Today we are headed to China to cover one of the most inspiring transgender activists of our time. An individual who is defying gender binaries in a country that has done very little in the way of LGB rights, and even less for trans and gender non-conforming folks. Despite this, activist and business owner Chao (Chow) Xiaomi (Shou-me) is not one to be deterred. Though she identifies as gender fluid, she uses feminine pronouns and has a feminine expression. And though she has lived openly for the last 15 years, it is only recently that her work has drawn any attention. To understand Chao’s (Chow) predicament, we must understand the climate between China and its LBGTQ citizens.

Much like the rest of the world, China has a long history of homosexuality and gender fluidity. The earliest same-sex relationships in the country were documented as far back as the Shang Dynasty which ran between the 16th and 11th centuries (BCE). Meaning, long before white Christians were even around to ordain it a sin and spread lies of perversion. For 3,000 years, documents and records show countless stories of same-sex love and affection.

By the Liu Song Dynasty of the first century A.D., it was reported that homosexuality was as frequent as heterosexuality. And when the 12th century rolled around and white Europeans began to turn on their own homosexuals and gender non-conforming folks, the Ming Dynasty embraced and showed appreciation of queer love.

However, Western influence would soon catch up and under the Quing Dynasty rule of the 16 and 1700s, social constructs of marriage and gender became more prominent. In 1740 the first anti-homosexuality law was passed forbidding the act of sodomy. The punishment required a month in prison and 100 blows from a bamboo rod. With the rise of the Peoples Republic of China and the controversial Mao Zedong (Tse Tung), LGBTQ became a dirty stigma that brought shame to families and communities.

In 1997 homosexuality was decriminalized and in 2001 it was removed as a mental disorder (compare this to America which had removed homosexuality as a mental disorder nearly 30 years prior). However, to this day, the queer stigma still remains across the majority of China.

A 2016 United Nations survey revealed the staggering cultural weight placed upon LGBTQ Chinese individuals. We don’t have the statistics on how many LGBTQ people there are in the country. Though it has been speculated that there are around 4 million trans and GNC people. And if statistics run as they usually do with trans/non-binary people making up the smallest percentages, then we can safely guess at least another 10 million people are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. And that’s using incredibly conservative estimates. What the 2016 survey revealed was the incredible pressure put of LGBTQ Chinese to remain closeted. Only 5.5% of respondents said they were fully open, 14% said they were open to their close friends and family, and 74.9% said they were not out of the closet at all. [3]

Furthermore, more than 84% of gay and lesbian people said they were in an opposite-sex marriage due to the large cultural pressure to marry. 13% said they were in beard marriages (meaning both parties were gay and married for convenience).[3] 2.6% of the respondents had been able to get married to their partner in an overseas wedding as China does not allow same-sex unions.[3] The most recent poll among the Chinese population as a whole, in 2013 ,showed that 57% believed homosexuality should not be accepted by society. However, it should be noted that statistic had dropped significantly since 2007, when 69% of Chinese opposed homosexual expression.[3]

The cultural oppression and extreme limitations of rights could attribute to the increase in Asian immigration in the United States. Today, Asian and Pacific Islander people are the fastest growing population in the U.S. And 15% of undocummented LGBTQ folks are Asian or Pacific Islander.[6] Though this does not give us Chinese specific statistics, it does show how Asian cultural hostility to queer progress affects Asian LGBTQ+ all around the world.

And yet, many brave Asian queer folks face down the hate and misconceptions of their own communities. Such as China’s Chao (Chow) Xiaomi (Shou-me) who daily endures taunts, rejection, and open abuse. It’s a life she has lived since she was a young child. At an early age Chao realized she didn’t fit in with the other boys. But living in her true gender expression was not an option. Her parents signed her up for football and basketball and she went along with the macho facade because she had no other choice.

In China, parents and family elders hold a much tighter authority than they do in the Western world. One American businessman [7] who has spent the majority of his career in China, noted that the One-child policy of the 1970s may play a role. Because China attempts to limit families to one offspring per couple, one child is raised by two parents and four grandparents. The pressure on the child to fulfill their prescribed role is enormous.

And it was due to this pressure that Chao was forced to study IT when she was sent off to University. Though she had no desire or interest in the subject, she earned her degree and took a job at an electronics component company. But she was unhappy and unwilling to live her life in the closet. So three years after landing her job, Chao quit and moved to Beijing when she was 25 years old. It was the first time in her life she felt free enough to be herself. She began to wear feminine clothing in public and use her true gender expression.

Chao says that“[Somedays I’m] about 60% female and sometimes 60% male”. One wonders if she may feel more free to use less binary expressions were she in a more free environment. However, Chao is happy today to live openly as a woman who identifies as gender fluid, should anyone ask. But few do ask. Most avoid Chao or call her a chinese slur meaning “evil spirit”. She often feels alone and misunderstood. “I tried therapy for a while, but the therapist could not understand me,” she says. “It was a complete waste of money.” [4]

Daily Chao hear’s comments from friends, family, and people in the streets. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” many ask. Good friends have encouraged Chao to go back to so-called ‘living as a man’. Some simply ask “Why are you not happy that you were born a man?”. But Chao remains firm in her identity. Even in 2015 when she was harassed by a cleaning lady as she tried to use the women’s restroom in a local mall. The other woman called Chao a ‘pervert’ and told her to get out.

Chao went to the men’s room instead but when she exited she was greeted by two security guards. The men dragged Chao to an office and interrogated her about her ‘perversion’. She remained calm and asserted that she had done nothing wrong. Finally the two guards escorted her to a side door and threw her out of the building warning her to never return.

Yet Chao is resilient. She defied the standards of her culture and the desires of her family and instead started a vintage dress shop in downtown Beijing which she named Equal. The beautiful attire allows Chao to encourage other LGBTQ people to express themselves. She hires queer staff and donates a portion of her proceeds to the Beijing’s LGBT Centre. Chao also has the opportunity to design many of her own pieces. “You need to pour a lot of emotion into each vintage dress you design,” she says.[1] And for many transgender and non-binary Chinese, their clothing expression is the only way they can live in their gender identity.

Access to surgeries and hormones are limited. Individuals must be 20 years of age before they can start hormones, and must jump through extensive hoops to undergo any sex affirming surgery. And like many states in the U.S., individuals who have not undergone sex affirming surgery cannot their name or legal documents. So for most, expression and style are all that they have to present openly to the outside world.

Her family relations have of course have deeply struggled. It is only when she visits her parents that she changes into jeans and a hoodie. Chao does not see them often and when she does they usually try to set her up on a date with a woman. We don’t know Chao’s orientation, but we know this isn’t her family being supportive. They are deeply ashamed that their child has not settled into a male role and been married. “They just stay silent when people ask questions about my personal life. I’m not sure if they can deal with the pressure brought on by society,” she says [1]. Her hopes of finding a reconciliation and acceptance are fading, yet 15 years after coming out and living openly Chao is still trying.

She plans to make one last attempt to appeal to her parents when they visit her in Beijing. But if they are not receptive she is prepared to handle the rejection. In the end, she will choose her LGTQ+ family. She told the South China Morning Post “Should it not work out, I will of course be very disappointed,” she says. “But I have realised that making the community happy is ultimately more important than making my family happy.”[4]

Just as before, Chao and the many other advocates around her will continue to fight for visibility and acceptance. She makes it clear that nothing is more important than that goal. Even moving to a cheaper apartment to conserve on rent. “I want to keep doing what I’m doing and fight for society’s acceptance of transgender people without only having to think about making money.” And as Chao remains willing to live openly she is inspiring others. In 2017 she appeared on a local television show to defend transgender rights.

Her authenticity inspired countless LGBTQ+ people across China. One viewer traveled 750 miles just to meet Chao. She said of the advocate “I love her elegant appearance, which attracts people who aren’t aware of the issues, and more importantly I love her self-respect.” And self respect is right. In the end, when we authentically embrace our identities and expressions we allow ourselves to regain our self respect.

Unfortunately we don’t have many ways that you can follow Chao as China has strict laws controlling social media. However, your recommended resources are Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China (Gendering Asia) by Hongwei Bao. There is also the brief documentary Being True To Yourself: LGBT in China available on YouTube but it’s not very in depth. However, it’s a start. And if you’re traveling to Beijing, and will be near the neighborhood of Gulou, then check out the tiny vintage shop called Equal and maybe you’ll run into Chao herself.