In China, the culturally conservative Communist Party has scrubbed mentions of Winnie the Pooh on social media and banned celebrity gossip, yet the notoriously repressive regime has been fairly progressive on an unexpected issue: transgender rights.
Just 20 years ago, the Chinese government classified homosexuality as a crime, and until 2001, considered it a mental illness. But in a major shift the Chinese trans community has scored a string of victories in recent years.
In July, a Chinese court ruled in favor of a trans man arguing that he was unjustly fired from his job because of his gender identity. The landmark ruling, believed to be the first of its kind, established protections for China’s LGBT community on the basis that workers cannot be discriminated against for their ethnicity, race, gender, or religious belief.
Culturally, trans women have captured the nation’s attention. China’s most watched variety show is hosted by Jin Xing, a trans woman. Her eponymously named show regularly draws an estimated 100 million viewers each week.
Perhaps more significant is that she is the first trans person to have their gender identity recognized by the government. A former army colonel and a famed dancer, she underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1995 and has openly shared her struggles, bringing greater public awareness to trans issues.
Other trans women have catapulted to fame, including opera star Bian Yujie, model Liu Shihan, and singer Chen Lili, the first trans woman to attempt to compete in the Miss World beauty pageant.
On the surface it would seem like there is a growing cultural and official acceptance of China’s trans community, but upon deeper analysis not everything is as positive as it seems.
A recent opinion survey revealed that a large portion of the Chinese population do not fully understand transgender issues and harbor negative sentiments. Forty-three percent of those surveyed in China believe that being trans is a form of mental illness, and 42 percent do not support bathroom access.
The case of Liu Ting, a trans woman who captured the nation’s attention two years ago, is helpful in understanding the cognitive dissonance in pop culture acceptance and privately held beliefs.
In 2007, Liu Ting was hailed as a “national role model of virtue.” She was given an award after famously carrying her ailing mother on her back to and from the hospital. Liu became the subject of intense interest once again two years ago when she came out as a trans woman.
State-run media praised her for her “fair-skinned” and “high-nosed” look – attractive qualities in China. The Beijing Times wrote, in an article on Liu, that “the reporter scanned the room and couldn’t find a trace of masculinity,” and noted the number of skin care products in her bathroom.
Gender as Performance
As the media coverage of Liu indicates, praise and acceptance for China’s trans community seems largely reserved for glamorous trans women as it plays into the idea of gender as a performance. Culturally, China has a long history of cross-dressing performers.
In Peking Opera, female characters were played by male actors, who had been specially trained from a young age specifically for these roles. In the Ming Dynasty and the early Qing Dynasty, artists and acting troupes regularly explored the fluidity of gender on and off stage.
Popular early Chinese stories featured cross-dressing or characters that lived as a different gender. Before it was popularized by Disney, Mulan was a 6th century Chinese story of a girl who dresses like a male soldier to spare her ailing father and young siblings from military conscription.
Professor Josephine Ho, the head of the Center for the Study of Sexualities at the National Central University in Taiwan, explained, “[Cross dressing] was deemed as performance, a casual, momentary breaching of the gender boundary. It wasn’t until the modern era when the sexes began to mingle in public, that gender divisions became more strictly upheld.”
This historical context helps explain why virtually all of the trans women that have become pop culture figures in China are dancers or performers and conform to a specific sense of female beauty. But for transgender individuals outside of the performing arts, life is considerably more difficult.
For instance, changing your gender on government issued IDs is a convoluted bureaucratic process that leaves many in legal limbo.
“The police said I needed a statement from a hospital proving my sex reassignment before they could change my ID. But when I went to a hospital, because I had had the operation abroad no one was willing to sign a statement,” said Minnie Chen, the director of Trans-Life, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
“Neither the police nor the hospital wanted to accept the responsibility and I had no idea what I could do,” she added.
Those who are able to successfully update their ID cards face a different obstacle. Education and employment records no longer match an individual’s gender so their job applications are often rejected by employers as past qualifications cannot be verified. As a result, many trans individuals are forced to find jobs in gray areas outside of the official economy.
Medical care has also proven to be a challenge. In 2009, the Chinese government tightened regulations on gender reassignment surgery. Individuals cannot have a criminal record, must be over 20 years old and unmarried, and they must have the consent of their immediate family.
For many, the last requirement is prohibitive. According to a 2016 UN study, only 15 percent of China’s LGBT population has come out to their families and a mere 5 percent were open at their school or workplace.
In addition, access to hormone therapy has been limited due to discrimination and a lack of knowledge.
“Transgender people have very limited channels to seek medical help in China. It’s hard for us to access medical resources. Communication between doctors and transgender people is totally lacking and most doctors have no clinical knowledge about trans issues,” said Pipi, the co-founder of Trans-Life.
As a result, many go abroad to seek gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy, or resort to purchasing hormones online and self-dosing, a risky practice.
While the popularity of trans women performers like Jin Xing has helped raise awareness, it has also created a blanket narrative of what it means to be trans.
By one estimate there are over 4 million transgender individuals in China, but only 2.2 percent of the population reports having trans friends or family. As a result, understanding of trans issues is largely shaped by Jin Xing, who is married to a man and the mother of three adopted children.
“Because Jin Xing is so famous in China, many people think all trans women will be exactly like her,” said Su Jingquan, who identifies as a lesbian trans woman.
Su has struggled to find acceptance and understanding. Even those who recognize her gender identity expect her to date men. She came out to her parents and tried to explain that her gender was female and that her attraction to women was her sexual orientation.
“Of course they didn’t understand,” Su said. “In their eyes, I’m just a normal man dating a woman.”
From the workplace to healthcare to legal rights, China’s trans community still faces significant discrimination. While there have been important legal victories and a greater awareness, in many ways, perceptions of transgender individuals are still stuck in the Ming Dynasty. By that measure, China’s transgender community still has a long fight ahead.
Eugene K. Chow writes on foreign policy and military affairs. He has been published in The Week, Huffington Post, and The Diplomat.