University News

Li talks LGBT rights in China

Leading expert on sexuality in China discusses differences in Western, Chinese culture

Contributing Writer
Friday, April 10, 2015

LGBT individuals in China have historically faced difficulties unfamiliar to those in the United States, Li Yinhe said during her lecture Thursday.

“In this Internet age, any progress made in the West will no doubt also put wind in the sails of the Chinese LGBT communities and their supporters,” Li Yinhe, one of China’s leading scholars on issues of sexuality, told a packed Foxboro Auditorium Thursday.

Li’s talk addressed the legal history of homosexuality as well as the legacy of social stigma surrounding it in China. She emphasized the current trend of gay rights activism in the People’s Republic and how similar campaigns in the United States and elsewhere are influencing the movement in China. Educated in both the United States and China, Li retired in 2012 after 20 years of teaching at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

While the legal definition of homosexuality and the penalties prescribed for it have historically been ambiguous and subject to interpretation, public reactions to engaging in homosexual acts have been unequivocally devastating for LGBT individuals. “Gays in China have been subjected to varying forms of extra-legal sanction from the Maoist era to the present day,” Li said. Controversial governmental positions, including the labeling of homosexuality as a mental defect until 2001, have further complicated the lives of LGBT individuals in China.

Today, it is unlikely for LGBT individuals to attract legal attention, Li said. Nevertheless, after a law criminalizing sodomy was overturned in 1980, it remained common practice for the police to actively pursue LGBT individuals for the purpose of social shaming. Li quoted one individual she interviewed for a study as saying, “They just try to beat the fear into you.”

Audience members posed several questions about the differences in Western and Chinese attitudes toward homosexuality, and an interpreter translated Li’s responses.

Li said that while the topic has commanded the attention of the American public and media, it has yet to emerge as a major point of discussion in China. She noted that around 10 to 20 percent of Chinese indicate they hold strong views against gay marriage, while another 10 to 20 percent support it, and the rest do not identify with any particular stance.

On the other hand, a Pew Research poll from September 2014 found that just 10 percent of all American respondents did not identify with either viewpoint.

Li suggested that this trend is related at least in part to the Chinese conceptualization of the family. “The biggest difference is the pressure to get married in China. Many gay people are under pressure to form families because they live in a family-oriented society,” the interpreter quoted Li as saying.

A discrepancy in values and political context between the United States and China may explain contrasting attitudes toward homosexuality, Li said. “The community does feel the difference between East and West,” she said. She noted that Chinese people realize that in the United States, street protests centered on these types of social issues are common, whereas in China, public protests are less common.

The discussion of societal differences resonated with audience members.

“It was interesting that (Li) mentioned that the biggest difference between the United States and China is the pressure from families,” said Amanda Yao ’17.

“The debate around universal values wasn’t something I’d encountered before,” said Morgan Talbot ’18. “The idea that there are more neutral views in China than in the West, where people have stronger views that can have a religious component to them, wasn’t something I’d thought about.”

Li closed her discussion on an upbeat note, mentioning the possibility of increased tolerance and collaboration between activists around the world on online platforms. “The problems (LGBT people face) stem from misunderstanding by mainstream society, and this may be reason for optimism,” she said. “Gays around the country have actively convened to promote social understanding of their lifestyle, and the Internet has been their major convening ground.”

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