Private life and growing public acceptance

By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily ) Updated: 2014-12-27 07:51:10

Private life and growing public acceptance

Li Yinhe. [Image by Wang Xiaoying/China Daily]

Reactions toward China's best-known sexologist's disclosures about her personal life are testament to the growing acceptance of other people's private lives.

Li Yinhe has been leading the life of a pioneer in more ways than one. For one, she is China's No.1 sexologist - at least in terms of name recognition - and she is also frequently in the headlines because of many other things.

Li was the wife of Wang Xiaobo, a trail-blazing author who was among the first to live outside the state-sponsorship system. Besides his magnum opus - The Trilogy of Ages, i.e. Golden Age, Silver Age and Bronze Age - he penned many influential essays championing independence of thinking and helped his wife with her field investigation of sex-related topics. The fruits of their joint study surfaced in his literary works as well, for example, East Palace, West Palace.

Since Wang died of a heart attack on April 11, 1997, Li has been holding up his banner and carrying on his legacy in a spirit similar to that of the surviving wives of Richard Wagner and Amadeus Mozart.

Li herself published many tomes in the 1990s, which are groundbreaking in the area of sex research in China. But she did not catch public attention until she swerved from the purely academic to being something of an activist. She has been relentlessly promoting personal liberties in the private arena, calling for the legalization of gay marriages, etc, even though her voice is usually met with silence from legislators and all kinds of nasty words from the online public.

Considering the ferocity of the feedback in the past decade, Li must have been mentally prepared when she announced recently the most striking news about her own private life. On December 18, she wrote in her microblog that she has a domestic partner who is physically female but psychologically male.

"I'm not a lesbian, not that I'm morally superior," she wrote. "Seventy percent of China's homosexual population ends up getting married to the opposite sex because of outside pressure. I married Wang Xiaobo out of love and it was consensual."

Li goes on to define the new person in her life as a "transsexual", the "T" in LGBT. "They are different from lesbians in that they identify themselves as male, so they are attracted to heterosexual females, not to lesbians."

Forestalling gossip

This fine detail is probably murky to a lot of non-professionals. Rumors of her sexuality had been swirling for a while and she had written about it in detail in her upcoming autobiography. She decided to release this chapter ahead of time to forestall any more gossips, some of which are "vicious", she said.

Li describes how she first met this "man", who pursued her not long after her husband's death. For me, the revelation of this small detail shows either her naivete or her integrity. She could have been vague about the time they first met because to be wooed even when she was still in mourning would not cast her in a sympathetic light.

But then, that is typical Li Yinhe, whose lack of Chinese-style tact has made many uncomfortable, even those who support her.

I had assumed that one has to undergo a sex-change surgery to be categorized as the other sex, but it seems that psychology alone would count in this case. I'm no expert on such issues, so I tend to trust Li. Homosexual or not, she has the right to live her life as she sees fit.

But some online responses laugh at her for propagating sex-related knowledge. For them, these are "the birds and bees" that should not be addressed openly. Of course, Li is not the only one in China who advocates sex education, but there is always a segment of society that is suspicious and the top researcher's private life, now in the daylight, dovetails nicely with their suspicions.

However, judging from the overwhelming positive responses to her "non-coming-out", in the words of some reports - celebrities like Yao Chen congratulated her for her 17 years of partnership, for example - the Chinese public is moving towards growing rationality when it comes to other people's privacy. Most said they respect Li's choice and wish her well. Few said they wanted her to be the surviving spouse of Wang Xiaobo who must carry on his baton by hiding her own life and love interests.

Like Apple CEO Tim Cook's well-wishers, Li's legion of celebrity supporters had a major role in pushing the boundary toward more tolerance and raising the awareness of the complexity of human sexuality. Not many may have their interest piqued and read Li's scholarly books, but the simple principle of respecting others for their differences is driven home by the flashing messages and headlines.

It was not easy to be Kinsey or Masters and Johnson in the US, and perhaps it is even harder to be Li Yinhe in China, a country with thousands of years of hush-hush tradition about sexuality. Open attitudes toward sexuality will instantly conjure up images of smut and licentiousness. It is difficult for many to distinguish a healthy openness and lewd behaviors.

Sex education

The importance of imparting sex knowledge to the whole society cannot be over-emphasized in this age of increasing social mobility with hundreds of millions working away from their hometowns and meeting more people in a week than their grandparents could meet in a lifetime. This is facilitated, or exacerbated, depending on your view, by the ubiquity of new gadgets and social media that technically allow any two people to hook up in cyberspace. To pretend we are still living in a puritanical village is not only out of touch with reality, but will have disastrous results.

The absence of proper sex education is reflected in the risky behaviors that some youngsters reportedly engage in and end up losing their health or even their lives. Many youth-oriented hit movies portray unwanted pregnancies, attesting to the lack of protection among this demographic that should benefit the most from awareness campaigns and sex education. Otherwise, they are getting warped versions of the knowledge from online porn.

Sandwiched between tradition-ordained ignorance and over-sexed reality, Li Yinhe could be deemed mainstream to the point of old-fashioned. She says: "Sex is of course important, but more important is love."

Her description of her second love in her life is so touching, readers take away the fact that two hearts join as one rather than the ambiguity of her partner's gender.

Li is a vanguard more in her candor than in her views and actions. In Chinese culture, there is a large space where one can do certain things as long as it is not mentioned. Even business management used to fall into this area. And now people like Li are dragging sex knowledge from this dense shadow into the sunlight.

A few months ago, a Chinese sexologist who was taking part in a forum was attacked by a grandma type who threw fecal matter at him. Li has probably received more virtual attack than anyone, and among those who sent her hate mail are those who adopt religious names like Paul and David, she says, "threatening me that I'd go to hell".

In a sense, what Li has been through in the past decade is worse than hell. But obviously she is not intimidated. One may not agree with her tactic or lack thereof, but her uncompromising attitude is partly responsible for the effectiveness of her message.

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