Chao Xiaomi: 'We have the right to use the bathroom'

We hear from Chao Xiaomi about how bigotry triggered progress for Beijing's non-binary community

For most Beijing residents, the worst that can come of a toilet trip in the city is having to endure the unholy stench of a badly splattered public bathroom. But Chao Xiaomi, who runs a vintage clothes shop in Gulou, recently had a loo experience far worse than even a 3am trip to the public squatters opposite School Live Bar on Wudaoying Hutong.


Chao is biologically male, dresses in women’s clothes, wears make-up and describes himself as feeling ‘gender fluid – sometimes about 60 percent female, sometimes 60 percent male’.


Last October, when shopping in a mall in Xidan, cleaners told him to use the men’s toilets instead of the women’s. However, he says that as soon as he emerged from the men’s he was dragged to an office by security guards who questioned him about acting like a ‘pervert’ in the bathroom.


Security guards laughed at him before ejecting him from the mall via a discreet side door, out of view of customers. ‘One of them swore at me and asked if I was nuts,’ says Chao. ‘I told them they could check for bugs or video cameras or call the police if they thought I’d broken rules. They just laughed again. Finally one of them said, “Get out of here and never come back”.’


With no laws that specifically protect people from discrimination due to sexuality or gender identification, Chao, who is in his 30s, initially felt helpless. But after he decided to go public about his experience, a chain of events was set off that would help shine a country-wide spotlight on transgender issues.


He wrote about his mall encounter on Weibo then was invited to talk about it on the TV show Qipashuo, inducing tears from the presenter. He then made contact with Beijing Gender, a charity that promotes gender education.


Staff at Beijing Gender were so taken with Chao’s bravery in talking about his ordeal that in May they instigated a campaign to place ‘all gender toilet’ signs on café and bar bathroom doors across the capital. Around 30 venues have signed up to the scheme so far, displaying the sign that features a ‘half dress’ figure as well as the traditional male and female logos.


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Aided by both social and traditional media, the response has been startling. The coverage sparked debate about problems for transgender people in China, a group that many believe are often forced to live ‘invisible’ lives.


There are an estimated 400,000 transgender people – people who identify as being a gender they were not born as – in the country. Many of them face huge obstacles in terms of societal views of gender, plus day-to-day logistics such as using public bathrooms without being questioned.


‘Transgender people are still invisible in China,’ says Xin Ying, executive director of the Beijing LGBT Center, a charity that offers advice and services to the city’s LGBT community. ‘Even within LGBT circles trans people suffer discrimination. This campaign can help them be visible.’


Yang Gang, manager at Beijing Gender, agrees. ‘There are lots of discussions in the media about homosexuality, but people in China still don’t understand the diversity of gender and sexuality,’ he says.


Employment is a common problem for Chinese transgender people. As well as facing workplace discrimination, their identification cards depict them as a different gender than the one they appear as. This can make bureaucratic issues with human resources departments troublesome. It even forces some into the perilous illegal sex trade.


Day-to-day abuse from members of the public can be common, too. Chao, speaking over coffee in Gulou’s Café Zarah, one of the venues bearing the ‘all gender toilet’ signs, can recall many instances of being verbally insulted in the street.


‘Once a woman in a hutong, holding a fan in her hand, looked at me with contempt and said, “How dare you walk in the street in daytime?”,’ he says. ‘Comments like that aren’t unusual.’ It’s doubly hard to hear, considering how quiet and non-confrontational Chao is. His personality is far from those of the stereotypically tubthumping social justice warriors who tend to dominate social media.


Chao says that it is usually older members of the public who insult him. Indeed, a 2016 United Nations Development Programme study found that young Chinese are significantly more likely to be more accepting of homosexual and transgender people than members of older generations. It concluded that, ‘It is clear that generational change represents the greatest opportunity for social emancipation of sexual and gender minorities in China.’


But still, with sex education absent or inadequate in many of the country’s schools, it’s left to the media to educate the public about transgender issues.


Recent reports on transgender figures such as Qian Jinfan, a former Government worker who was born a man and lives as a woman, helped achieve a small uplift in awareness. Jin Xing, China’s most famous transgender person, used to serve in the People’s Liberation Army and became a famous ballerina after transitioning from a man to a woman.


Then last May the case of Mr C, a 28-year-old transgender person living as a man who had been born female, made headlines after suing his employer for unfair dismissal. The employer was accused of sacking Mr C for not wearing feminine clothes and allegedly said: ‘You look like a lesbian’. Mr C lost the case, thought to be China’s first transgender rights court case.


Despite these spikes in attention it is thought that in China, a country where only a tiny percentage of homosexuals come out, most transgender people also live what Chao calls a ‘secret life’.


The attention that both Mr C’s case and the ‘all gender toilet’ campaign have received, however, has provided glimmers of optimism about a slow shift towards more public acceptance. State media outlet Xinhua covered the campaign positively, ensuring that it would have got on the radars of older Chinese who may have more traditional views, as well as the social media-loving young urban generation.


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‘Before, some media said that transgender people were “weird”,’ says Xin from the Beijing LGBT Center. ‘But now the media has helped us spread news about the diverseness of the community.’


‘We feel that now is the time,’ says Gang from Beijing Gender. ‘In the past two years transgender issues have been raised. We’re not planning to change things overnight, but this campaign has provoked people to think and ask questions.’


It has also provoked plenty of online spite, underlining the notion that there is a long way to go before truly progressive attitudes towards transgender people are seen in the Chinese mainstream.


Chao says that he got death threats after writing about his mall experience on social media. ‘Some post-’60s parents wrote that transgender people should be killed and burned in a pot like the Nazis killed Jewish people, so their grandchildren’s mental health wouldn’t be affected,’ he says.


Hopefully attitudes such as these will largely die out with those who hold them. Chao believes that small but significant efforts such as the toilet sign campaign will continue to help this generational shift in education and tolerance.


‘This bathroom thing can be the first step to fight for our rights,’ he says. ‘We probably won’t ever have the right to vote, get married or have kids... but at least we have the right to use the bathroom.’

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