Life and Social Environment of Transgender People in China

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Life and Social Environment of Transgender People in China

Shia Xiong, a 54-year-old Chinese television host, referred to as China’s Ellen DeGeneres has strong views about what it means to be transgender and a woman in China. From the window of her office, which is adjacent to Yanhee International Hospital, Xiong recalls how she has hounded many Chinese male and female guests concerning social issues, such as marriage, parenthood and sexuality. Shia Xiong was one of the first known celebrities to undergo transition surgery before it became a household name. This was big news at the time, helping transform Xiong into a Chinese sociocultural icon. People praised Xiong for her progressive attributes, propelling her popular talk show to greater heights. However, a close look at her life highlights numerous incidence of subtle discrimination in major public and health institutions.

It is often the case that society and media fail to commit sufficient resources and attention to the plight of transgender persons. According to James (paragraph 1), a lack of sufficient representation on trans rights in China has barred society from understanding the problem is less political as it is more personal. We normally see that it takes quite some time for a marginalized community to benefit from social or public service if there is little to no political representation. While this might be true in most cases, Xiong reiterates that most of her negative experiences came from close friends and family, not the political system. For instance, she quotes, “All of my close relatives and friends teased me that China could never let a transgender host a television show.” Listening to her talk about her family experiences forces a person to be empathetic over the plight of transgender people in Chinese society; the pain and the isolation.

Not all is bad about being transgender in China. There have been a lot of positive transformations in the country since the onset of the millennium. For instance, Shia Xiong discusses how coming out as transgender propelled herself and the show to near mythic levels. The transition has made her own of the most known and controversial figures in China, especially in its pop culture. Xiong claims to feel supported, but as a celebrity, one has to ponder whether her fame makes her get treated differently from the average transgender person. In Xiong’s own words, “respect is something earned by yourself. You cannot ask society to give it to you.” Does the sentiment imply that each transgender person has an obligation to earn respect and individual rights from society instead of being entitled to them as human beings?

The lack of recognition as human beings is seen in how the Chinese healthcare system treats transgender persons. Xiong describes how as a child, her parents would constantly be worried about how much time she spent with girls as opposed to boys, having been born male. Xiong always knew something different about her, but it took some ageing to understand the problem. Since she became a teenager, the television host wanted to undergo gender-affirming surgery. However, Chinese law demands that a person be at least 20 years old to undergo the process (Dahlkemper et al. 10). The age requirement is not the sole impediment for transgender youth in the country.

Robert Sluth, a 49 British-Chinese plastic surgeon who works mainly with LGBTQ people in China, laments the slow progress of China’s LGBTQ statutes. With over fifteen years of experience in the field, Sluth has slowly followed China’s legal evolution on gender re-affirming surgery. Sluth believes China has come a long way but still has further to go. The statement mirrors Zhang’s statement, stating, “new rules might have loosened the requirements for gender affirmation surgery, but the age limit and the need to get parental approval remain the biggest hurdles” (paragraph 1). The discriminative law is based on the understanding that the Chinese generally refuse to accept transgenders on a micro-scale. Dahlkemper reports there are over 4 million transgender people in China but only 3% report having robust support systems (14). This was another finding showing the problem is social-based and that federal policies are doing little to address it. Xiong’s social environment outside the family is more supportive than inside it.

Despite all the positives seen in recent years, Sluth believes there are still things that transgender people should be worried about regarding the Chinese healthcare system. The professional worries that there is no legal definition of gender that separates transgender people from normal people to guarantee constitutional protection. The lack of clarification forms the basis for why there are no stronger legal protections for breaches of health privacy or insurance coverage for gender transition services. The government is focusing too much on conserving the traditional Chinese culture, failing to understand that society is a dynamic and living concept. Throughout human history, what worked for one generation did not necessarily work out for the other.

Xiong and Sluth are still prioritizing raising awareness about issues facing the broader LGBTQ community in China. The future looks good for them as a marginalized community, but the path to the destination is still quite scary. The race to dominate globalization, economically and politically, is opening China up to more westernized cultural values. The government might find itself unable to restrict people’s bodily freedom and autonomy, even if it employs social sentiment instead of policies and laws. Until such a time arrives, transgender people in China can only focus on creating positive, warm and supportive environments for themselves as they push for more legal recognition. Consent should be their own, and access to transition services should be free and readily available.

Works Cited

Dahlkemper, Julia, Benjamin Diaz, Feyi Lawanson and Jeffrey Messina. Transgender Healthcare in China: Final Report and Recommendations. Feiberg School of Medicine, 2019.

James, Greg. “Less Political, More Personal: The Many Struggles of China’s Transgender Population.” The China Project, 25 March 2022,, Accessed 11 August 2022.

Zhang, Phoebe. “LGBT Rights in China: Transgender Youth Seeking Gender Affirming Surgery find Family Approval Still Biggest Hurdle.” South China Morning Post, 24 June 2022,, Accessed 11 August 2022.

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