Court hears China's first transgender employment rights case

Time Out Beijing talks to 'Mr C', China's new poster boy for trans rights

A Guizhou court has ruled on the first transgender employment rights case ever to make it to arbitration in China. Jack Smith talks to ‘Mr C’, whose dispute with a former employer has made him the unlikely poster boy for trans rights in China.

On April 11, a representative from Ciming Checkup, a leading healthcare business, arrived late to the Guiyang Court of Arbitration in Guizhou province. She was there, she told the panel, to defend her employer’s decision to terminate the contract of plaintiff ‘Mr C,’ who had been fired from the company’s marketing department in 2015 for ‘refusing to conform to company standards of dress and wear a designated uniform.’

One month later to the day, Guiyang’s Yunyan District labour arbitration panel ruled that Mr C’s termination had not been unlawful. Nonetheless, even this outcome could have profound significance for Chinese employment law. This is because the plaintiff, Mr C, identifies as male, and has alleged he was fired because he refused to dress in more feminine attire at work, being told: ‘You look like a lesbian.’

The court denied Mr C’s request for 2,000 RMB in compensation and a formal apology. Mr C had also requested a pledge from Ciming Checkup to support the hiring of LGBTI staff, but Ciming’s representative gave a pugnacious response to this suggestion. ‘We’ve done nothing wrong, why should we issue such a pledge?’ A second hearing on April 29 continued to concentrate on the legality of Mr C’s dismissal, largely sidestepping any discussion of trans rights.

Media interest, however, zeroed in on the potential implications for the legal status of transgender Chinese citizens. Ciming’s attempts to deflect attention from gender discrimination, in Mr C’s words, has ‘humiliated’ the company. Despite the ‘disappointing’ verdict, which he plans to appeal, Mr C continues to publicise his case via social media, as well as his more personal battle to have his gender identity formally recognised by authorities.

At present, only transgender individuals in China who have surgically transitioned have the right to change their legal gender, a regulation preventing those who cannot afford surgery and hormone therapy – or who do not wish to undergo either – from having their true gender recognised by law. So long as trans individuals have their birth gender indelibly printed on their ID cards and passports, Mr C argues, finding work, housing and living a normal life is a constant battle.

‘I’m a straight identified trans man,’ Mr C tells Time Out, adding that many Chinese people confuse sexuality and gender identity, meaning he constantly has to explain what such terms mean. ‘Going for a job interview is scary – there’s a constant fear of rejection – so when I was hired [by Ciming Checkup] I was so happy. All I wanted was to do a good job.’

In training, Mr C says he built good relations with trainees and staff, even taking the time to ‘teach them a thing or two about gender identity’. One week into his new job, however, Mr C was summarily fired, in his words, ‘at the behest of a single person.’

queer 2

He was devastated. ‘I became very pessimistic. I couldn’t find another job – every time I started looking, I’d be reminded of how I was treated, and would lose my nerve.’ After participating in a legal training course with a firm of lawyers, however, Mr C found widespread support for his case. Eventually, he met with lawyer Huang Sha, who has gone on to represent him at multiple hearings.

Given the groundbreaking nature of Mr C’s case, therefore, why did the court of arbitration overwhelmingly focus on the manner, not the reason, for his dismissal? Recordings he made of alleged slurs made against him by HR personnel were ruled ‘inadmissible,’ with the court ultimately refusing to acknowledge that Mr C was a victim of discrimination. Those involved in the case believe the court simply wished to avoid having to even broach the topic of transgender rights.

‘China’s employee protection regulations are very vague,’ says Huang Sha. ‘There are simply no special stipulations about transgender rights protection. I accepted Mr C’s case because his claims [of wrongful dismissal] did have a basis in law.’

‘I’m optimistic that things will get better for trans people in China,’ he adds. ‘But I don’t foresee any big changes in the next decade.’

Mr C is still optimistic. ‘I’ve done my best,’ he says. ‘At the very least I’ve got society to acknowledge that I exist, and made the public more aware of how hard it is for people like me to find work. I’ve spread awareness and led more people to research transgender issues.’

‘I can’t bring myself to hate Ciming Checkup,’ he continues. ‘My working life was derailed by just one person – their marketing team were nothing but good to me. Although I was the first trans person my colleagues had met, nobody had a bad reaction to me, or suggested I change my appearance. Everyone was shocked.’

‘When I first came out, every reaction to my case was abusive. Whenever a new social group appears, people get scared, they reject it. But, over time, as visibility in the media improves, more progressive views emerge. I know that one day people will be able to respect the minorities around them.’

Follow Mr C on WeChat at ‘liuliu- CC’. Check for updates on his appeal campaign.

  • 4 out of 5 stars