Chinese Trans Activism On and Offline

October 2, 2017


Chinese trans activism has now been on the rise for the past few years. For people in China whose gender identity is different from that which they were assigned at birth, official recognition is often an uphill battle. China allows gender affirming surgeries and change of gender markers on the Chinese ID card (shenfen zheng) upon the completion of those surgeries. However, this is problematic as not all trans people choose to or can afford to undergo those surgeries. There are also no specific legal protections for trans people in place, leaving trans folks in somewhat of a limbo between borderline legal recognition and invisibility.


While some organisations in the larger LGB and feminist movements have taken steps to pay more attention to gender in their work, only recently have we seen trans activists taking an active lead in starting microblogs, appearing on TV and feminist theatre stages, founding trans-focused community service and advocacy organisations, taking employers to court to fight for own employment rights, and being vocal about the violence that trans people, especially trans youth, face. Social media, in particular WeChat and Weibo, have played a major role in promoting this work. Unfortunately, trans activists, together with other queer activists, are now being increasingly limited by the state’s tightening up on control of queer content in online spaces.


Some of the most pressing issues for the trans communities across China include access to healthcare and gender affirming surgeries, access to education and employment, lack of legal protections, violence, and social stigmatisation. In the recent case of Mr C, existing laws were used to advocate for employment protections for trans people. Most other trans activism is currently focused on building public awareness around gender diversity. Vagina Says, which is a Chinese interpretation of Vagina Monologues, has included trans topics and incorporated trans people into the play-making process. The All Gender Toilet campaign was initiated by a non-binary activist and Beijing Gender Health Education Institute after she was stopped by a security officer and sworn at in a supermarket in Beijing. The campaign has created gender-neutral bathrooms in Beijing and other cities, and the city of Shanghai has followed the initiative by building new public unisex bathrooms.


Trans activists still struggle to take part in trans activism geared towards tackling larger global goals, such as depathologisation of trans identities and better access to health care, specifically HIV treatment, employment equality advocacy, trans persons murder monitoring, and other important initiatives. While LGB activists have built hundreds of offline communities across the country, the number of trans groups could be counted on your fingers.


Additionally, the new media regulations banning “homosexual” content from online broadcasting and censoring other areas of Chinese cyberspace also affect trans people as the concepts of gender and sexual orientation diversity are often loosely interpreted to be the same. The change is that these regulations add a level of complexity to the work that trans communities do, which is largely online. The exact scope of these laws does still remain vague, as it is often the case in China. However, this means that trans activism, which has just taken its first baby steps and relies heavily on social media, is now facing increased pressure and uncertainty.


As WeChat and Weibo tighten control over LGBT content as a part of the broader online content control, deletion of articles on trans-related issues is simply another challenge for trans activists working within China today. To some extent, many trans activists rely on crowdfunding campaigns to keep their groups running. As a result of expanding media control, the number of public trans events have decreased and access to financial support has become increasingly complicated. While navigating the do’s and the don’ts of the media landscape and offline events is a skill that most of the activists have acquired over time, financing the activities of these groups and providing full-time employment for activists is now extremely uncertain. Online fundraising is now legally only accessible to registered charities, social organisations, and civil society groups. While the recent laws also affect non-trans LGB activists, the impact that they have on trans activists is magnified since online activism is one of the few sources of trans-inclusive employment.


More broadly, media censorship affects trans representation on mainstream media where most cis people learn about trans issues. Popular media tends to sensationalise reporting on trans stories, such as the story of Ling Xue, dehumanising and objectifying the bodies of trans people. Jin Xing, a popular TV show host who happens to be a woman of trans experience and is infamous for her sexist and biological essentialist remarks, is one of the few openly trans people who is still allowed to have a public voice. Social media remains the main outlet for trans-led discussion yet this is under attack with the increasing control of WeChat and Weibo.


Just as trans activism was beginning to rise, it happened to hit a fierce wave of censorship. Recent changes in media regulations are already affecting trans groups and organisations in China, chipping away at the presence of online communities as well as offline organising. Above all, there is a feeling of precarity as trans groups struggle to register officially. This raises questions (without definite answers) of how activists can keep up their work, what happens if they do, and what alternative outlets for trans content are to be found.

Ausma Bernotaitė is a Lithuanian-born queer activist working internationally. They are the CEO of Q-Humanity – an organisation that facilitates the breaking down of barriers for embracing a diverse society through education, research and innovation. Image credit: JSTV.


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