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Now You See Me: Changing Visibility for Transgender People in Mainland China

April 29, 2016
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Mr. C holds a flag that represents the transgender community with Chinese characters that read “I want to work.” Photo credit Alexia Wong

Originally published by US-China Today. Written by Rebecca Cheng.

China is facing its first ever transgender workplace discrimination case. In April 2015, a transgender Chinese man, known only as Mr. C, was fired from his job without pay after working only one week during a probation period in a health services firm. Even though he was hired without disclosing his gender in his job application form and interviewed in men’s clothing, the company told the Guiyang Evening News that he was fired because his appearance “did not fit our standards.” Mr. C then filed a lawsuit, demanding a written apology for the company’s act, a week’s wages and an extra month’s salary, amounting to about $300.

If Mr. C wins this lawsuit and gets an apology, it could mark massive strides in the advancement of China’s transgender population, a group that has traditionally been invisible to the greater public. With increased visibility in the media over the past few years, transgender issues are slowly entering public discussion and changing how Chinese society views transgender people.

“Most of the media are actively trying to know more about the whole case, and it helps promote transgender issues in a positive way. People will have more opportunities to read and learn about transgender people only if there are more positive reports. At least now, people see the existence of the transgender community,” says Mr. C in an original interview with US-China Today.

According to a report compiled by the non-governmental organization Asia Catalyst, there are an estimated 9.5 million transgender people in the Asia-Pacific region and an estimated 4 million transgender people in mainland China. Despite this large number, the transgender population in mainland China remains largely invisible because of restrictive cultural viewpoints. The Chinese Psychiatric Association, which provides diagnostic guidelines for Chinese psychiatrists to use, classifies not identifying with the biological gender as a mental illness.

Perceptions of Transgender People and Cultural Values Behind Them

The idea that a person can maintain his/her sex but choose another gender is not a completely accepted or understood concept in mainland China yet. Judy Chu, who works for the organization Translife, states that “gender” and “sex” are the same word in Chinese, and therefore, most people believe they have the same meaning. Most people in China generally have misconceptions about transgender people, but there is a significant difference in attitudes across generations.

“For the older generation in China, some believe that transgender people’s perception of gender is self-chosen and reversible, so they believe if they are determined enough or get medical help, they can reverse it,” says Chu.

“The younger generation has a high tolerance of the LGBT community,” Chu says. “Many think that it is an individual choice as long as it does not affect them. But they do not have much knowledge on transgender issues either. There are still some people who do not know the difference between “transgender” and “homosexual,” and even a minority LGB group that barely knows anything about transgender issues.”

The general perception of transgender people shows a lack of understanding in the fluidity of gender. The public harshly criticizes them, as some believe they are disrupting society or have mental problems. Li Yinhe, a renowned Chinese sexologist retired from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says that most criticisms stems from traditional Chinese values.

“Most people put family values in first place, which is different from Western culture. They believe individuals have the responsibility to marry and have kids in order to continue the family. Traditional Chinese think that having kids, caring for elders, and continuing the family are the individual’s duties. If you change your gender and you cannot fulfill that duty, you might disappoint your family,” says Li.

Judy Chu's Story on Transitioning

My name is Judy Chu. I was born in a small town in China in 1938. When I was three, my parents and I moved to another city. I have always thought that I am a girl since I could remember. Often, when I saw pretty girls’ clothes on TV, I would ask my parent if I could wear them when I grew up. I remember that they always said, “yes” until one day when they suddenly changed their answer to “no”— that was when I was around four or five.

When I heard them say “no,” I started crying. At first, my family would try to comfort me. However, after it happened again and again, they started ignoring and rebuking me. They told me that I was a boy and I would become a man in the future; there was no chance for me to be a woman. That was the first time that I felt that the world was unfair, and I thought my life was meaningless.
 
I went through all this when I was still a kid. I did not understand why others could choose who I would be without my permission. I was depressed and indignant. I thought all these things happened because I left my hometown, so I often looked at pictures of myself before I turned three years old. I tried hard to recollect my memory about my hometown. Whenever I encountered unfairness, discrimination and violence, I would tell myself that I would go back to my hometown once when I grew up, and everything would get better. This idea stayed with me for more than 20 years.
 
When I was 27, I went to Thailand and accepted sex reassignment surgery by myself. I got a female ID within the few months that I came back to China. I would say that the surgery helped me obtain my female ID rather than change me into a female, because I always believe that I am a female, even if I did not accept the surgery.
 
My parents already forgot about my request of wearing pretty girls’ clothes. When I was 26 and I told them that I would accept a sex reassignment surgery, they were surprised. I tried my best to communicate with them, and finally, they understood me and gave me a great amount of support. I do not know what would have happened without them, and I do not know if I would still be alive today. I can say that my parents give me life, twice. I love them. I am also really grateful to my friends from the transgender community, who gave me strong support.
 
Now I am active in the transgender community so I can share my personal experience with others. For this reason, I have made many new friends. I always tell people, “There is no such thing that changes a man into a woman or the other way around. A sex reassignment surgery only gives us the appearance of the opposite gender. What determines our gender is our heart. If we work hard and strive to grow, we will become stronger and be the person that we want to be.”
 
Struggles of Transgender People and Implications of Surgery

Because of the stigma against them, transgender people may face daily difficulties such as legal restrictions, social non-acceptance and job discrimination, such as in the case of Mr. C. Many Chinese legal documents, such as a university diploma, state a person’s gender. If the listed gender does not correspond with the gender that a person identifies with they will face many obstacles such as trouble finding employment.

For this reason, some who identify as transgender choose sex reassignment surgery. With verification of surgery, they can change their gender on legal identification cards and associated documents. However, it is very costly, which means it is not available for everyone.

“One of my friends’ transition from man to woman had cost almost 200,000 yuan [approximately $31,000]. She has not finished yet and currently needs some donations for the rest of the treatment. I know, generally, it costs over 300,000 yuan [approximately $46,500]. Most people will choose to do surgery in Thailand, not on the mainland,” says Sam, who asked to only be identified by his first name and is the project manager for the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness of sexual diversity and equality in China.

In 2009, the government added new guidelines for those who wish for a sex reassignment surgery. The requirements include having no criminal record, notifying their family of this wish, undergoing psychiatric treatment for one year, and being unmarried. This can be highly restricting for transgender individuals, making the choice for surgery very difficult.

“After the surgery, transgender people can have new ID numbers and names. Some can live a really private life and hide their past from other people. However, they need to sacrifice a lot for the surgery too. It is a common choice for some transgender people, but it does not apply to all, and it cannot solve every transgender person’s problems,” says Chu.

There are many who do not choose sex reassignment surgery, but according to Chu, that comes with its own complex implications. Some will not choose surgery because of health issues, fear of losing equal education or job opportunities, financial hardship, or affecting personal relationships with their loved ones.

“For those who do not do sex reassignment surgery, even if their appearances are perfect, the sex listed on their documents remain as the one that they were given when they were born. Not many companies accept transgender people in China, so a lot of them lose their jobs. That is why a lot of transgender people are in poverty now,” says Chu.

The Influence of Famous Transgender People

Transgender TV host Jin Xing speaks at the Fortune Global Forum. Photograph by Stefen Chow

As transgender people become more visible in the media, it may prove to be the best tool to improve positive public perceptions of them. Jin Xing, for example, is a sharp-tongued TV host who rose to prominence years ago as a famous male dancer. Now as a transgender woman, she shows how a well-known personality can change societal prejudices.

“It seems all Chinese people like Jin Xing. I think it’s because she has a good personality and good communication [skills]. Even though a few people dislike her, they can accept her experience,” says Sam.

Another popular figure is Liu Ting, who, before her transition, the public commended as a model of traditional morality. The media publicized how she took care of her disabled mother after her father left the family.

“After her transgender surgery, there were some personal attacks. They referred to her action as a moral disgrace and said that she did not consider her family’s feelings. But she insisted on what she did and became sort of a celebrity that stood for transgender people. The actions from people like her make others become more positive about transgender people,” says Li.

The digital age not only allows more visibility for transgender people, but Chinese citizens can build positive sentiments for transgender issues online through social media platforms like Weibo. As people increasingly use media, China is further exposed to different ideas that defy the discriminatory transgender stereotypes.

The Invisibility of Transgender Sex Workers

However, unlike transgender celebrities’ visibility, transgender sex workers remain the most invisible. Asia Catalyst’s report on transgender female sex workers titled, “My Life is Too Dark to See the Light” reveals both the personal struggles and systemic issues they face.

The existing workplace discrimination may pull some transgender people into the sex work industry. However, as sex work is illegal in mainland China, transgender sex workers face combined prejudice from their identity and work, especially from law enforcement agencies.

As the report states, “Entrapment or ‘fishing’ [when a law enforcement agent lures a person to commit a crime] is a commonly used method by police, while verbal and physical violence and/or extortion is not uncommon. While this is also true for non-transgender female and male sex workers, the transgender female sex workers interviewed spoke of abuse directed at their gender identity, compounded by detention in prison cells designated for male prisoners.”                                                          

Criminalizing sex work also limits protections for transgender sex workers, making them susceptible to health risks like STD and HIV infections. According to the report, transgender sex worker’s rate of HIV infection, 27.3%, is nine times greater than the rate of female sex workers and three times greater than the rate of male sex workers. In part, this is because sex workers cannot easily access resources such as government-subsidized medical care.

“Moreover, sex workers, including transgender sex workers seek protection from violence by joining ‘some kind of working group.’ They need to offer part of their income to the group’s leader. In some places, they need to offer policemen bribes. The human rights issue seems more and more serious in mainland China. Sex workers are facing more violence from the police. The situation is getting worse,” says Sam.

Hope for the Future

This past January, Beijing hosted the Rainbow Media Awards, which recognizes works in the media that improve representations of the LGBT community. With the help of America-based media-monitoring organization GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), the award show started in 2011. Many did not attend that first event, as some did not want to be associated with LGBT reporting or thought the event was too unestablished. Five years later, the award show has drastically increased in attendees and in prominence, and a video of the show received hundreds of thousands of views in one night.

GLAAD Director of Programs Ross Murray attended the 2016 Award show and believes that China is slowly working towards understanding the LGBT community and breaking down stereotypes.

“[For the] journalists who would win awards, a lot of their speeches would let people know that they were straight, cisgender people who didn’t have a lot of exposure to LGBT people before they did this reporting, and they felt like they had learned a lot by doing this reporting. They would always say something like ‘you’re all very nice people.’ I think they had some prejudices before, and by doing the reporting, a lot of it fell away, and they acknowledged that on stage,” says Murray.

Though transgender people don’t have it easy in China, Chu is optimistic about the future. She notes that there are more organizations devoted to the advancement of the LGBT community. She believes that the positive portrayals in the media and media attention to discriminatory attitudes and practices is the key to creating more conversations about this issue.

“China is developing at a fast pace. With the huge change in our society, people’s attitudes and perspectives are changing, too,” says Chu. “American culture has a strong influence on Chinese society. Many Chinese believe that reforms that are happening in the US now are what will happen in China soon.”

With translation by Lily Liu, Sumin Kim and Nicole Zhang

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