By Vivian Zhang ~
Most people in China know Li Yinhe as the wife of Wang Xiaobo, who was a renowned Chinese novelist. Some people know her as the scholar that advocates for same-sex marriage legislation. Very few people know about her research on homosexuality and how that furthers our understanding of the gay community in China. As a sociologist and sexologist, Li Yinhe is a pioneer in homosexuality studies. She is the first scholar to study the circumstances of gay people in China and her 1992 book Their World: A Study of Homosexuality in China was the first sociological book dedicated entirely to the study of homosexuality. In 1998 this book was revised and published again under the title Subculture of Homosexuality. This article will use the 1998 version as the primary source. Though the study was published more than 20 years ago, reading her work today could still encourage us to think about the challenges the LGBT community in China face and stimulate meaningful discussions on how we could address those challenges.
Born in 1952, Li Yinhe graduated from Shanxi University in 1977. She obtained her PhD degree in sociology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1988 and returned to China, where she became the first post-doctoral fellow in social science at Peking University. She is also the first female sociologist in China who focused on sexology research. Her 1998 book Subculture of Homosexuality uses surveys and interviews to present a comprehensive view of gay people in China. It describes their gender identities, relationships, sexual behaviors and view on marriage. It also proposes that homosexuality is a lifestyle that people can freely choose rather than a mental illness that needs to be cured and that homosexual people should be treated equally as other people. Li Yinhe is certainly not the first one to propose such arguments in the world; however, she is the first sociologist to study this previously ignored group in China. She noted in the first chapter of her book that except for a few newspaper articles, there was not a single book on homosexuality research until the 1990s in China and Their World was the first attempt to study gay people from a sociological point of view. Thus, in order to fully understand the significance of her work, we must first understand the historical context that she was writing in and the general attitudes towards homosexual people in China at that time. This article will situate her works in the cultural and historical context to provide a better understanding of her research.
After the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, there was rarely any law directly forbidding homosexual behaviors between adults, except during the Cultural Revolution. From 1966 to 1976, China launched the Cultural Revolution that put the entire country in chaos. Many homosexuals were persecuted and were forced to undergo medical treatments or investigations. In the worst cases, some were beaten to death or sentenced to death. While the severity of punishment against homosexuals subsided after the Cultural Revolution, Li Yinhe remarked that this period had a profound impact on attitudes toward LGBT people in China. The prevailing homophobia could be seen in numerous cases of police harassment of gay people in the years following the Cultural Revolution. Li Yinhe’s interviewees mentioned being detained by police for a few hours or a couple of days and during these periods of detention, they were sometimes beaten or interrogated. Homosexuals could also be persecuted under the criminal provision “hooliganism” in the 1980s and 1990s. Although the Supreme People’s Court never interpreted hooliganism to include consensual anal sex between two adult men, lower courts still used hooliganism and public order provisions of the criminal law to punish homosexuals. The idea behind these kinds of rulings was that homosexual behaviors between two consenting adults were somehow morally wrong and had to be punished despite lack of clear legislation. Fortunately, hooliganism was eliminated in 1997.
It was in this cultural context that Li Yinhe began doing research on homosexual studies. She faced difficulty in securing funding for her study. The biggest objection she faced was: “Homosexual people were only 4% of the population, why not study problems that faced 50% of the population?”  Li Yinhe directly addressed this question in the first chapter of Subculture of Homosexuality. She argues that first of all, homosexual is a subculture which has its unique characteristics. As a subculture, it is not superior nor inferior to any other cultural phenomena. Second, homosexual behaviors are important components of not only human sexual behaviors but also the behaviors of other species. Furthermore, many researches have shown that there are a large number of homosexuals (in absolute number, not in proportion) in many different societies such as the U.S, Guatemala, Brazil and the Philippines. The universal nature of this phenomenon makes it a valuable subject for research. Finally, she pointed out that in order to make a judgement about something, people must know the basic facts about it. The sociological studies in Their World and Subculture of Homosexuality thus provide the factual basis for those who are willing to make their own judgements about homosexuality.
Another difficulty was in getting interviewees for the study. Li Yinhe admitted that due to the complicated nature of homosexuality, the current laws regarding and attitudes towards homosexual people, the study had to be conducted in secret rather than using large-scale random sampling. With no other better option, it used snowball sampling, which relies on current study subjects to recruit future subject from their acquaintances. From 1989 to 1997, in total 120 people were interviewed and surveyed in detailed and some were interviewed more than once. The limitation of this kind of method is that statistically the data could not be generalized to make conclusions about the entire population. Her samples were also restricted to gays due to her limited energy and investigation clues. Despite the limitations, her lengthy interviews and in-depth conversations with the interviewees had advantages that large-scale sampling would not have. For one, she was able to provide many details on those people’s stories. Those details not only made her account more convincing but also made it easier for the readers to relate to them. Furthermore, those people were able to share their thoughts and struggles with the public in a way that they usually wouldn’t be able to. Li Yinhe’s book created a channel for the gay people to communicate their stories and thoughts with the broader audience so that more people could understand their struggles and be more sympathetic.
The key idea in her writing is that homosexuality is a lifestyle. To sanction it as a criminal activity is not only logically unconvincing, but also has insurmountable difficulties in practice. This is because there is a stable percentage of the population with homosexual tendencies. It is unreasonable to see them as criminals. Li Yinhe also argued that it is wrong to categorize homosexuality as a mental illness. Most homosexuals do not want to seek medical treatments at all, and they regard their sexual orientation as an indispensable part of their lives. Mandatory treatment for those people will be inhuman. She made her argument more effective by comparing homosexuality to other characteristics that were uncommon in the population such as left-handedness, short-sightedness or women who were extremely beautiful. People with those characteristics were the minority in the society, but that doesn’t mean that they are abnormal and detestable. 
Li Yinhe is a conversation starter in homosexual issues. Her book lays out useful information for further discussion on gay and lesbian rights. However, her arguments were considered quite bold in the 1990s and her book was not without controversies. In particular, the discussion about homosexual behaviors was considered an especially sensitive topic. In an interview, Li Yinhe mentioned that writing about sex was forbidden until the 1980s and even then authors could only go so far. Her 1998 book Subculture of Homosexuality could only be bought by people who had invitation letters from their employers or held senior positions when it was first published. Although the circulation of the book was controlled by the government, it nevertheless informed many who wished to learn more about this minority group in the society.
Starting from the beginning of the twentieth-first century, the tide in China began to turn and the environment for LGBT people is becoming better and more tolerant. One notable change is the removal of the blanket classification of homosexuality as mental illness in the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders III in 2001. In an interview, Li Yinhe mentioned that another positive sign was the publication of a positive article on the 2011 Shanghai Pride March in China Daily and the subsequent mention of LGBT communities by other official medias. Same-sex marriage has also become a topic of discussion. In 2003, at the annual session of National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, Li Yinhe submitted a proposal to legalize same-sex marriages via a participating member. The proposal was not passed, but she keeps submitting such proposals till this day. The proposal attracted a lot of attention and spurred discussion on legalization of same-sex marriage. In an online survey Li Yinhe conducted in 2006, over 70% of the respondents believed that China should legalize same-sex marriage. Many people supported her, but there were also others who were against this proposal. Despite all the criticisms and oppositions from the more conservative group, she said in an interview, “There are only two or three scholars doing sex-related research across the country. This is my academic field. No one will raise this issue if I don’t do it.”
It is hard to say how much of the increased tolerance for homosexuals could be directly attributed to Li Yinhe’s work and activism. However, one thing that is for sure is that she is the first sociologist to study the circumstances of gay people in detailed in China. Her books provided an invaluable way for the previously ignored and silenced group to tell their stories and raise awareness of their struggles. It is a pity that there has not been an attempt to replicate her studies and see how the circumstances have changed for the LGBT people in present day China. Moreover, Li Yinhe remains one of the few scholars to do research on those topics. Reading her works today could hopefully encourage more researchers to study the challenges LGBT people are now facing and what need to be done to address them.
About the author:
I am a fourth year international student from China and I major in Economics at the University of Chicago.
 I’m using the word “homosexual” because the word Li Yinhe used in her studies was “Tong Xing Lian,” which translates into “homosexual” in English. The word “homosexual” is a bit contentious in English but “Tong Xing Lian” is a more neutral term in Chinese. This article will use the word “homosexual” to best approximate the wording of Li Yinhe.
 Yinhe Li, Tong Xing Lian Ya Wen Hua [Subculture of Homosexuality], (Beijing: Jinri Zhongguo chubanshe, 1998), Apple Book edition, chap. 7, sec. 4
 Yinhe Li, Tong Xing Lian Ya Wen Hua [Subculture of Homosexuality], chap. 1, sec. 1, para. 3
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