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. He 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When Li died in Vancouver in 1993, his unpublished manuscript on sexuality was thrown in the trash. Luckily he was rescued by a nosy neighbor and eventually found himself 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 it 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. Then 63, Hirschfeld 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. Almost person in the 1930s could afford to be absent – the revelation would have destroyed either career.
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 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. Adolf 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.
Li stayed by his side and helped him write a memoir of their travels. This is a startling change from earlier work by Hirschfeld, which deals with racist thought – containing, for example, the claim that black Americans had a stunted brain.
In the book he wrote with Li’s help, a different Hirschfeld emerges. The text denounces imperialism – for example, call British rule in South Asia “one of the greatest political injustices in the whole 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 his research and taking detailed notes while living in Zurich, Hong Kong and then Vancouver.
The data he collected would have surprised Hirschfeld. Forty percent of people were bisexual, he wrote, 20% were homosexual and only 30% were heterosexual. (The bottom 10 percent were “other.”) Being trans was an important and beneficial part of the human experience, he added.
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 had Alfred Kinseywhose studies have identified widespread bisexuality.
A recent survey finds that people who identify as LGBTQ have lower percentages, but it also indicates the numbers are increasing. According to a February 2022 Gallup poll, they have doubled in the last ten years. This same survey revealed that nearly 21 percent of Gen Z Americans (those 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 survey found that about 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. Canadian of queer Asian origin at the heart of the beginnings of gay politics, a sexologist with a broad vision of homosexuality and transit, he is a gay heroes to rediscover.
Laurie Marhoefer is a historian of sexuality and the author of a new biography of Li Shiu Tong and Magnus Hirschfeld.