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China’s first transgender employment discrimination case heads to court

In much of China, being gay or transgender is still considered taboo, for social and political reasons.

In much of China, being gay or transgender is still considered taboo, for social and political reasons.

(How Hwee Young / European Pressphoto Agency)

China’s first-ever transgender employment discrimination case came before an arbitration panel on Monday amid a grassroots push by activists to challenge widespread prejudice through the country’s courts.

Last April, the litigant — a 28-year-old surnamed Chen, a transgender man — was fired one week into a job at a health services firm in Guiyang, the capital of southwestern China’s Guizhou province, for wearing men’s clothes on the job. The firm, Ciming Checkup, did not give Chen any compensation or prior notice.

Chen filed the case to Guiyang’s Yunyan District labor arbitration panel on March 7, seeking compensation and a written apology. “Chen’s appearance really did not fit our standards,” a manager at the company told the Guiyang Evening News soon afterward.

The hearing began on Monday morning and ended at 1:30 p.m., Chen wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog. He wrote that the defendant’s only “evidence” proved that he had not disclosed his gender on his job application form.

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“What we sued over is the reason I was fired, not the reason I was hired, so the [evidence] is irrelevant,” he wrote. “The defendant said I was incapable of doing my job well, but they don’t have evidence. The defendant said I stayed away from work without a good reason, but no evidence. They said I only worked four days a week, but no evidence. We will definitely win the case!”

“We’ll see the [ruling] at the end of the April,” he continued. “In order to advance anti-discrimination employment law, this case won’t be over [till we get] a written apology!”

In much of China, being gay or transgender is still considered taboo, for social and political reasons. Chinese authorities do not recognize same-sex marriages, and decades of draconian family planning policies have shaped a culture in which parents put extraordinary pressure on their children to have children of their own.

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Chen’s case comes amid a broader effort by activists to use litigation to challenge prejudices against alternative sexual orientations and gender identities — one that has gained surprising traction, given the country’s tightly circumscribed space for activism and free speech.

The cases have received a fair amount of coverage in China’s state-run media, much of it sympathetic, suggesting that authorities have so far tolerated the trend. Monday’s case made local TV news; others have made national newspapers.

On Wednesday, a court in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province in central China, will hear the country’s first gay marriage case. The plaintiffs, Sun Wenlin and Hu Mingliang, sued the local government for refusing to issue them a marriage certificate. (China’s marriage laws do not specifically forbid same-sex marriage).

“I hope they will allow gay marriage [starting] the day after tomorrow,“ Sun said in a phone interview.

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In November, a lesbian activist sued China’s education ministry for describing homosexuality as a psychological disorder, although the Chinese Psychiatric Assn. stopped classifying it as such in 2001.

In 2014, a gay man successfully sued a clinic for offering “gay-straight conversion therapy,” on the grounds of false advertising; in September, a gay rights activist and filmmaker filed a lawsuit against China’s media watchdog for censoring one of his films. A Beijing court accepted the case.

“China is a big country that could send ripples to other Asian countries,” Sun said. “I hope China can take a leap forward regarding gay marriage rights.”

Yingzhi Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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