China's trans population: in numbers

We crunch the numbers from a survey of China's trans population

In a ceremony at the Embassy of the Netherlands in late November, representatives of the Beijing LGBT Center and trans activists from across China joined a scrum of reporters and policy wonks to pick apart the findings of the first-ever comprehensive survey of the country’s trans population.

Over 2,000 people from all age groups and most regions submitted completed surveys, and while far from covering even a significant percentage of trans people living in China, the survey has, for the first time, produced data from which we can see that many of the challenges faced by trans people the world over are equally prevalent in China, but social and political realities here add an extra layer of pressure to sexual minorities. So what did we learn?

Gender identity is established early in life

More than 30 percent of respondents realised their gender identity before the age of 12, with more than 70 percent having established this before the age of 17.

Chinese families are more accepting than you might think... but those that aren’t make life rough on their trans children

While an alarming 38 percent of respondents described 'total rejection' from their families, more than 50 percent stated that one or more close family members ‘partially’ or completely accepted their gender identity. However, 60 percent felt they were not supported by their families, with a combination of verbal abuse, economic sanctions, neglect and even physical beatings used to restrict the freedom of trans children.

The kids aren’t all right

More than 70 percent of trans women, a similar proportion of genderqueer individuals and 65 percent of trans men had experienced physical violence in school. Described levels of tolerance increased the higher the level of education, with college and graduate school being the most accepting environments. Online bullying, gossip, physical intimidation and public humiliation were all reported as major problems on school and college campuses.

Educated urban dwellers are far more likely to identify as trans

Remember, the survey focused on gender identity, a concept which, along with gender fluidity, is far less widely understood in China than in the West. Consequently, while it’s more than likely the trans population is distributed across all regions and populations, the vast majority of respondents were concentrated in the most highly-developed urban centres, with more than 54 percent holding a bachelor’s degree or postgradutate qualification.

Most trans Chinese would like to have sex reassignment surgery, but few can access it

More than 50 percent of respondents and close to 80 percent of trans women wished to access SRS, yet 72 percent were constrained by economic factors, and 65 percent by family opposition. Moreover, onerous bureaucratic requirements – agreement from one’s school or work unit, compulsory screenings to establish the patient is heterosexual and one year of mandatory psychiatric counselling are a further barrier.

Self-harm is endemic

More than 44 percent of respondents had considered self- mutilation (with 21 percent actually self-harming), and more than 46 percent had considered suicide (with more than 12 percent attempting it). As there was an opt-out for this question, actual rates are believed to be higher. Generally, the survey’s outlook for trans mental health was bleak, with over 60 percent of respondents at some degree of risk of depression. In line with reported rates of domestic violence, public humiliation and general sense of feeling unwelcome in society, trans women were by far the most vulnerable group, and were more than twice as likely than any other to attempt suicide.

Things don’t get better with age

The older the respondent, the more likely they were to have experienced domestic abuse or physical violence as a result of their gender identity, peaking around age 40. Those over 50 were the most likely to have been forced to have sex with another person. Nearly 80 percent of married respondents stated they did so due to social pressure.

Being trans has nothing to do with sexual preference

A common misconception that impairs popular understanding of the differences between gay and trans rights. 26 percent of those surveyed identified as straight, 25 percent as gay, with the rest of the respondents identifying as either pan- or asexual or 'undecided'.

Not all jobs are created equal

NGO work was favoured as being the most accepting of trans individuals, while more than 30 percent of respondents felt that government agencies, the army and the Communist Party were unfriendly to trans people. More than 40 percent of respondents concealed their gender identity in the workplace. Even securing a job can be challenging – more than 11 percent of respondents were unemployed, far higher than China’s official rate of 3.97 percent, and rates of self-employment among those surveyed were significantly higher than in the general population.

While the 2017 Chinese Transgender Population General Survey Report makes for pretty bleak reading, as was articulated at the press conference in November, the key factor in determining the health and wellbeing of trans and genderqueer people is social acceptance.

The uneasy feeling in public spaces reported by so many respondents in many ways is a by-product of social aversion to acknowledging or discussing gender identity, whether publicly or in private. As has been observed in similar surveys of LGBT acceptance in China and around the world, a lack of understanding feeds popular prejudice, turning trans and genderqueer individuals into figures of fun, pity or even disgust.

Support from friends and family was identified as the single most important factor determining a positive mental outlook, something highlighted again and again by the activists involved in compiling this report. If support can build at home, the policies that constrain the freedoms of trans and genderqueer people in the workplace and the wider society might begin to shift.
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