A transgender man who claims he was fired for wearing men’s clothing to work will get his day in court, a first-of-its kind hearing that could be landmark for China's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement.
The litigant, who asked to be identified as “Mr. C” to protect the privacy of his family and girlfriend, alleges that he was fired last year days into a new job at a branch of Ciming Checkup, a health services firm, after the staff there said he looked "like a lesbian" and might damage the company's reputation.
Mr. C was outraged, but not sure what to do. After meeting a lawyer at an LGBT legal workshop, he decided to take action. "At first I was worried about being insulted by the public," he said. "But I made the decision to stand up, because somebody needs to speak up for this group."
On March 7, Mr. C and his attorney, Huang Sha, filed a case to the local labor arbitration committee asking for a week's salary plus one month's salary worth of additional compensation. They are also asking for a written apology, Huang said.
Reached by phone, several people at Ciming Checkup declined to comment on the case. A person identified as the company's public relations chief told Guizhou Evening News, a local newspaper, that men and women should dress differently. "C‘s dress didn’t meet our standard," the company said, according to the report.
LGBT activists think this is the first time a Chinese court has heard a case that centers on transgender issues. In 2014, a Chinese man filed a case that alleged he was fired a week after being "outed" online; the court did not find in his favor, citing a lack of evidence.
Mr. C's case comes at a complex juncture — a time when China’s civil rights lawyers are being harassed and jailed in large numbers, but the LGBT movement is making gains using the law.
Chinese law does not account for the possibility of discrimination based on gender or sexual identity. But over the past few years, lawyers and advocates have found creative ways to get cases tried in administrative or commercial courts, generating a considerable amount of coverage in the Chinese media.
That has led to small but important victories on an expanding range of issues, including:
In 2014, a Chinese court ordered a clinic to compensate a man who underwent electroshock therapy designed to “convert” homosexuals.
The suit was positioned as a commercial case. Although the award itself was relatively small — about $550 — the case helped debunk the notion that homosexuality can or should try to be cured.
Censorship of LGBT content
In September 2015, Fan Popo, a well-known Chinese filmmaker, filed suit against China’s powerful censorship organ, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), demanding information about why his film, "Mama Rainbow," was pulled from the Web.
Fan’s case turned on disclosure rules, not gay rights. But by taking on one of China’s most powerful government bodies, he was able to call national and international attention to the practice of blocking LGBT-themed content from Chinese television shows and films.
Homophobia in textbooks
In November 2015, a Chinese university student challenged the Ministry of Education over homophobic content in textbooks, including references to homosexuality as a “disorder,” and tracts that ignore the possibility of same-sex love.
The complaint resulted in a courtroom sit-down with Chinese officials. While the meeting was underway, activists gathered outside the court to share their views with local and foreign journalists, raising awareness for the cause.
In January, a Chinese court scheduled a hearing for the country’s first same-sex marriage case. The case challenged a local civil affairs bureau to justify why two men could not register to marry.
The case was postponed, but not before it generated a wave of (mostly positive) coverage in the Chinese media. The hearing is now set for Wednesday.
Mr. C’s hearing could put trans rights on the agenda in much the same way. The case alone will not resolve the challenges facing China’s LGBT community, but by getting a court date — and getting people talking — it sends a message powerful message: Things can change.
Liu Liu and Xu Jing in Beijing contributed to this report.