Lyan Lee Yiyang on Mainstreaming Queer Culture in Mainland China
The creator of the post-gender fashion line LYAN talks about encountering family pressure, navigating business relationships, and learning to say “Fuck them.”
“First of all, I’m blessed to be gay,” says Lyan Lee Yiyang. The graduate of China Academy of Art has built a fashion brand that spans London, New York, and Shanghai; he’s produced three collections so far and has been featured in Vogue Italia and Cosmo China.
His androgynous designs, which he just launched a Kickstarter campaign for, shake up traditional ideas about gender: Severe suits explode with ruffles, trim tops bloom into Elizabethan collars. “I design for no labels and no gender boundaries, to stand for who I am,” he explains. “And it is not easy in China.”
Even as he wins acclaim from China’s young, progressive city-dwellers, Lyan has suffered the indignities of his family disowning him, business contacts painting him as a sexual predator, and the legal system ignoring his rights. In this interview, he discusses where China stands on queer politics now — and how much is left to do.
Kickstarter: What is the state of gender and sexuality in China?
Lyan Lee Yiyang: A lot of people choose to believe what they want to believe; they think being gay is a choice, or it’s “fixable,” or it doesn’t exist. They think people who want to be a different gender have too much free time and are being ridiculous.
China is starting to develop more understanding of different genders and sexualities, but that’s generally still happening just in the big cities. For the rest of China, there’s less information, and even some queer people only know gender as either male or female; it’s hard for them to face their sexuality — especially the young kids. But luckily they can use the internet, get on apps to meet people, and come to big cities. And people in our community are willing to help them as mentors.
What challenges does the queer community face there?
First, there’s the pressure from family. I would say it’s the same for everybody: straights, gays, men, and women. There’s a joke that describes it perfectly: When you are a college student, your parents don’t want you in a relationship because it disturbs your studies. Once you graduate, they want you to get married immediately.
Most parents think happiness means a stable life; stricter families even worry about having a male heir. So it seems extra hard for gay people. We can’t get married legally, we can’t have babies unless we pay for surrogacy or have a fake marriage.
And that relates to the pressure from society. There’s no specific law to protect queer people. We should have the same rights no matter who we are, who we love, or who we sleep with.
How has your queer identity shaped your work?
Some researchers say gay people are good at art, painting, design, music, and creative shit. I appreciate myself as sensitive and creative regardless of my sexual orientation.
The queer identity does shape my work, though. I love queer art, designs, and styles. There are so many great queer cultures created by great queer people — and not-so-gay culture created by great queer people!
How have you had to hide your identity in your work in the past, and how does it feel to express it now?
First of all, I’m blessed to be gay. Second, I went to art schools and work in art and design, so people around me are open-minded. I expressed myself with them, and I felt amazing. But I don’t have that freedom with my family. Last December they figured out that I’m gay, and there was a huge fight, full of misconception, prejudice, and disappointment.
And just weeks ago, I was working on a project with a very fancy, high-quality suit factory. The owner was open-minded, had good taste. But once we started talking business, his wife got worried about me being gay; she said I would sexually harass her husband. She said it as a joke, but I could tell she didn’t want us to continue the collaboration. I told her being a sexual harasser has nothing to do with sexual orientation, and made a suitably dramatic exit. I will never hide my identity.
Is there anything you’d like to say to other queer people or creators in China?
Yes. Life is too short to not be you, to live under other people’s judgement. Make yourself stronger, no matter what gets in your way, and learn to say “Fuck them.”