Mon, Jun 25, 2018 - Page 8 News List

China’s transgenders ‘step forward’ from the shadows

Long pressured to deny their identities, Chinese transgenders are quietly asserting themselves, with advocacy groups forming and doctors reporting increasing gender-reassignment surgeries

By Kelly Wang and Dan Martin  /  AFP, Shanghai

A drag queen on June 9 performs with dancers onstage at the ShanghaiPRIDE opening party in Shanghai.

Photo: AFP

Lan spent years trapped between two identities: the male gender assigned to her at birth and the woman she was inside — a living “torture” in a China not yet ready to fully embrace transgenders.

The Shanghai native, who asked that her full name be withheld, misled friends and family with a macho facade but eventually, depressed by her identity crisis, underwent gender-reassignment surgery in 2015.

“I was always between those two voices,” said Lan, 31, looking prim in a blue blouse and shoulder-length auburn hair.

“I was lonely, helpless and in despair. Now I’m living my dream.”

Long pressured to deny their identities, Chinese transgenders are quietly asserting themselves, with advocacy groups forming and doctors reporting increasing gender-reassignment surgeries.

Surgeon Zhao Yede performed 20 to 30 operations annually two decades ago. He now does around 200 per year, crediting a burgeoning online trans community with bringing people forward.

“What’s clear is [patients] are getting younger. We used to see people at 26, 27, or 30. Now we see more and more 20-year-olds,” he told AFP.

Transgenderism’s place in China has long been something of a paradox.

Ancient depictions of cross-dressing abound, and men typically played female roles onstage. Today, a few transgenders have become minor celebrities, and the lack of strident religiosity in Chinese culture minimizes overt persecution.


But Chinese transgenders say they remain deeply misunderstood, subject to abuse from relatives and routine discrimination.

China’s trans population is unknown, but estimates say up to 0.6 percent of Americans identify as trans. That percentage in China would equal more than eight million people.

A survey by the non-profit Beijing LGBT Center last year found nearly 62 percent of Chinese transgenders suffer depression, nearly half contemplated suicide and 13 percent attempted it.

A UNDP report last year said that among China’s LGBTs “trans people face the highest levels of discrimination, especially within the family, schools and workplaces.”

Chinese society prizes male heirs and continuing the family line, and transgenders, particularly vulnerable youths, often suffer physical and emotional abuse at home, said Zhuo Huichen, a transgender woman.

Authorities typically dismiss such abuse as family squabbling, taking no action, said Zhuo, who co-founded the Guangzhou-based Trans Center in 2016, one of China’s first trans-led NGOs.

“Some cases we see are horrible. Parents may even want to kill their children,” said Zhuo, 25.

Even Zhuo, wearing make-up and with her long hair flowing from a cat-eared cap that says “beautiful” on it, hasn’t told her parents she is transitioning to female. The center is seeing increasing numbers of transgenders seeking help, and steady reports of suicides.

“Many are minors. It’s a serious problem,” she said.

Post-surgery, Chinese trans can change their gender on government IDs but face major obstacles revising diplomas and academic records, often resulting in denial of jobs or further schooling.

Trans unemployment is three times the average, the Beijing LGBT Center’s survey said. Marginalized, some may drift into sex work.

A transgender man known as “Mr C,” who was assigned female at birth but has transitioned, was fired by a health-care company in southwestern China in 2015 over his gender identity.

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