Li Yinhe's Opinions on China's Gay, Lesbian Athletes

January 3, 2014
Editor: Frank Zhao
Li Yinhe's Opinions on China's Gay, Lesbian Athletes
Famous sexologist Li Yinhe insists Chinese gay and lesbian athletes will eventually come out. []
On December 1, British Olympic diving star Tom Daley revealed he was in a relationship with another man in a video uploaded to YouTube. The news attracted the attention of millions of Chinese diving fans and reignited debate about why no Chinese gay or lesbian athlete has ever come out despite reports implicating some in same-sex relationships.

Fear of public backlash is a major reason Chinese gay and lesbian athletes stay in the closet, according to Li Yinhe, a famous Chinese sexologist and professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

However, Li is optimistic about the future and believes that as Chinese society grows more tolerant, Chinese gay and lesbian athletes will be persuaded to come out.

China's Gay and Lesbian Athletes

There are 13 million to 65 million gay and lesbian people in China, accounting for between 1 and 5 percent of the total population, Yunnan daily the Chuncheng Evening News reported on June 28, 2013.

Recent years have seen a growing number of gay and lesbian entertainers come out, but no athletes have followed suit.

In August 2000 when Chinese lawmakers solicited public opinion on revising the marriage law, Li proposed legalizing same-sex marriage. Her proposal received predictable opposition. However, more startling was that none of the gay and lesbian people whose rights Li had long advocated for came forward to support her.

According to Li, Chinese society has become much more tolerant of homosexuality since 2000. Both the government and public have become more open-minded, even if homosexuality has remained a taboo topic in the Chinese sporting arena.

Some Chinese female soccer players have reportedly been in lesbian relationships, but none have spoken openly about their sexuality.

In 2010, the Tianjin Daily reported there were at least four lesbian couples in a Chinese women's youth soccer team. It was also reported that a pair of teammates in a women's soccer team in north China even fought over a girlfriend.

In 2007, sports journalist Zhao Liaoliao posted a blog entry making further claims of lesbians in Chinese women's soccer teams.

Leading by Example

Even though Chinese gay and lesbian athletes have been reluctant to step into the spotlight and speak out about their sexuality, there is one athlete who hasn't been shy to admit she is a lesbian. Brittney Griner, a 23-year-old American basketball star who plays for Women's Chinese Basketball Association team Zhejiang Chouzhou, is the only professional athlete in China who is openly lesbian. Griner confirmed she was a lesbian in a media interview in April 2013, a month before she signed with Zhejiang Chouzhou.

Before she came out, many journalists were careful not to raise questions about her sexuality. "She occasionally says she is like a boy, but apart from that there is nothing particularly odd about her," Yin Peiqin, a journalist with Zhejiang newspaper City Press, said of Griner.

Griner's teammates have all been accepting of her sexual orientation. "As far as I can tell, nothing has prevented her from getting along well with her teammates. No one is avoiding her," said Yin. 
Li Yinhe's Opinions on China's Gay, Lesbian Athletes
American lesbian basketball star Brittney Griner shows off her Zhejiang Chouzhou jersey. []

But why hasn't a gay or lesbian Chinese athlete come out? Li cites fear of public accusations and the belief among athletes that sexuality is a private matter as main reasons. By contrast, gay and lesbian celebrities in Western countries, particularly those with political influence, are expected to come out and speak for the gay and lesbian community.

"If a public figure comes out, they are seen as setting a good example because they usually have many followers. In Hong Kong and southeast China's Taiwan, many famous gay and lesbian entertainers like [TV host] Kevin Tsai have come out," said Li. "But on the Chinese mainland, there have been few to do so."

In an interview with before her arrival in China, Griner confirmed her goal to be a role model and inspire more athletes to come out of the closet. "I wanted to set an example for lesbians. I know many don't understand what I am doing, but I don't care," she said. "Yes, I am a lesbian. I kept it a secret when I was at university, but not now."

However, Griner has never talked publicly to Chinese media about homosexuality-related issues as of the press time. 

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