In an old theatre between soaring tower blocks in China’s southwestern city of Chengdu, a choir of transgender singers are on stage belting out the empowering lyrics of Jolin Tsai’s anthem Me. “My reflection in the mirror, is a stranger’s face, which one is the real me, which one is the fake?” the group sing in unison. The members of the Trans Chorus aren’t professional singers and come from across China but they share similar stories of their struggle with identities in a country where being transgender is still classed as a ‘mental illness’.
As the music fades out Fang Yuran, wearing a purple headband, silver suit jacket and pink top, takes a bow, smiles, and begins relaying personal experiences of growing up as a transgender in Hefei city, eastern Anhui province. Members of the audience are moved to tears. “In the last two years, Hefei has developed really well, but people’s attitudes and mindsets still need to catch up with the times,” Fang says. Fang, who was born a girl but now chooses to go by the non-gender specific pronoun ‘ze’, grew up wearing dresses and putting on make-up. But in 2015, Fang began to identify as trans and started taking testosterone tablets daily. It can be hard for many transgender people in China to access hormone drug therapy and many buy drugs through the black market.
Advocates say social attitudes in China, where no official numbers of transgender people exist, are improving in a country that decriminalised homosexuality in 1997. But many trans people still face prevalent discrimination and deep-rooted stigma. While homosexuality was removed from China’s list of mental disorders in 2001, transgender still falls within its purview. A 2017 survey by the Beijing LGBT Centre found that 61 percent of respondents had suffered some level of depression while 46 percent considered suicide due to being transgender.
The choir was singing at the Milk LGBT Gala in Chengdu, a city known for being more open about LGBT issues than other places in China, where attitudes are still very conservative. The name is inspired by the first openly gay US politician Harvey Milk. Apart from Trans Chorus, the festival featured a play about transgenderism and performances by men dancing in dresses, helping to raise the profile of trans lifestyles.