From the Shadows: China's Growing Tolerance of Transgender Rights

The mostly positive reaction to a story about an American transgender couple reveals an profound shift in the country's attitude toward a once-maligned community.
When it comes to transgender rights, Chinese citizens seem to be getting more progressive.(Bobby Yip/Reuters)

In the last few weeks of July, the story of a young transgender couple who transitioned together, which had previously gone viral in the Western media, trended on Sina Weibo, China's popular microblogging platform. Although some Chinese people were puzzled by the story, many praised the couple for their bravery and the quality of their relationship.

American teenagers Katie Hill and Arin Andrews met at a transgender support group and began dating shortly thereafter. Katie was born male but identifies as female, while Arin was born female but identifies as male. Both knew they were born in the wrong bodies and were able to support and understand each other.

Chinese reactions to the story on Weibo were generally positive. Wrote queer news organization @淡蓝同志新闻: "Everyone has the right to love. Be yourself! Good luck! Others can learn from your experience as a #genderswapcouple"

User @_杨振_echoed this encouragement, noting that reaction to the story online has been generally positive:

#Genderswapcouple 19-year-old Katie had gender reassignment surgery over a year ago and became a women. 17-year-old Arin had his breasts removed last month to become a male. They are a couple! They "exchanged genders" through surgery and their families supported their love. Their sweet and happy photographs have gotten wild praise from online users calling them "a wonderful couple." It appears there are no ill feelings at all! True love is really unrelated to gender!#

Another user, @东南快报 added: "From childhood, they have been discriminated against because of their gender orientations. After the two met, they knew how to love each other. Together they wipe away the haze of the past to great a new life."

Some people were confused by the story but still responded positively. Wrote @Vv_莫小堇, "#Genderswapcouple I'm also bewildered ... looks like true harmony.#"

In China, gender reassignment is still a taboo topic, and gender reassignment surgery can be prohibitively expensive and restricted. A 2010 report from the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission on China describes the level of discrimination faced by transgender Chinese citizens:

Transgendered people face serious levels of police harassment in China. The transgendered community also faces particular difficulties in obtaining employment. The Chinese authorities are currently consulting on new rules on gender realignment surgery. In certain aspects these rules fail to meet international standards on individual autonomy and privacy.

The government implemented guidelines in 2009 for restricting gender reassignment surgery. According to the new guidelines, a person must apply with the police to change the gender on their official registration before undergoing gender reassignment surgery. A person must also live openly as the gender with which they identity for a number of years before the surgery. They cannot have a criminal record, must be over the age of twenty and unmarried, and must have gone through a considerable amount of therapy. The candidate also must tell their immediate family about their plans for surgery.

Jill Levine

Jill studied Chinese and Asian Studies at Vassar College and has lived in Beijing and Qingdao.

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