospective) children came into play in participants’ reproductive decision-making. 

The paper advances both theoretical and empirical evidence about different forms and meanings of being related, against the backdrop of a heteronormative, family-oriented culture that nevertheless experiences a stream of LGBTQ-related information from the rest of the world.

This article not only reveals Chinese lesbians’ reproductive needs, desires and challenges, which have long been invisible in the literature and Chinese society, but it also highlights the sociological utility of ‘dialectical family imaginaries’ for exploring different forms and meanings of being related.

It offers fresh insights into diverse views and experiences of (not) having children within a wider context of familial and societal change. 

- Dr Iris Lo 

You can read the full article here.

Iris completed her DPhil, entitled ‘The Conception and Formation of Families among Non-Heterosexual Women (Lalas) in Urban China’, in 2021, under the supervision of Professor Man-Yee Kan. She is currently Assistant Professor in Sociology at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. You can reach her via

Original Publication

Lo, Iris Po Yee. (2022) 'Dialectical Family Imaginaries: Navigating Relational Selfhood and Becoming a Parent through Assisted Reproduction in China.' Sociology DOI: