IN MANY WAYS, Gao Moumou was lucky. She had a good job as a product director in Beijing for Dangdang, an e-commerce firm, which allowed her to save enough money for her gender-reassignment surgery. Her office gave her time off to recover, but on September 6th, 2018, less than three months after her surgery, Dangdang fired Ms Gao, citing her “continuous absenteeism”. Ms Gao thinks the real reason was transphobia. In January this year a court in Beijing surprised many by agreeing with her. It ordered Dangdang to reinstate Ms Gao’s contract and pay her overdue wages. The news circulated online in July, and generated 380m views on Weibo, a microblog. Ms Gao is the first transgender person to win a job-discrimination case in China.
Gay and transgender people are not protected from discrimination in Chinese employment law, but sex discrimination is illegal. People who have legally changed their gender can bring a claim on that basis. The burden of evidence is high. Ms Gao had a “smoking-gun” proof of discrimination, says Darius Longarino of Yale Law School. Dangdang referred to her as “Mr” in a termination letter and called her “mentally ill”. The company said that other colleagues were uncomfortable working with her. But because she had legally changed her gender to female, Dangdang was obliged to treat her the same as other female colleagues, the court said.
It was not just the verdict that was surprising. The court also called for “tolerance” and said society must “respect and protect the personality, dignity and legitimate rights of transgender people”. An online poll of 330,000 people found that 81% viewed the court’s decision positively. But that is “not what most people in China think”, says Alex, who works for an LGBT organisation in Beijing. Chinese society is conservative when it comes to gender roles. Homosexuality was officially classified as a mental illness until 2001, and “transsexualism” still is.
Though there are still few legal protections, being gay is now much more accepted in Chinese cities. But being trans is still difficult, not least because of the many requirements for changing your legal gender, one of which is undergoing full reassignment surgery. That can cost 100,000 yuan ($14,200). A person must also notify—and effectively seek permission from—their family, as well as be over the age of 20, unmarried, and heterosexual according to their self-identified gender. A recent survey found that only 15% of people who said they were transgender had undergone reassignment surgery, the most common obstacle being cost.
Official media rarely discuss transgender issues, though they did report on a recent blogpost by J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. The blog was criticised by many trans activists (and applauded by many feminists) in the West. It was good for transgender people in China, says Alex, the LGBT worker. “No matter if it’s positive or negative, it helps us to be seen.”■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Evolving rights”