A leading Chinese sexologist's revelation that she's been living with a transgender man for 17 years has sparked a rare public discussion about China's largely invisible and marginalized transgender community.

Li Yinhe made the relationship public Thursday on her blog, which was read more than 200,000 times within 24 hours. The blog became a hot topic on China's Twitter-like site Weibo, getting nearly 3 million hits as it spurred spirited discussions on social media not only about Li's nonconventional relationship, but also about transgender Chinese in general.

Chinese are increasingly liberal with heterosexual relationships, but still hold deep prejudices against sexual minorities despite government efforts to achieve equality. As an obscure group in the already socially marginal gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, transgender Chinese get even less attention and understanding from the public.

'I am indeed a heterosexual, not a homosexual.' - Li Yinhe, on blog post

Activists said Li's revelation would help the sexual minority.

"It will help the (transgender community) tremendously, whose voices are hardly heard by the public," said Ying Xin, executive director of the Beijing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center. "It helps with their visibility."

Li, a sociologist who is retired from the China Academy of Social Sciences, is known not only as a leading expert on homosexuality, but also as the widow of well-known Chinese author Wang Xiaobo, adding to the huge reaction her disclosure received.

Li said she met her current partner shortly after Wang died in 1997. "He is an angel sent by God to save me from the bitter sea of losing Xiaobo," she wrote on her blog.

Hu Zhijun, executive director of Parents, Families, Friends of Lesbians and Gays of China, applauded Li's bravery and candour in revealing her relationship and praised her for shining a light on transgender Chinese, who are faced with greater social pressure than homosexuals because they do not identify with their physical gender.

"Even after Li's article, people are still confused about transgenders and homosexuals," Hu said. "We need more public discussions."

Li said she felt obligated to reveal her relationship to respond to "vicious" allegations that she is a lesbian. "I am indeed a heterosexual, not a homosexual," Li wrote on her blog.

Child adopted

Li, who said she and her partner had adopted a child, explained that declaring herself a heterosexual was by no means an expression of superiority to homosexuals.

While her blog has been met with words of support and derision, one official newspaper said it was good that the topic at least had become public.

"Topics such as homosexuals, transgenders and AIDS used to be taboos, but they have become debatable these days and are increasingly accepted by the mainstream," the ruling Communist Party's People's Daily wrote on its microblog Friday.

"Everyone has some uniqueness, and please let social cognition keep up with scientific progress. To respect the choice by Li Yinhe is to respect ourselves."