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Wuhan Restroom Murder Sparks Debate Over Transgender Rights In China

China has no specific laws on transgender groups, and even the word "transgender" does not appear in any legal provisions. But the real-life issues of public bathrooms is forcing Chinese to confront the issue, especially after the murder in the city of Wuhan of a trans woman earlier this month.

Photo of a gender-inclusive bathroom sign on a red door

Gender inclusive bathroom sign

The Initium

On March 9, the news of the murder quickly began to circulate on Chinese social media Weibo: A transgender woman had reportedly been killed in a men’s public bathroom in a Wuhan shopping mall, in central China. After debate escalated, the trending topic banner on Weibo was quickly removed — and further discussion, banned.

The user who first posted the report claimed to have been contacted by the police, and was told that the suspect of the crime was being pursued, but no official report on the murder has thus far been released.

Many transgender bloggers and civil rights activists have spoken out on social media platforms, calling attention to the "bathroom issue" of transgender people in China, which has sparked heated discussions on social media platforms. While some voiced their support for transgender people's bathroom "freedom", many others expressed hate and fear.

A decade of quiet concern

So-called restroom issues have been a concern for the transgender population around the world for years. A 2013 survey of the city of Washington D.C. by the Williams Institute of UCLA found that 18% of respondents said they had been kicked out of public bathrooms at some point. The issue exploded in the U.S. in 2016 amid debate in North Carolina about a new law on transgender access to rest rooms.

Every time non-binary people use a public restroom, they risk abuse.

In China, a 2017 Report on China’s transgender community, jointly released by Peking University and the Beijing LGBTQ Center, revealed that 71.8% of respondents felt uncomfortable in public bathrooms, and as many as 19% of transgender women were afraid to go or did not want to go to public restrooms.

Public facilities based on gender binary concepts bring endless conflicts and confusion to the transgender population in China. Seemingly every time non-binary people use a public restroom, they risk abuse, with fears of discrimination, verbal humiliation, and even physical assault.

The 2017 Report shows that 27% of transgender respondents reported experiencing varying degrees of discrimination or violence in public spaces.

China's social-legal environment for non-binary population

In China's legal system, there is no specific law on transgender groups, and even the word "transgender" does not appear in any legal provisions. The first sex reassignment surgery in China occurred in 1983, while regulations related to gender reassignment were first raised in 2009.

Some transgender individuals have undergone hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and gender reassignment surgery (SRS), resulting in a greater discrepancy between their secondary sexual characteristics and their biological sex. In addition, transgender individuals in mainland China are required to present proof of SRS and have their household registration information notarized.

According to the Gender Reassignment Technical Management Guidelines (2017 Edition), the target of the surgery must be at least 20 years old, and meet the requirements of "gender reassignment for at least five years without repeated procedures," and "psychological treatment for at least one year before the surgery with no effect."

Under such circumstances, choosing toilets based on physical characteristics remains an issue for the transgender population in China. If the appearance (including voice) does not meet the norm of gender identity, one risks being exposed to discrimination. Also, some women think that the use of public toilets by transgender people is an infringement on "women's protected space."

As for choosing toilets based on gender identity, this is the best way to protect transgender rights. In reality, however, this practice can easily lead to embarrassment for transgender people, and may even get them into trouble for "violating public decency."

Photo of people flying rainbow flag at the 2021 Hong Kong Pride Parade

At the 2021 Hong Kong Pride Parade


Gender-neutral restrooms

In 2020, an online debate about transgender toilets began in China. A transgender blogger (a biological male who identifies as female) publicly stated online that she would go to the women's bathroom if she was wearing women's clothes. That sparked reaction from women who said they didn't want to share a bathroom with someone who has not undergone gender reassignment surgery and still retains their male physiology. To them, it is an infringement on women's space and could lead to some men dressing up as women and assaulting women in the women's bathroom.

Gender-neutral, or gender-friendly, restrooms are considered by many to be the best solution to the issue of transgender facilities. Gender-neutral toilets are usually individual rooms with a focus on privacy and no restrictions on biological sex, which can also be used by the elderly or children who need assistance from family members of the opposite sex due to mobility problems can also use them.

Top-tier cities of Beijing and Shanghai have gender-friendly toilets.

But there is no shortage of opposition for this proposal. Some argue that gender-free toilets require significant resources for maintenance, and that the transgender community will always be a minority. There are also more extreme opponents who believe that gender-free toilets may encourage a different gender temperament, thus increasing homosexuality or transgenderism later in life.

Many public toilets in Sweden are now gender-friendly instead of male and female; nearly half of the toilets in New Zealand are gender-friendly; and some high schools in the U.S. have also set up gender-friendly toilets. In mainland China, the top-tier cities of Beijing and Shanghai also have gender-friendly toilets.

More than 4 million trans

Supporting public facilities needs to be supported by laws, institutions, and social consensus, and it will take a long time to reduce or eliminate discrimination and rejection of transgender groups by the majority of society. It is estimated that there are more than four million transgender people in mainland China, but most of society has not yet formed a comprehensive understanding of them.

In recent discussions, information about this brutal murder in Wuhan has spread in the form of pictures and eyewitness recollections, thus making the discussion about how transgender people choose their restrooms more acute and relevant to the issue of survival.

Behind the discussion, we can also see transgender people fighting for their rights. In September 2021, an accidental death in a Chinese university involved a transgender student. At first, the student who fell was referred to as "female," even according to the information the media received from the police — but in the final report, the gender of the deceased became "male." Proper recognition of the LGBTQ community in China still has a long way to go.

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