Profile: LGBT activist Li Yinhe

Li talks about her transgender partner and gay marriage in China

Photo: Chen Chao

You could be forgiven for feeling intimidated when meeting Li Yinhe. The sexologist and LGBT campaigner has been actively, and aggressively, challenging government policy for more than 30 years. She has also delivered a few well-deserved slap-downs to critical bloggers, and is not one who suffers fools gladly.

Beyond a series of public campaigns, she has also been speaking out for those who have found their voice ignored for decades. For years, she has been calling for a same sex marriage bill in China, arguing it would ‘improve China’s image in the world’; Li first raised the issue of same-sex marriage at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference back in 2003. She also proposes decriminalisation of orgies, prostitution and pornography, and has spoken out in defence of those arrested for involvement in ‘deviant’ sexual practices.

When she arrives to meet us at a teahouse of her choosing in Beijing, it’s without ceremony. She marches in, sits down and looks at us inquiringly through her glasses, politely waiting for the interview to begin, without any chit chat or small talk. When we suggest doing a photo shoot first, she dives from the room and asks the tea shop owner to lend her a comb for her hair.

Li’s career began in the field of gender studies – in the US, where she received a doctorate in sociology with a research study paper on ‘Marriage and family for modern Chinese females’. From there, she focused on three major research themes: marriage and family, gender and sex.

For all her controversial work in these areas, she has attracted enough criticism to last a lifetime. Aided by the internet, critics have found her work a breeding ground for attack. Last year a website entitled the ‘China anti-pornography site’ pasted photos of her, Alfred Charles Kinsey and other sex campaigners with their faces covered by faeces. Posters attacking her were put up at the academy where she lectures, and letters have been sent to her seniors calling for her to be fired. Her article on Weibo about same sex marriage generated tens of thousands of clicks, meaning plenty of attention but a huge amount of criticism. ‘If it was legal to kill people in China, I’d like to stab you to death,’ wrote one particularly forthright opponent.

‘People get emotional easily when talking about these topics,’ Li shrugs nonchalantly. ‘The internet is an open stage for everyone, and I suppose lots of people want to show off online and attract more attention. But it doesn’t bother me a lot.’

The thing that clearly does hurt Li, however, is being misrepresented. An article suggesting she supported incest angered her, and she put out an official statement refuting the piece. It was claimed that she had penned the article herself, despite having nothing to do with it. Her position is that she has plenty of her own controversial opinions – she doesn’t need someone else making up spurious contentious views.

And of course, there’s the now-infamous article published by a blogger accusing her of being a lesbian and misleading the public by keeping this secret. Once again she was forced to defend herself, coming out about her current partner’s transgender status. Li, formerly married to the author Wang Xiaobo who died in 1997, has now been committed to partner Zhang Hongxia for 18 years.

‘It was only under forced circumstances that I made my private life public,’ Li says, sipping thoughtfully from a small cup of tea. ‘There was this article online saying I was deceiving the public, and was actually a lesbian but was pretending to have a “normal” relationship. There was a lot of talk about it. So, I wrote a piece that I posted on Weibo, explaining that I am heterosexual, but that my partner is transgender.’ Her highly personal missive was published in December 2014 and drew hundreds upon thousands of views. ‘I am a heterosexual woman who has fallen in love with a transsexual person,’ she wrote. ‘I treat him as a man.’

The response from the public was, in general, sympathetic, and the couple even got invited to pose on the cover of People Weekly magazine a few months later. ‘People here in China don’t really know much about gay people, let alone transgender people,’ she says. ‘They even misinterpret the ‘T’ in LGBT. They think it’s ‘T’ for ‘Tomboy’, rather than ‘T’ for ‘Transgender’.’

In this context, Li and her partner regard themselves as lucky, saying people have been ‘accepting’ of their relationship and the son they adopted together. But that doesn’t mean she’s settled into a domestic lifestyle. The prolific Li is publishing two novels in Hong Kong this month, one focusing on sadomasochism and the second she describes as ‘like 1984 but with whips and bondage.’ ‘I am proud of all the books I have published, especially Gay Subculture, Subculture of Sadomasochism and Sexuality and Love of Chinese Women,’ she states. ‘But I still regret all the things that I haven’t been able to accomplish yet.’