Internet users praise volleyball player Sun Wenjing for coming-out photo with her girlfriend

Society & Culture

There may be no gay marriage in China, but that did not stop a retired professional athlete from posting “wedding photos” to social media, where the response was overwhelmingly positive.

sun wenjing
A detail from a photo posted to social media by Sun Wenjing.

Although most LGBT+ athletes in China have historically kept their sexual orientation hidden because of the policies and atmosphere in the country, Sūn Wénjìng 孙文静, a retired professional volleyball player, has defied the norm by coming out as a lesbian on social media.

The 27-year-old athlete last week posted to Weibo (in Chinese) two photos of her and her girlfriend posing against a red background — a style recognized across China as the official setup for images on marriage certificates. The images were dated September 9, 2020, and September 9, 2021.

“She doesn’t have to do anything, but I will fall for her time and time again. Year after year, she’s my everything,” she wrote (in Chinese) in a caption.

The timing of the announcement appeared to be deliberate, as September 9, or 9-9 (九九 jiǔjiǔ), is homophonous to the phrase “久久,” which translates to “forever” in Chinese. Regarded as a symbol of eternity, September 9 is one of the most popular dates for Chinese couples to tie the knot.

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While Sun’s post is not a celebration of her relationship being legally recognized — same-sex marriages still have no place in Chinese law despite calls for change — her decision to publicly embrace her sexual orientation inspired an outpouring of positive messages. “The more people, especially public figures, come out of the closet, the less likely that Chinese society still sees LGBT+ issues as taboo topics,” wrote (in Chinese) Weibo user “Pretending to be in New York (@假装在纽约), a popular blogger with more than 5 million followers on the platform.

Internet personalities with large followings weren’t the only ones who praised Sun. A swath of Weibo users praised Sun for courageously sharing her truth. “What a good-looking couple. I’m so happy for you!” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese). Another person said (in Chinese) she admired Sun’s courage to come out, adding, “I hope one day me and my partner will live in our truths, too!”

As of today, Sun’s post has generated about 13,000 reposts and almost 60,000 likes on Weibo. But in a stark contrast to the praise and support on social media, her coming-out story barely attracted any media attention or reactions from others in the sports world. 

Born in 1994, Sun first rose to prominence in 2013 when playing for the youth volleyball team of Shandong Province, which was the winner of the national competition that year. However, apparently because she was not considered (in Chinese) tall enough, she fell short of making it to Shandong’s adult team and proceeded to study at Beijing Sport University. From 2017 to 2018, Sun briefly revived her career as a professional athlete by delivering strong performances on the women’s teams for Shandong and Beijing. But just when people thought she would be called up by the national team, Sun announced (in Chinese) her retirement from the sport in 2019.  

Sun’s coming out took guts. Although homosexuality is no longer criminalized, acceptance of LGBT+ people remains low in China, and the government continues to restrict the rights and freedoms of the community and its supporters. In July, Tencent’s massively popular social platform, WeChat, which is essential for any kind of group communication in China, quietly deleted the dozens of public accounts run by LGBT+ groups at Chinese universities. During the recent crackdown on its entertainment sector, China took specific aim at “effeminate men,” whom the government sees as a threat to an ongoing campaign to promote traditional gender roles and masculinity.

Living in a hostile environment, most LGBT+ individuals in China still don’t feel comfortable coming out or expressing themselves freely in public. According to a 2016 survey by the United Nation Development Program, about 95% of Chinese LGBT+ people choose to stay in the closet for fear of discrimination and violence. Meanwhile, there are barely any openly gay or lesbian Chinese public figures, partly because it can have negative consequences in their careers. 

A case in point: In June, Lǐ Yǐng 李影, a member of the Chinese women’s national soccer team, made history as the first high-profile Chinese athlete to come out as a lesbian. In a similar fashion to Sun, Li revealed on Weibo that she had a girlfriend. Although she did not publicly advocate for LGBT+ rights, the star striker was excluded from many recent games involving her team, including the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Many speculated that her disappearance from the public eye was a result of her coming out.