Tea Leaf Nation

Famous Chinese Sex Scholar Announces Relationship with Transgender Man

A swell of netizen support greeted the couple in a country of rapidly changing mores.

LiYinhe copy

Over the past 30 years, Chinese society has undergone an evolution in traditional morality perhaps as rapid and unsettling as its economic boom. Yet sexual orientation and gender identity have retained a strong aura of cultural taboo. Same-sex marriage remains illegal, and many LGBT individuals enter into traditional marriages in order to assuage social and family expectations. But even that is changing, as LGBT communities have flourished in China’s sprawling metropolitan centers such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing. Now a widely published scholar and well-known proponent of same-sex marriage has revealed her own relationship with a transgender man, a revelation that has taken Chinese social media by storm.

Li Yinhe, a public intellectual with a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh* who writes frequently on sexuality, revealed Dec. 18 on the Sina blogging platform that she is in a relationship with a transgender man whom she does not name, and that they have lived together for the past 17 years, starting in mid-1997.* The revelation was all the more unexpected given Li’s prior marriage to the renowned male novelist Wang Xiaobo; many in China had continued to view Wang’s untimely death of a heart attack in April 1997 as a romantic tragedy that left Li an ever-grieving widow. Li’s Dec. 18 revelation has already been viewed over 600,000 times, garnered over 7,000 comments, and has been widely republished in mainstream news outlets including Tencent and QQ. Li also posted the blog to her one million followers on Weibo, China’s massive microblogging platform; within 24 hours, it had been shared more than 33,000 times with more than 10,000 comments.

Li wrote lyrically of her relationship with her partner. They had met three months after Li’s husband died. “My feeling at the time,” Li wrote, “was that he was an angel sent by God to save me from the bitter sea of my grief for Xiaobo.” He soon moved in with Li, who lived with her mother after Wang’s death.

“But I am not attracted to female bodies,” Li wrote. “How could this then be?” The answer lay in the man’s “overwhelming” love for Li, which she compared to “ten thousand thunderbolts.” At the time the two met, he was a taxi driver, a far cry from Li, with her U.S. doctorate. His family members were blue-collar factory workers who spoke a coarse, unsophisticated Mandarin. But, Li wrote, they were also kind. “Love is key,” penned Li in her post. “Love pays no heed to social class, nor to wealth or poverty, nor age nor beauty. Love even renders gender weightless and unimportant in its wake.” With the passage of time, the two had “become as one…like a small boat that has braved dangerous rapids, but is now floating on wide, calm waters.”

The online response has been overwhelmingly positive. Despite China’s often-conservative gender mores, that’s not terribly surprising — Li’s followers, and Weibo users in general, tend to be younger and more urban than the Chinese population at large, many of whom have had exposure to LGBT culture through Japanese anime, Western TV shows like Sherlock, which is beloved in China, and a hugely popular Taiwanese talk show called Here Comes Kangxi whose host, Cai Kangyong, is openly gay. Of the more than 10,000 comments on Li’s Weibo post, the most up-voted were almost all supportive. “All these years I thought that Professor Li was all alone,” went one popular comment. “What great luck, to have found such long-lasting love after losing Wang Xiaobo. Best wishes!”

Given the sensitivity of the topic, it’s notable that Chinese Internet giant Sina even compiled a list of representative comments from Li’s blog entry and posted them to the 37 million followers of its own Weibo microblogging account. The comments were encouraging; one user wrote that Li’s story “will educate the public about the difference between sexual orientation and sexual identity.”

Educating the public did seem to play an important role in the blog post. Li carefully explained the difference between lesbian and transgender individuals, starting with her partner. “She actually isn’t a she, she’s a he, born as a biological female but psychologically a male,” Li explained. “From both his outward appearance and inward landscape, he is a very stereotypical male.” In fact, his manly appearance causes him a great deal of awkwardness when he visits female public toilets, “giving all the women a scare.” He was indeed a man — thus making Li herself a heterosexual, not a lesbian, she emphasized. “I acknowledge here that I am a heterosexual simply because it is the truth,” Li clarified, “not to say that I am more normal than homosexual people, or to say that I am morally superior.” In a Dec. 18 interview with the liberal Beijing Times, Li said that her revelation cannot be characterized as “coming out of the closet” because she is not lesbian – she is a “heterosexual female who is in a love relationship with a transgender person.”

Her careful yet accessible explanations seemed to resonate with netizens who commented on her Weibo post. “This is the first time I have understood the difference between transgender and lesbian,” commented one user. “I should pick up Professor Li’s books and read them all over again!” Another user deemed Li’s courage “a precious force that will build China’s cultural diversity,” while another encouraged her to “write more books.”

The encouragement that many netizens have showered upon Li and her partner is part of a demonstrably growing social acceptance for LGBT relationships in China. In a Sept. 6 post on Weibo, Shanghai Consul General Brian Davidson announced that he had married his boyfriend, U.S. citizen Scott Chang, at the Beijing residence of the British ambassador – sovereign British territory, making the marriage legal. An outpouring of online support followed. And on Dec. 16, the popular Taiwanese singer Jolin Tsai posted a screenshot from the music video for her newly released pro-gay marriage song “We’re All Different, Yet the Same,” in which she and an actress, both wearing white wedding dresses, share a kiss. While it remains traditional in many ways, Chinese society continues to open up to a diversity of relationships. “Tolerating and understanding others’ sexual orientations is a kind of accomplishment,” wrote one supporter. “I was a bit late in learning this. Thank you, Professor Li.”

Yiqin Fu contributed research.

*Correction Dec.18, 2014: Li Yinhe attended the University of Pittsburgh for her doctoral degree, not the University of Pennsylvania. Her lover’s name was not given in her online post; the name given was misattributed and has been deleted. (Return to Reading)

Sina Weibo/Fair Use

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr