Early 20th Century Queer Asian Canadian Activist Worth Rediscovering For His Theories on Sexuality

Historian of sexuality and author Laurie Marhoefer had written one of the most important research in his new historical biography about sexuality in the early 20th century by an Asian Canadian named Li Shiu Tong.

Li was usually just a footnote in Magnus Hirschfeld’s works. Hirschfeld was a closeted German and sexologist who was well known in the 1930s as a defender of gay people. 

After Li died in 1993, his unpublished manuscripts were discarded, for which a curious neighbor retrieved them, and they wound up in an archive, which was read by only a handful of people.

The rediscovered manuscripts showed that he did become a sexologist, even though he never published his findings. His theory was ahead of his time, as it would resonate with a lot of young people in the LGBTQ today.

Born in 1907 in Hong Kong, Li was 24-year-old studying medicine in Shanghai when he met Hirschfeld, 63 at that time, who came to China to give a lecture on sex science. Li introduced himself when Hirschfeld ended his lecture and offered to be his assistant, a beginning of a journey that profoundly shaped LGBT history.

After Hirschfeld died, he spent decades traveling and researching in Zurich, Hong Kong, and Vancouver.

Li’s vision shows that same-sex desire is a common part of human experience throughout history. It’s natural, said Hirschfeld, but it’s not as rare as he believed.

The data that he gathered would have startled Hirschfeld:  40% were bisexual, 20% were gay, 30% were heterosexual, and 10% as “other”. Being trans is vital and good, he said. Being trans was an important, beneficial part of the human experience, Li added.

Hirschfeld believed bisexuals and homosexuals were only a “sexual minority. To Li, bisexuals plus homosexuals were the majority, and those lifelong heterosexuals should be considered endangered species.

Li also discovered same-sex desire to be significantly more common than Alfred Kinsey’s study on bisexuality.

Laurie Marhoefer wonders why Li didn’t publish his work, “I’m not sure [but] perhaps he hesitated because his findings were so different from his mentor’s. In my book, I investigate another possibility: how the racism in Hirschfeld’s earlier work may have dissuaded Li from carrying on his legacy.”

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