10 Chinese LGBTQ Icons

In honor of the recently concluded annual New York Pride March, Project Pengyou intern, Shani Cave, has put together a list of LGBTQ icons in China.


Image Credit: Toronto Star

The last Sunday of June 2017 marked the annual New York Pride March, celebrating lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) culture and pride. Major cities across the US such as San Francisco, Washington DC and Chicago also held their own Pride Parades in June to celebrate diversity and free expression as part of Pride Week. Some of the largest Pride Parades were held worldwide in cities such as Sao Paulo, Amsterdam and Madrid.

As for Asia, the biggest annual gay pride parade is held on the island of Taiwan, which is considered to be the most progressive in terms of LGBTQ rights in East Asia and Asia in general. This May, Taiwan became the first Asian country to recognize same-sex marriage. The landmark decision was eagerly awaited by and encouraged among the LGBTQ community in Taiwan, accompanied with hopes of Taiwan’s actions driving neighboring countries in Asia to move in similar actions.

“The ruling proves that same-sex marriage is acceptable in Chinese culture, and is likely for the Chinese mainland to legalize gay marriage within a decade,” Li Yinhe, prominent sexologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

While same-sex marriage is not yet legally recognized in mainland China, China’s LGBTQ community is pushing for a wider national discussion of gay rights, especially in light of Taiwan’s same-sex marriage ruling. The history of LGBTQ people in China spans thousands of years, and we hope to highlight a few of them from the 20th and 21st centuries in honor of Pride Week.

Check out our list below of 10 Chinese LGBTQ icons who have all contributed to a more inclusive, diverse, and liberated dialogue of what it means to be Chinese in the 21st century.


1. Jin Xing 金星

Image Credit: The Daily Beast

Known as “the Oprah of China,” Jin Xing was the first person in China to undergo gender reassignment surgery and one of the first few transgender women to be officially recognized by the Chinese government. A modern dancer, ballerina, choreographer, actress, and the host of The Jin Xing Show, Jin is a role model to the LGBTQ community for her success and influence. She says “I don’t want to change the world, but I also don’t want the world to change me too much. I just want to be myself.”


2. Ren Hang 任航

Image Credit: Photography of China

Ren Hang was a globally renowned photographer known for his controversial nude photos of Chinese youth. His images of explicit sexuality and queerness broke social taboos of nudity and were equally celebrated worldwide and censored within his home country of China. Ren is championed as a leading light of Chinese contemporary photography as his work “reflected the reality of modern China.” He died earlier this year at the age of 29.


3. Li Yuchen 李宇春

Image Credit: Weibo

Through winning the TV show singing contest Super Girl, Li Yuchen became the first famous androgynous female singer of modern China. Her resonant voice, looks contrary to traditional Chinese aesthetics, and enthusiastic fans propelled her to stardom as a national idol and cultural phenomena in reshaping mainstream views of queer identity and gender construction. Now a household name in China, Li is also one of few Chinese citizens to appear on the cover of Time Magazine.


4. Stanley Kwan 关锦鹏

Image Credit: Alchetron

Stanley Kwan is an openly gay film director and producer from Hong Kong. His films often center around women’s struggles with romance, yet one of his most popular films, Lan Yutells the story of a 10-year gay relationship between an older businessman and younger student in Beijing. Lan Yu was cited as a landmark of the early 21st century for portraying a more human view of homosexual life in China, and is now considered a cult classic within the Chinese LGBTQ community.


5. FFC-Acrush

Image Credit: Billboard

The members of this Chinese “boy band” comprise of cisgender, androgynous girls who refer to themselves using the gender-free pronoun meishaonian (美少年), which translates to “handsome youths.” The “A” in the band’s name refers to the Greek god of male beauty, Andonis. The group has already garnered thousands of fans, predominately female, whilst contributing to the acceptance of androgyny and unisex looks in Chinese pop culture. FFC-Acrush’s distinguishing concept is: “A group advocating freedom, not bounded by frames.”


6. Liu Shihan 刘诗涵

Image Credit: RedFlava

Liu Shihan is the first trans celebrity model in China. Born in the city Changsha of Hunan province in Southeast China, Liu was given the typical boy’s name Liu Shuai 刘帅. After saving for three years during her university years, Liu was able to afford her sex-change operation and move to Beijing to work as a model. She wrote about her transgender experience on her Sina microblog, prompting wide discussion on the internet and the making of small documentaries about her life. She’s respected among the Chinese LGBTQ community for publicly sharing her experiences and for her success as the first Chinese trans model.


7. Fan Popo 范坡坡

Image Credit: Beijinger

A film-maker, writer, and activist, Fan Popo’s work in advocating for wider acceptance of homosexuality is highly revered among the Chinese LGBT community. His documentary, Mama Rainbow, follows six mothers who share their experiences loving and caring for their gay and lesbian children. After receiving wide attention at film festivals and online streaming websites, the film was pulled down by China’s censors, prompting Fan to file a lawsuit against the organization that oversees China’s entertainment industry. His parallel documentary, Papa Rainbow, was released in 2016 and is available for online viewing.


8. Leslie Cheung 张国荣

Image Credit: South China Morning Post

Leslie Cheung was a Hong Kong singer and actor, teenage heartthrob, and sensationalized pop icon. His music and films captured fans all throughout Asia, leading him to be dubbed as one of “Asia’s 25 Greatest Actors of All Time” as well as the third “Most Iconic Musician of All Time.” He won Best Actor in several film festivals for his role in the film, Farewell My Concubine, which explored themes of homosexuality and sexual identity. Cheung committed suicide in 2003, yet his legacy lives on as being Asia’s biggest superstar.


9. Helen Zia

Image Credit: Helen Zia

Helen Zia was born in New Jersey to first generation Chinese immigrants from Shanghai. Outspoken on issues ranging from women’s and civil rights to homophobia and countering hate violence, Zia’s work as an investigative journalist and advocate for Asian American and LGBTQ rights led her to be named one of the most influential Asian-Americans of the decade. She and her partner were the first same-sex couple to legally marry in California.


10.  Pamela Ki Mai Chen

Image Credit: Washington Blade

Born in Chicago to the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Pamela Ki Mai Chen is the first Asian-American lesbian to be appointed to the federal bench. Possessing the “legal excellence, intellect and temperament to be a first-rate judge,” Chen has worked extensively throughout her career on civil rights and human rights cases. As the first openly gay attorney nominated to the federal bench by Obama, her appointment was widely celebrated by the LGBTQ and human rights community in Washington DC.


Is there anyone else you’d like to add to this list? Let us know in the comments below!