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Hu Qinglin, a Chinese transgender man whose identity lead to discrimination both in his personal and professional lives.Aya Sharaby/The Globe and Mail

When transgender friends escaping domestic violence or poverty brought on by job discrimination kept showing up her door two years ago, a trans woman in the ancient Chinese capital of Nanjing decided to turn her apartment into a shelter.

The urban sanctuary – whose precise location is kept secret for the safety of its residents – is only big enough for four people, and it functions more as an emergency measure, but it is part of a growing network of formal and informal supports for transgender people in China.

For its estimated 100,000 to four million trans people, life in China has traditionally been difficult. Workplace practices are often discriminatory, policies around identity documents are inflexible, and many trans people live in fear of physical and sexual violence. But while numerous obstacles remain, advocates say, conditions have slowly begun to improve.

In July 2017, for example, in what is believed to be the country’s first transgender discrimination lawsuit, a Chinese court ruled in favour of a transgender man suing a company that fired him eight days into a new job because of his identity.

Meanwhile, in August, 2018, the Beijing LGBT Centre created a national transgender hotline for suicide to prevention and urgent help – the first of its kind in the country, where suicide rates among trans people were ignored or not discussed. The transgender department at the non-profit was established a year earlier and provides other services, including legal aid in work discrimination cases, weekly support groups, psychological counselling and a directory of the limited number of doctors who provide proper care.

And while most in China’s medical community see themselves as trying to cure an “illness," the country’s only multidisciplinary gender-affirming care clinic offering counselling, hormone drugs and other treatments opened at Peking University Third Hospital in September, 2018.

As those organizations are stepping up to offer aid and resources, LGBTQ community members are also banding together to support one another. The number of queer clubs in the country are increasing and they serve as spaces where there is less fear and discrimination, an escape for when “you need to talk to someone,” said Chinese drag queen Kung Pao Chick. “We see more and more transgender people coming [to drag shows].” Amid the gender fluidity of such settings, she says, transgender people have come forward to talk to her, expressing their happiness and sense of safety.

Many of these developments are happening against a backdrop of improved media coverage of trans issues. It has “changed tremendously,” said He Tao, a program specialist in the transgender department of the Beijing LGBT Center, who is also trans. In the past, media outlets often exclusively talked about transgender people who were sex workers, which resulted in the public negatively associating the community with the profession. But positive portrayals have become more common, with one of the first appearing in Renwu magazine in 2016, she said.

However, there is still a long way to go, and frustration is growing in the community over the pace of change.

"There is always a big gap between the ideal life [transgender people] have in mind and the reality of this country,” said the owner of the Nanjing shelter, whose identity The Globe is not revealing for her safety and the safety of those who seek refuge at her apartment.

A 2017 survey conducted by the Beijing LGBT Center, Peking University, and the United Nations Development Programme found that 46.2 per cent of trans respondents reported considering suicide as a result of the challenges they faced, including a lack of acceptance from their families.

“Mom thought I joined a cult, or that I have mental abnormalities,” said Hu Qinglin, a transgender man, of the time he came out to his parents, who raised him as girl. It is not uncommon for parents to force their children to go to “conversion therapy,” a practice that attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

The struggle for equal and fair treatment is also unfolding in the workplace. Last year, Mr. Hu, who is 29, started a new job as a copy editor and requested that he be addressed as a man. Yet his colleagues addressed him as a woman against his will. When he expressed his frustration on WeChat, the Chinese social-media platform, one of his bosses read his post and fired him.

In a similar scenario, a transgender man, whose ID listed him as female, was fired for being “too masculine,” as Beijing LGBT Center’s He Tao put it. In China, gender markers can only be officially adjusted when a person has undergone gender-affirming surgery. “It’s not that the person claims to be male or female,” she said.

And even those who have undergone the procedure face problems when they attempt to change their identification documents at their local police station. Officers, especially in remote communities, have in general not been trained in this section of the law, He Tao said, explaining that it becomes the transgender person’s responsibility to get police familiar with the rules. In another case, He Fu, a transgender woman, went to her university’s local police station to update her documents, the officers were confused by her request. She says she had to call Beijing’s police bureau and ask the staff there to explain the process to the university officers.

He Fu considers herself fortunate that she got the ID changed before graduation. The diploma issued by the government’s department of education lists gender in accordance with the ID at the time of graduation and is “impossible” to change, said the Beijing LGBT Center’s He Tao.

Doctors also have catching up to do, according to He Tao. She says doctors are uninformed, others fear bearing responsibility, and others still are exploitative. Physicians, especially in smaller cities, sometimes tell patients that they have a mental illness. Many of those He Tao has encountered or helped said the “treatments” doctors offer often involve counselling to “cure” the “illness," prescriptions for antidepressants or placebos. Others use traditional Chinese medicine.

Many of them also refuse to provide hormone drugs, He Tao said, because they want to stay clear of responsibility or because they believe these drugs are only needed “during menopause.” He Fu said she bought black market hormone drugs online, and started taking them without doctor supervision. In the past, people would resort to vets, consuming hormone drugs meant for animals, He Tao said.

These informal barriers, coupled with a policy that requires transgender people to be over the age of 20 and provide consent from their immediate families before undergoing gender-affirmation surgery, have left many people feeling like they have no choice but to risk their lives and perform surgery on themselves, confirms an Amnesty International statement released on May 10. At one point during puberty, He Tao’s anxiety reached such a zenith she almost used a knife to cut off her male genitalia.

The two-gender binary norms, deeply rooted in Chinese society, make things even harder for transgender people. He Fu says part of the reason her parents rejected her trans identity is because she was always interested in technology, a field they perceived to be for men. And, now that they have accepted her, they expect her to marry a man – even though she is bisexual.

“The biggest problem is rooted in people’s mind,” the shelter owner remarked. She believes more change will come if trans issues were to become part of the education system.

“People should understand that transgender people are also a group that comprises this society with others, there’s nothing strange [about them],” she said.

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