The Asian-Canadian gay activist whose theories on sexuality were decades ahead of their time

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Historians are rediscovering one of the most important LGBTQ activists of the early 20th century – an Asian Canadian named Li Shiu Tong. You probably don’t know the name, but he was central to the first wave of gay politics.

Much has been written about Li’s older boyfriend, Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld was a hidden German doctor and sexologist who rose to fame in the 1930s as an advocate for homosexuals. In books about Hirschfeld, Li is usually just a footnote.

But as I found in my research, Li was a sexologist and activist in her own right. And in my opinion, her ideas about sexuality speak better to our moment than those of her much better-known boyfriend.

When Li died in Vancouver in 1993, his unpublished manuscript on sexuality was thrown in the trash. Fortunately, he was saved by a curious neighbor and eventually ended up in an archive. Since then, only a handful of people, myself included, have read it.

Within its pages is a theory of LGBTQ people as the majority that would resonate with many young people today.

Student and mentor

Born in 1907 in Hong Kong, Li was 24 and studying medicine at a university in Shanghai when he met Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld, then 63, had come to China to give public lectures on the science of sex. The year was 1931.

Shanghai newspapers portrayed Hirschfeld as the world’s foremost expert on sexuality. Li must have seen the papers, because he made sure to hear Hirschfeld’s very first lecture. In medical school, Li had read everything he could about homosexuality, then a very controversial subject. He had often come across the name Hirschfeld and he knew of his reputation as an advocate for homosexuals. Whether he suspected the famed sex therapist was gay is a mystery. Hardly anyone in the 1930s could afford to be absent – it would have destroyed either man’s career.

Magnus Hirschfeld and Li Shiu Tong appear in a 1933 issue of the French magazine Viola.
GLBT Historical Society

The conference that afternoon was organized by a Chinese women’s club in a chic and modern apartment building. When Hirschfeld finished speaking, Li came over and introduced himself. He offered to be his assistant. It was the start of a relationship that would profoundly shape gay history, as well as the rest of their lives.

With Li at his side, Hirschfeld spoke throughout China. Li then accompanied Hirschfeld on a lecture tour around the world, traveling first class on ships in Indonesia, the Philippines, South Asia, Egypt and beyond.

In his lectures, Hirschfeld explained his influential model of homosexuality: It was a character trait that people were born with, a part of their nature. It was neither a disease nor a sin, and the persecution of homosexuality was unjust. He gave 178 lectures, plus radio interviews. His ideas have reached hundreds of thousands of people.

It was the first time in the history of the world that someone told so many people that being gay was not a bad thing and was, in fact, an innate and natural condition.

A love story and a professional collaboration

During the world tour, the two fell in love, even if for everyone, they passed for teacher and pupil. Hirschfeld decided to make Li his successor. The plan was for Li to go back to Berlin with him, train at his Institute of Sexual Sciences and continue his research after his death.

Their common dream was not to exist. When they arrived in Europe, Hirschfeld realized that he could never return home to Berlin. Hitler was Chancellor. The Nazis were after Hirschfeld because he was Jewish and because of his leftist views on sexuality. He exiles himself in France.

Two men are rummaging through a pile of books.
Nazis select books for burning at the Magnus Hirschfeld Institute for Sexual Sciences in Berlin.
ullstein bild/Getty Images

Li stayed by his side and helped him write a souvenir of their travels.

This is a startling departure from earlier work by Hirschfeld, which deals with racist thought – containing, for example, the claim that black Americans had stunted brains.

In the book he wrote with Li’s help, a different Hirschfeld emerges. The text denounces imperialism – for example, calling British rule in South Asia “one of the greatest political injustices in the world.” Hirschfeld even saw a connection between gay rights and the fight against imperialism: both were born out of an undeniable human desire for freedom.

After Hirschfeld died in France in 1935, his will named Li, then a student at the University of Zurich, his intellectual heir.

Hirschfeld was the most famous gay advocate the world has ever known. But when Li died in Vancouver in 1993, it seems no one realized his connection to gay rights.

Li’s view of sexuality resurfaces

Yet Li’s rediscovered manuscript shows that he became a sexologist, even though he never published his findings.

In his manuscript, Li recounts how, after Hirschfeld’s death, he spent decades traveling the world, pursuing research and taking detailed notes while living in Zurich, Hong Kong and then Vancouver.

The data he collected would have surprised Hirschfeld. 40% of people were bisexual, he wrote, 20% were homosexual and only 30% were heterosexual. (The bottom 10% were “other.”) Being trans was an important and beneficial part of the human experience, he added.

Man sitting shaking hands and smiling.
Li Shiu Tong at the 1932 conference for the World League for Sexual Reform.
Welcome Images/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Hirschfeld believed that bisexuals were rare, and that even homosexuals were only a small part of the population – a “sexual minority”. For Li, bisexuals and homosexuals were the majority. It was lifelong heterosexuals who were rare — so rare, he wrote, that they “should be classified as an endangered species.” Li discovered that homosexual desire was even more common than the sex therapist Alfred Kinseywhose studies have identified widespread bisexuality.

A recent poll reveals that people who identify as LGBTQ have lower percentages, but it also indicates that the numbers are increasing. According to a Gallup poll from February 2022, they have doubled in the last ten years. This same survey revealed that almost 21% of Gen Z Americans — people born between 1997 and 2003 — identify as LGBTQ.

Some critics have suggested that these numbers reflect a fad. This is the explanation given by the pollster whose very small poll revealed that approximately 40% of Gen Z respondents were LGBTQ.

Li’s view gives a more likely explanation: same-sex desire is a very common part of human experience throughout history. As Hirschfeld argued, this is natural. Contrary to what he thought, however, this is not unusual. When Li was a young man in the 1930s, there was tremendous pressure not to act on homosexual desires. As this pressure waned during the 20th century, more and more people seem to have embraced LGBTQ identities.

Why didn’t Li publish his work? I am not sure. Perhaps he hesitated because his discoveries were so different from those of his mentor. In my bookI investigate another possibility: how the racism in Hirschfeld’s earlier work may have dissuaded Li from pursuing his legacy.

Still, Li’s theory was ahead of its time. Queer Asian Canadian at the heart of early gay politics, a sexologist with a broad view of queerness and transness, he is a gay hero to rediscover.

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