Soccer player Li Ying becomes first high-profile Chinese athlete to come out

Society & Culture

Li Ying, a member of the Chinese women’s national soccer team, has made history as the first high-profile Chinese athlete to come out as a lesbian.

li ying
Li Ying and her girlfriend, Chen Leilei.

Lǐ Yǐng 李影, a member of the Chinese women’s national soccer team, has made history as the first high-profile Chinese athlete to come out as a lesbian.

On Tuesday, the 28-year-old soccer star, who currently plays forward for Shandong Ladies in the Chinese Women’s Super League, revealed on Weibo that she had a girlfriend and that they had been together for a year. “All of my affection comes from you and belongs to you,” Li wrote in a post (in Chinese) marking the one-year anniversary of their relationship, which was accompanied by two photos showing the couple celebrating the special occasion together. 

Li’s girlfriend, Chén Lěilěi 陈蕾蕾, a “micro-influencer” with over 360,000 followers on Weibo, also shared a heartfelt message, writing (in Chinese), “One year together. Feels like it’s been forever.” 

The China Vibe.

Subscribe to The China Vibe, our society and culture newsletter, to get a free weekly roundup of the most interesting stories from China.

For LGBT+ individuals in China, where homosexuality remains stigmatized, declaring their sexual identification in public is still a difficult step that can result in discrimination, abuse, and even violence. And that’s why the majority of LGBT+ citizens in China opt to stay in the closet — about 95%, according to a 2016 survey by the United Nation Development Program

The stakes are even higher for public figures, who often feel they have no choice but to cover up their sexuality in a hostile culture. But Li was courageous enough to reveal who she really is, and her brave act was met with messages of congratulations from LGBT+ individuals and their allies. “Respect and blessings to you two!” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese), while another one remarked (in Chinese), “They look great together!”

But amid all the positivity, there was also an outpouring of homophobia. A considerable number of social media comments crossed the line from bigoted and ignorant to just straight-up hateful: Some called the couple “disgusting” and asked for details about their sex life.

The vitriol eventually prompted Li and her girlfriend to delete their anniversary posts. Some speculated that Li, as a popular athlete who plays on the national team, was getting pressure from higher-ups to stop being vocal about her identity. Others suspected that before coming out publicly, Li was already facing marginalization on the national team due to her sexual identification. They pointed out Li had been conspicuously absent at several big international games since earlier this year, when she began sharing photos of Chen on social media on a more regular basis.

Supporters of Li compared her experience with the story of Megan Rapinoe, a superstar forward with the U.S. women’s national soccer team, who came out in 2012 and has since become a global icon not only for her athletic prowess but also for her bold activism to advance LGBT+ rights and foster inclusivity in American sports. 

“What a shame,” a Weibo user commented on the different treatment of Li and Rapinoe in a post that received over 160,000 likes as of today. Zhào Zhèn 赵震, a renowned sports journalist and blogger, also praised Li’s declaration as monumental. “It’s no longer a secret that some players on Chinese women soccer teams are lesbians, but Li was the first to have the courage to come out,” Zhao wrote (in Chinese). “I hope our society will become more inclusive in the future.”