Transgender people talk about changing sex and life in China

Source:Global Times Published: 2016/7/3 18:23:00

Transgender people in China seek understanding and recognition from society. Photo: CFP

June was LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Pride month when people around the world demonstrated, celebrated and appealed for more acceptance and tolerance.

While lesbians and gays have become broadly accepted as numerous celebrities have "come out of the closet", there are still many LGBT minorities that are less understood. Transgender or transsexual people, for example, though exemplified by the famous dancer and TV star Jin Xing, are not so much in the public eye in China.

Male to female (MtF) engineer Minda Chen is the director of Trans-Life, a non-profit education and service organization founded in January 2015 in Beijing by 16 transgender people. The organization provides assistance and support for transgender people.

Changing cards

"We teach transgender people how to accept themselves, promote knowledge of the trans community in society and provide services and support for transsexuals to facilitate their reintegration into society after sex reassignment surgery," Chen said. "For example, we help them change gender markers or sometimes names on ID cards and give them vocational training." 

She said most of the organization's founders had themselves had difficulties changing their gender on their ID cards in China.

"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. The hospital said it could be illegal and that there were no Ministry of Health regulations that allowed them to issue a statement like that. Neither the police nor the hospital wanted to accept the responsibility and I had no idea what I could do," Chen said.

 Trans-Life teaches transsexual people how to communicate as well as providing some essential information and other skills to persuade authorities to help them with these processes.

Trans-Life also runs a WeChat account and according to the account supervisor (who prefers to remained anonymous), there are inquiries every day from transgender clients. "Not all transgender people need to change the gender stated on their ID cards after sex reassignment surgery, because for some, their former gender identity fitted their social needs, and the surgery was a personal expression," the supervisor said. "But so far in the Chinese mainland, if a transgender person wants to change the gender on their ID, he or she has to undergo the surgery first and then get the proof from the hospital. In some Western countries, Canada, Norway and Ireland, for example, there is no need for the proof of surgery to have the change noted."

There are other difficulties for transgender people. "For example, how can you prove your actual identity when you are job hunting and the gender listed on your graduation diploma is the old one? How do you handle your family and colleagues after gender reassignment? These are the sort of problems that people face and we hope that by providing support and guidance, we can help improve their quality of life," Chen said.

Trans-Life also invites volunteer human resources staff willing to support the trans community, to conduct test job interviews with transgender people to help them find and overcome possible problems when they are job hunting.

Not miserable

Chen found her female identity when she was in high school and underwent surgery two years ago. She said that of all the common misconceptions people had for her, the most ridiculous one was that all transgender people were miserable. "I have been interviewed by several journalists and they all assumed that I suffered a lot because of my gender identity and they all asked me how I coped," Chen told the Global Times.

"But I didn't suffer a lot. When I asked my boss for leave telling him I was going to have the surgery, he gave me permission immediately. And my colleagues were all supportive. They asked me to tell them how I was feeling afterwards," Chen smiled. "I told them that my balls didn't hurt anymore!"

Another advantage for her is that she does not menstruate - she can go swimming any time she wants to.

"It's not that I changed my gender from male to female because I was attracted to men but rather I felt I was female. It's about self-identity. Many transgender people are actually straight," Chen said.

Judy Chu, an MtF transgender from Fujian Province, is more tolerant about misconceptions. "No single group can ask everyone to  completely understand. Like while I myself know little about the gay community, it must be true the other way around."

Not an illness

But there is a misconception that does annoy Chu. "I can't bear those people who think transgender people have some sort of treatable mental disorder. Like last year on a CCTV show, a psychiatrist claimed to have treated a transgender with hypnotherapy and 'cured' him - that's absurd," she said.

Chu said it was true that some transgender people needed psychiatrist help but this treatment was not about changing their gender identity. "Any other misunderstandings of our community will gradually vanish with time. But trying to change gender identity that way might be fatal for some," Chu said.

In 2001, the third edition of the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders (CCMD-3) removed homosexuality and bisexuality from its mental disorders category, which was a great victory for sexual minorities. However, although more countries no longer include transgender as a mental disorder, there is little progress at present in China toward removing transgender as a mental disorder. In contrast, the fifth edition of the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders updated in 2013 points out that "gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder" and replaces the diagnostic name "gender identity disorder" with "gender dysphoria."

"The upcoming 11th edition of the WHO International Classification of Diseases has also removed gender incongruence from the mental health section. In China, although most clinicians looking after transgender people would follow international practice, the actual law hasn't yet been updated," Chu told the Global Times.

The murder project

Each year on March 31, the International Transgender Day of Visibility, Transgender Europe updates data for the Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) project. This project records the killings of trans and gender diverse people in 65 countries. Between January 1, 2008 and December 31, 2015, there were more than 2,000 killings including 179 deaths in Asia. According to the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy, some 45 percent of transgender people aged between 18 and 44 have considered suicide.

The trans community is a small part of gender-diverse groups, which also include intersex (people born with both female and male reproductive organs) and gender queers (people who regard themselves as neither the biological gender nor the opposite, including bigender, trigender, pangender, and agender). All of them are vulnerable minorities who can suffer discrimination.

Professor Ke Qianting from Zhongshan University has been researching sexual diversity since 2008. Over the years she talked with 30 transgender people in Guangdong Province and found diversity even in the transgender community.

"While some of them just cross-dress or wear makeup to express their gender identity, some undergo surgery to reassign the gender. And another group of people learn to get on with their bodies and appearances and try to accept their assigned gender." Ke said only a small number of transgender people underwent sex reassignment surgery. In the people she spoke to, only one fifth had had surgery, and none undertook the complete set of operations. "Some just had breasts, some changed appearance and some changed reproduction organs," Ke said.

Chu said that as the concept of transgender became more general, many more people who didn't want gender reassignment surgery were included in the group. "That's why in today's trans community, only a small proportion have had surgery," she said. "It's difficult to say exactly how many transgender people there are in China or around the world, because 'transgender' is a very broad concept. And on the other hand, being a transgender or not is subjective."

More open

Professor Ke said in the past, many of her transgender subjects were very nervous talking to her and many hid their true sexual identities. "But nowadays, more people are open and ready to let others know about them.

"For one thing, society is more inclusive and tolerant about sexual diversity; for another, sexual minorities have stronger self-identity in today's environment where every individual has their own living space."

Ke thinks sexual diversity should be more understood and accepted in a developed society. "We live in a diversified world where every single thing is varied. This is true with sexual identity or orientation. It is because of diversity that the world is so beautiful. Sexual diversity is not a threat to morality," Ke said. "Instead, everyone has the right to pursue the way he or she wants to live. Acceptance of sexual diversity is a symbol of true freedom."

For Chu, how transgender people look at themselves is more important. "When you really accept and respect yourself as a transgender and have a strong inner world, you can better handle yourself in a negative social environment," she said. "And this is the same for all LGBT communities. How can someone ask for society's understanding if he or she thinks an LGBT identity is an embarrassment? This is also why there are many LGBT organizations promoting community self-identity these days."

This article was written by Gu Qianwen
Newspaper headline: Battling misconceptions

Posted in: Metro Shanghai, City Panorama

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