After rounding up the interview, I turned off my voice recorder, thanked Li Yinhe, and asked her what she has been up to since retiring in 2012. She smiles, and without hesitation tells me she is working on some S&M novels. “Do you know what that is?” she asks.
Li Yinhe, born in Beijing in 1952, is a sociologist, sexologist, and LGBT activist and has studied sexuality in China for over four decades. She is also considered a pioneer of gender studies and advocate of sexual openness in China. She shared with us the huge changes she has seen in China, throughout the entire country as well as within the LGBT community.
“I believe the changes [in attitudes towards sex] have been huge. In the past, sex was only a way to produce children and expand your family. Since the implementation of family planning, this was bound to change since families were only allowed to have one child, or two in the countryside. Now people have sex for their own enjoyment rather than just as a means to procreate,” Li says.
I ask what effect this increasing openness surrounding the enjoyment of sexual intercourse has had on the LGBT community specifically.
“I remember about 20 years ago, in the People’s Daily, homosexuality, prostitution, and drugs were all supposedly linked to social evils. This was the media’s attitude towards the LGBT community before, and a main reason for discrimination against the LGBT community.”
Li emphasizes the increasing visibility of the LGBT community, and how much more frequently they are now mentioned in state media. This wasn’t the same even 10 years ago, when everybody was convinced that no one was gay, and so they had never met someone who purported to be homosexual. The LGBT community back then was completely invisible.
“2011 was a turning point, when there was the first ever positive coverage of China’s LGBT community in the official media: China Daily’s report on Shanghai Pride. After that, all official media outlets, whether paper, TV, or online, started mentioning the LGBT community a lot more.”
Over a decade ago, the situation was completely different. Li mentioned a case in 1997, when a gay soldier was caught having sex with another man, and was arrested as a rogue. Following his detention, he received a certificate in the hospital stating that he was mentally ill, homosexuality was classified as a psychological anomaly until the end of 2001. The soldier was thus rehabilitated rather than charged as a criminal because of this diagnosis. Around the same time, it was also common for the police to arrest people who congregated in known meeting points for homosexuals, such as parks or public toilets.
These police initiatives were more common in the 80s and 90s but other obstacles persist today. “Firstly, there is cultural discrimination towards the LGBT community – the belief that homosexuality is an illness remains,” Li says. This is largely perpetuated by traditional family values and their focus on procreation.
Li points at the pressure to marry as a huge factor, its roots lying in the wish for families to maintain the family bloodline, “Parents and elders force people to marry, and have children. Having children is most important in China and it is this cultural custom in Chinese society that leads to the persecution of homosexuality, and to many gay people doing something they do not want to – entering a heterosexual marriage.” Li cites a rough figure, saying that approximately 70 percent of China’s gay population will actually enter a heterosexual marriage as a result of societal pressure.
Secondly, there are legal issues. “China has no laws to protect the gay community, nor does it have any anti-discrimination laws. China has not stated that homosexuality is illegal, but its gay community is so small that there has to be some kind of anti-discrimination law and further protection through law. However, there isn’t any.”
On top of this, the spread of AIDS continues to be a huge threat to China’s LGBT community. When AIDS first spread to China in the 1980s, the transmission rate between men as a result of intercourse was roughly 0.06 percent, but has since jumped to five percent. “This increase is huge and terrifying for gay men who are now more likely to become infected with HIV following their first or second sexual encounter.”
As to how to improve attitudes towards the LGBT community, Li points to legalizing same-sex marriage. She attended the first National People’s Congress (NPC) meeting to discuss same-sex marriage, and raised the issue there. “At that time, sociologists all agreed with me – they believed that China should allow same-sex marriage. However, legal experts are more conservative; they believe that cohabitation is enough.”
“I have submitted numerous proposals to the NPC as well as the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference deputies and members, because alongside the LGBT community I really hope that this bill will pass in the future.”
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