SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Eight hundred people will watch on Wednesday as Aries Liu, a 32-year-old man who used to be a woman, marries his blushing bride on a cruise ship in waters near China's business capital of Shanghai.
The two are among nine gay and transgender couples planning to get hitched on the cruise heading to Japan in a week-long series of gay pride events in China, where same-sex marriage is illegal and homosexuality frowned upon.
The Chinese ceremony is important to Liu because his parents only accepted his sexuality last year, although he has been out of the closet for almost two decades.
"It's amazing to have my parents there as witnesses," said Liu, who traveled to the ceremony on an overnight train from the southern province of Guangzhou. "Over all these years, I have been paving the way to acceptance bit by bit."
The event, held soon after Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage last month, underlines the limits of tolerance for gay rights in mainland China, even though it is growing. [nL3N1J45MX]
It is not illegal to be gay in China, although homosexuality was regarded a mental disorder until 2001.
Many big cities now have growing gay scenes, but gay men and women still face family pressure to marry and have children.
Bisexual and transgender men and women also face discrimination, although society has become more accepting.
Ten years ago, when most people were unfamiliar with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, romance was conducted underground as people could not openly seek out partners, Liu said.
"Now it's completely different," he added. "Many cities have lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community activities."
That does not rid such individuals of government oversight, however, although Beijing vacillates between indifference and intolerance.
Last month, police in the northwestern city of Xian briefly detained nine gay activists after they tried to organize a conference, saying the city did not welcome gay people. [nL3N1IX294]
Official and mainland Chinese media have adopted a cold attitude to Taiwan's legalization of gay marriage, in contrast to people commenting online, said Liu Hung-En, a law professor at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.
"Mainland China is more cautious, it will adopt measures to avoid social conflict," said Liu. "I believe this is a very serious consideration for officials - stability."
Still, gay clubs and bars are often left alone. [nL3N1J31QR]
Many of those waiting on the dock to board the cruise liner hoped China's tolerance would continue to grow.
"Due to our courage to take a stand and progress now, I think gay marriage will be legal in 10 years," said Liu.
Reporting by Engen Tham in Shanghai and Damon Lin in Taiwan; Editing by John Ruwitch and Clarence Fernandez