For transgenders, acceptance comes slowly

Yao Minji
Sex minorities in China are having some success in fighting discrimination in courts, but changing public attitudes is a tougher nut to crack.
Yao Minji
For transgenders, acceptance comes slowly

A transgender woman who identifies herself only by the surname Gao won a court case earlier this year against her employer over sick leave she took after a sex-change operation.

The decision stoked hopes that old taboos about gender identity in China are slowly being laid to rest.

Gao worked as a product director at the e-commerce platform Dangdang. Then a man, she underwent gender-change surgery in July 2018 to become a woman and was subsequently fired for taking two months off work to recuperate.

A court ruled that the dismissal was unwarranted. Dangdang appealed the decision.

While the matter was pending, the employer sent Gao a letter — addressed to Mr Gao. It basically said that if she returned to work, she would have to hire a bodyguard and probably couldn’t use either men’s or women’s restrooms.

Challenged in the appeals court about the contents of the letter, the company explained that it couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be retribution against Gao from “uneasy” co-workers.

“As soon as I learned about the letter, I knew I could make a strong case for workplace discrimination,” said Shi Chenyang, Gao’s attorney and a senior partner at MHP Law Firm. “It’s not often you have such solid evidence, not just for discrimination against gender minorities in the workplace, but also for all such cases.”

Shi offered Gao free legal help, telling her that the case could exert wide social influence and help many more people in the future.

“And it did, even beyond my expectations,” Shi told Shanghai Daily in an exclusive interview, referring to the appeals court decision handed down in January in favor of Gao.

“The words in this ruling, respecting rights of citizens and self-expression of minorities, deserve to, and will, go down in history,” she added. “It shows that all are equal before the law.”

For transgenders, acceptance comes slowly
For transgenders, acceptance comes slowly

Screenshots of the court ruling in Gao’s case against her employer over sick leave taken after her sex-change operation. In the ruling, the court’s comments called for greater public tolerance.

Hot topic

The court decision was a narrow ruling on the sick leave issue, stating that Gao did not violate company procedures for taking the time off. However, in accompanying comments, the court called on the public to be more inclusive about the more diverse elements of modern society.

The case recently became a hot topic on Chinese social media, eliciting nearly 400 million clicks on the Weibo platform alone. Discussion went beyond the LGBT community.

It’s not the first time a transgender person in China tackled discrimination in the courts, nor was it the first victory. But details of Gao’s case provided new insights into sex-change operations and how transgenders can have their genders changed on official identification cards.

Perhaps most surprising were the court’s comments urging greater public tolerance. Legal experts called them “heartwarming” and deemed the case a “landmark victory.”

“We are used to understanding the society based on our knowledge of biological gender, but there are those who express their gender identities through life experience,” the court ruling said. “Such persistent social expression requires our reexamination and a new understanding, which may take a very long time. But increasingly, more people choose to be more inclusive. And it is necessary for us to change our attitudes gradually.

“We respect and protect the personal dignity and lawful rights of transgender people based on our valuing the dignity and rights of citizens, and not based on advocating for changing sex,” the court concluded.

For transgender Selina Wang, the case is important and encouraging. Still, the road to acceptance is long and slow for people like her.

“It was a total surprise, not only the case itself, but also the court’s comments and especially the fact that so many netizens who didn’t necessarily know much about transgender posted that the company shouldn’t have fired Gao,” said Wang, who is in her early 30s.

“Some of my trans friends were in tears when we discussed this,” she added. “And many of my ‘straight’ friends also paid a lot of attention to the case.”

Wang worked for a high-profile company in her 20s. Despite occasional gossip among some co-workers, she recalled that the workplace was largely “LGBT-friendly” toward her and other sexual minorities in the company.

LGBT is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

“I was, actually still am, semi-out of the closet,” she said. “My family and closest friends knew about it, and I was honest with my direct boss, who got it approved by higher-ups when hiring me.”

Her former boss assured her of a friendly environment and told her about a loose internal LGBT group. She could tell co-workers probably guessed about her sex change but nobody ever asked her about it.

“But it got more complex when an important client confronted my boss about my sexual orientation,” Wang said. “My boss asked me whether it would be okay to share my secret with the client. I hesitated. My boss said to expect similar scenarios in the future.”

Scared and embarrassed, Wang resigned. She started her own company, implementing an openly LGBT-friendly policy. About one-third of her employees are sexual minorities.

She also stood in the shoes of her former boss a few times, when clients confronted her about employee sexual orientation.

“Of course, I have lost clients because of this,” Wang said. “Most of those who remain never asked but they knew there was something different about me or some of my colleagues. They probably didn’t care as long as we delivered the work as promised.”

She added, “I can see those around me a bit more open-minded over the years, mainly toward gays and lesbians. When the ‘pink economy’ became a hot topic in recent years, more companies, usually small like mine, started promoting their image as LGBT-friendly. But the ‘T’ is missing because there are fewer of us and even fewer who have openly come out of closet.”

The most famous transgender in China is dancer and TV hostess Jin Xing, who underwent sex-change surgery in the mid-1990s. Famed for both her dancing skills and sharp wit, she has appeared in many TV interviews and hosted a celebrity TV talk show bearing her name.

Most of China’s estimated 4 million transgender individuals are somewhat more invisible, despite increasing public tolerance toward sexual minorities.

A 2017 survey of about 2,000 transgender people revealed a nearly 12 percent unemployment rate, much higher than the national average.

Workplace discrimination is just one of many issues that transgenders face, according to Peng Yanzi, who heads the Guangzhou-based LGBT Rights Advocacy China.

Slow process

The organization, with a network of more than 100 sympathetic lawyers, provides legal assistance to the LGBT community and has helped with 12 legal cases since it was founded in 2013, including Peng’s own case in 2014.

“In my own experience and in the cases where we have provided assistance, the courts have usually been quite objective and some judges rather sympathetic,” he explained. “But there is still no specific anti-discrimination law for the community.”

It is indeed a slow process for acceptance into the mainstream.

“There still aren’t many precedent cases, and even fewer winning cases,” said Peng. “So there is lack of confidence in the community about challenging discrimination. When it comes to individuals, many may not have the financial means or the time. Then, too, many are still in the closet. Their identity may be protected in such cases, but they just don’t want to risk any chance of being exposed.”

Lawyers are finding creative ways to assist the cause, he added. In a recent case due to be heard in court next week, a publisher is being sued over mental health textbooks that categorize homosexuality as a mental illness.

Peng said particular problems arise from parents who refuse to accept their children’s different sexuality. He cited two recent calls for help from transgender teenagers who were forcefully sent by parents to mental hospitals to have their “illness” cured.

Peng said such cries for help are not uncommon. His group has contacted local women’s federations asking them to intervene on grounds of domestic abuse. “But understanding and acceptance from families are still the most important,” he said.

Many social organizations also recognize the importance of families. More than 200 people have already signed up for conference of friends and parents of transgenders to be held on August 8 in Shanghai.

It is the first such event hosted by Trans Talks, which is affiliated with the Shanghai branch of PFLAG China (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of China). It is considered one of the largest LGBT groups in the country, spanning more than 70 cities.

“Family is very important for Chinese, so in China, understanding and acceptance from family are particularly important for those in the community,” said head of the Shanghai branch identified only as Duan.

“We are sexual minorities,” Duan said. “While there is still a lot of work to do for homosexuals, not enough attention or resources are being given to transgenders — a minority in the minority. In recent years, there is an increasing number of transgender nonprofit groups and also LGBT groups like ours, which now have more resources to support ‘T.’”

At the August meeting, a supportive parent will travel from Guangzhou in southern China to talk to the group because no parents in the Yangtze River Delta region volunteered to stand up and share their experiences, according to Duan.

“It was the same dilemma for gays and lesbians more than 10 years ago, but now I could summon a dozen supportive parents for them in the city at any moment,” Duan added. “It will also change for transgenders.”

Reporter’s thoughts

When Duan told me he could find few supportive parents of transgender individuals in nearby areas and had to invite one from Guangzhou for their first meeting, I decided to include some of my own behind-the-scenes thoughts on the transgender story and past stories of China’s LGBT community.

As an observer and interviewer for more than 10 years, I can see the long miles the community has come and the miles further ahead.

Duan is in charge of the Shanghai branch of PFLAG China (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of China). They have recently further extended resources to transgender individuals, and are holding their first sharing meeting in Shanghai on August 8.

His words remind me of Wu Youjian, co-founder of the organization and the most famous “gay mom” — a mom who supports her son’s homosexuality — in China. She said almost the exact words in our first interview 10 years ago.

She was invited to town because she was famous, and also because there weren’t many such parents in nearby areas. Duan told me now he could find a dozen “gay moms” and “gay dads” at any time in Shanghai to share their experiences. Hopefully it could take less than 10 years for that to happen for transgender individuals.

The same scenario is true for my interviews. I can find quite a few homosexual interviewees for stories, but few bisexual or transgender ones. For this story, two transgender interviewees changed their minds at last minute, and would not even agree to talk on condition of anonymity. I understand their concerns about privacy. One is struggling about whether to come out to family, and the other is having a tough time convincing his parents to accept his new gender.

Lawyer Shi Chenyang, representing Gao in the appeals court for her firing case, received many inquiries on Zhihu, a Chinese question-and-answer platform, from netizens curious about the case.

Two among the most frequently asked questions were: 1) Isn’t the gender reassignment surgery just like plastic surgery, so why is it okay for a long sick leave? 2) Aren’t transgender people just like pedophiles?

“It shows lack of understanding from many people,” she told me. “They simply don’t know much about transgender individuals.”

It seems to contradict with the generally supportive comments when the case became a hot topic on Weibo, but I think the questions on Zhihu and comments on Weibo together paint a realistic picture of the social acceptance — the younger generation is more supportive of private matters staying private and against discrimination but it doesn’t mean they completely understand or support transgender issues.

I want to end with a quote from the interviewee still struggling about whether to come out to family: “It’s a lot better now than before that I can even think about coming out to parents, but not good enough that I’m still thinking about it.”

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