Earlier this year, in the southwestern province of Guizhou, a transgender man who goes by the name Mr. C. successfully sued his former employer—a healthcare center—for discriminatory dismissal after a human resources manager said that he dressed like a gay man and looked too unhealthy to be working there. This was a huge win for the country’s LGBTQ community, especially considering homosexuality was classed as a mental disorder until as recently as 2001.
The tide may be turning, in part, thanks to an increase in transgender people in the public eye, like chat show host, Jin Xing, who has been dubbed “the Oprah of China”, and is somewhat of a national treasure.
A professional ballet dancer who performed in the Chinese army’s entertainment troop prior to her sexual-reassignment surgery, Jin Xing rose to fame as an outspoken judge on the Chinese version of the show “So You Think You Can Dance?” Her current venture—an eponymous chat show—draws an adoring and dedicated audience of 100 million.
Despite this progress China is still a conservative country. Some speculate that Jin Xing’s popularity is partly due to her patriotism and conventional family life—a German husband and three adoptive kids—as well as China’s long history of cross-dressing stage performers. It’s perhaps telling that China’s other well-known trans people—including model Liu Shihan, and singer and Miss World contestant Chen Lili—are all glamorous women.
A recent survey gauging public support for transgender rights across 23 countries discovered 42 percent of Chinese respondents don’t support bathroom access, and 43 percent believe transgender people have a mental illness. On the transgender rights scale created by the researchers from UCLA School of Law, China scored 52—more progressive than Russia (41), South Korea (48) and Poland (49), but lagging behind the USA (61), UK (67) and Spain, which at 74 had the highest score of the countries surveyed.
In short, trans rights in China are a work in progress. Promising legal victories and the advocacy of high profile people like Jin Xing are pushing China in the right direction, but for the 400,000 Chinese citizens who identify as transgender, the road to equal rights is still a long one.