Crossing the gender divide

Crossing the gender divide
Li Yinhe, China's first female sex sociologist and one of Yinhe's best-known books, The Subculture of Homosexuality.

Transsexuality has long been a taboo subject in China, and openly transgender people have been subjected to widespread discrimination. However, attitudes have started to change, as Yang Wanli reports.

When Li Yinhe, China's first female sex sociologist, unveiled her female-to-male transsexual partner of 17 years on her blog on Thursday, the post attracted public attention to transgender people, a group that has been largely unknown and unacknowledged.

As the widow of Wang Xiaobo, an outspoken novelist and essayist who died in 1997, the 62-year-old is a well-known figure, and the nationwide discussion prompted by her declaration provided many people with an introduction to concepts such as gender identity, sexual orientation and transgender issues.

"Transgender" is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity, expression or behaviour doesn't conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Many of them seek to change their gender by hormone therapy or electing for sex-reassignment surgery.

Li caused a stir by referring to her partner - a Beijing taxi driver known only as "Swordsman", the pseudonym he uses on the popular social networking platform WeChat - as "he" because despite being physiologically female, he is psychologically male. As long-term partners, the couple adopted an abandoned boy with severe learning difficulties from a State-run children's home in 2000.

In her blog Li emphasised that she is not a lesbian, but added she simply wanted to clarify her sexual orientation and stressed that she isn't prejudiced against homosexuals, a term frequently and inaccurately used to describe her on social media.

For Chen Min, Li's post was a welcome and encouraging move. "People used to call the transgender group 'perverts'. It's time for them to learn more about us, and for greater public awareness of sexuality and gender issues," said the 26-year-old, who underwent surgery earlier this year to have her male sexual organs removed and replaced with a vagina constructed from the excess tissue.

Chen became aware of her true sexual identity in 2006, the year she graduated from high school. "I should be a woman, but I was born with the wrong body. I prefer women's clothing and the female mentality," she said, adding that she has spent the last six years attempting to underscore her feminity by growing her hair well below her shoulders and dressing as a woman.

Whenever Chen read about people who had successfully changed their gender, her admiration for their fortitude and honesty strengthened her resolve to become the person she really wanted to be. She took estrogen and other hormone therapies for several years before deciding to have the surgery.

"Discrimination against people like me is always present, along with public and family pressures, but, compared with the happiness and satisfaction of being who I really want to be, those things are insignificant," she said.

Greater public acceptance

The number of Chinese officially classified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or LGBT, remains unclear because there are no definitive recent statistics. In 2006, the National Health and Family Planning Commission estimated that there were 5 million to 10 million homosexuals in the Chinese mainland, aged between 15 and 65. However, having conducted her own research for more than a decade, Li estimates that the real figure is between 36 and 48 million.

A survey conducted by the US Public Religion Research Institute in 2011 showed that 11 per cent of US respondents said they had transgender friends or family members, but the number of transgender people in China, which has a population of 1.3 billion, is not known.

"We've seen greater public acceptance of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals in the past three to five years, but there is still a lack of knowledge about transgender people," Geng Le, director of Danlan, a website for gay people, said.

"Li has opened a door for those with a lack of knowledge, and has given courage to transgender people, who are under more pressure than the other three groups because of the visible collision between their physical appearance, their dress, and their general behaviour. Some inadvertently bring more pressure on themselves by opting for medical intervention to change their gender," he said.

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