(Warning: Some parts of this piece describe transphobia and queerphobia, and may be triggering. Numbers in parentheses correspond to notes and sources at the end of this article.)
After a trans (1) friend told me about Peilin Liu, a well-known trans femme (2) in mainland China, I looked her up on the Chinese internet. The search results made my stomach churn, my eyes teary, and my body trembled slightly with indignation. Every news article, opinion piece, and even the official Chinese online encyclopedia I found misgendered Liu. Many contained unhinged mockery and transphobia.
Transphobia is discrimination based on one’s identity as a trans person. Queerphobia is discrimination based on someone’s identity as a gender queer, non-conforming or non-binary person, or a person whose identity falls under LGBTQIA2S+, which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and two-spirit. Misgendering often accompanies transphobia and queerphobia, particularly toward those whose gender identity falls outside of cisgender (3.) Misgendering manifests as characterizing or referring to someone as a gender identity that they do not identify with. It can be intentional or unintentional, and it’s harmful regardless of intent.
Transphobia/Queerphobia & Misgendering
As a Chinese transwoman (4,) I felt upset about the way Chinese media and society misgendered Liu, depicting her in uniformly dehumanizing tones due solely to her identity as a trans femme. I wanted to reach out to her, to offer my support and to hear directly from her. Through the trans friend who had shared Liu’s story with me, I was able to find out more about her in online circles, and I was eventually connected to her personally through a social app.
In Chinese trans online circles, Liu is lovingly referred to as “Big Sis Liu.” She is seen as an elder in the Chinese trans community and someone with decades of lived experience as an out trans person. Big Sis Liu grew up in poverty and struggled throughout her life. She became well-known to the public due to photos of her that were taken without her consent and published in local news decades ago, which went viral because of her perceived crossdressing (5.) The publication of the photos made her a target of relentless online mockery and transphobic harassment in mainland China.
During our chat, she felt like a wise, humorous, and caring grandma. She talked about her life challenges, the discrimination and mistreatment she had faced over the years, and how grateful she was now to have supportive trans, queer, and allied friends through social networking, many of whom are helping with her daily needs and providing emotional support to her.
One thing that struck me from our conversation was when she talked about a trans masc6 friend who lived in Japan, who took their own life due to the depression and transphobia they faced. That friend left a letter to Big Sis Liu, who teared up when she talked about this friend, and how devastated she felt when reading their letter.
Depression is just one of the many systemic issues that disproportionately affects trans and queer communities.
According to data from the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey (7,) which surveyed trans, gender queer, non-conforming and non-binary people in the United States, 39% of respondents had recently experienced serious psychological distress, compared to the 5% in the U.S. general population who were surveyed on this question using the same research method. Additionally, 40% of respondents had attempted suicide at least once in their lifetime, a staggering figure compared to the attempted suicide rate of the U.S. general population, which is 4.6%.
On top of depression, risk of suicide, and poor mental health outcomes, trans and queer people everywhere, in every community including those within ANHPIA (8) communities, experience poorer general health outcomes, social alienation and discrimination, targeted violence, and challenges around employment, housing and basic needs.
Misgendering — the act of not acknowledging, not characterizing and/or not referring to a person as their self-identified gender identity, along with other transphobic and queerphobic forms of mistreatment often directed at trans and queer people — perpetuate discrimination against trans and queer communities and exacerbate the distress that trans and queer people already face disproportionately.
On the flip side of the coin, to recognize, to affirm, and to respect someone as their gender identity, which is who they authentically are as a person, can have real power and leave an immensely positive impact. One of the great joys Big Sis Liu has found in recent years, as she shared with me during our chat, is the outpouring of support from Chinese trans friends who see her as who she is, and make her feel loved and respected as who she is.
Familial Affirmation & Support
This act of recognition and affirmation can be even more powerful coming from family members and loved ones. Speaking from my own journey, this is the affirming support I’ve felt from my mom and my best friend back home in mainland China.
I was born and raised in a small town in Anhui Province, China. In my adolescence, I knew that I was different. As a teenager, I came out as a transwoman to my family and to people back home who I was close to. I received a lot of confused questioning, expressions of disappointment, and flat out disapproval.
Of all the people I confided in, the only person who showed me support was my best friend, who I met and became closer with during our time studying for English and foreign college applications together. While she initially expressed confusion about what I meant, she quickly said that if that was the way I felt, then I should pursue the best path for myself. That was the affirmation I needed at the time.
Fast forward several years later and I had started my journey of gender transitioning, immigrated to the United States, and started living publicly as a woman. Many of the personal connections I had back home faded during this time, their foundations already shaken the moment I came out. My best friend, who stayed in China, remained my strongest supporter.
After my coming out and during my first several years in the U.S., my mom, albeit not entirely disapproving of my revelation, expressed a lot of concerns about my transitioning. She worried about me: about whether I would lose all of my familial and social connections, about social prejudices towards trans people which I would inevitably have to face, and about whether medical transitioning9 would harm my physical health, something that stemmed from the misinformation that she found while looking up information about gender affirming healthcare (9.)
Concerns, worries, and protective feelings toward loved ones are common themes behind many people’s hesitations to fully affirm a closely-acquainted trans or queer person based on that person’s identified gender. After all, those concerns come from a place of caring; but it is affirmation that ultimately delivers the much needed support to that person.
For a trans or queer person, a sincerely held gender identity cannot be changed by outside influence. The same can be said for a cisgender (3) person. At the same time, affirmation from loved ones can help support trans and queer people through the challenges posed by societal prejudices and systemic discrimination.
According to the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey (7,) respondents who “said that their immediate families were supportive were less likely to report a variety of negative experiences related to economic stability and health, such as experiencing homelessness, attempting suicide, or experiencing serious psychological distress,” compared to those who said that their immediate families were unsupportive. This is also evident amongst trans and queer communities, and trans and queer ANHPIA communities that I have been a part of in the United States.
Social support and gender affirmation help lift people up.
As the years went on, I noticed changes in my mom’s attitude towards my transitioning journey. She became more accepting and open-minded, a lot of which she attributed to the peacefulness and open-mindedness brought to her through Buddhist teachings, which she has adopted in recent years. Advocacy from my best friend, who is also now a close family friend, has also helped my mom shift her views.
During a video call between the three of us this past year, my mom looked at me, and told me that she loves seeing how happy and relaxed my facial expressions have become, a drastic difference from the cloudiness from my teenage days.
That was the moment I knew my mom had truly recognized the positive impact that affirmation had had on me;the comfort, peacefulness, and joy that culminated through familial and social support, illustrated in my relaxed and peacefully smiling face. Gender affirmation is love.
Support for families and friends of trans Asians
If you are facing struggles on your journey to greater understanding and awareness of your transgender and gender non-conforming loved ones, you are not alone. Other Asian families have walked that road. Reach out and find community. Here are a few examples of organizations built by families like yours for mutual support:
“PFLAG Connects: Asian American & Pacific Islander Community” virtual meetings are open to parents, family members, and members of the LGBTQ+ community who are AAPI
Desi Rainbow Allies and Family, founded by New Jersey-based Aruna Rao, whose child identifies as transgender.
TRUESELF, formerly PFLAG China
- Trans or trangender: A person whose gender identity differs from the gender that aligned with their sex assigned at birth.
- Trans femme or trans feminine: A trans person who is feminine identifying.
- Cisgender: A person whose gender identity is the same as the gender that aligned with their sex assigned at birth. A person whose gender identity falls outside of cisgender may identify as trans, non-binary, gender queer, gender non-conforming, a combination of these identities or a different set of non-cis identities.
- Transwoman: A trans person who identifies as a woman. A transman is a trans person who identifies as a man.
- Crossdressing: Usually used to refer to a perception that someone is dressed or presented in appearance differently than the traditional and binary gendered expectation associated with the gender that aligns with their sex assigned at birth. It is also used as a gender identity, and/or an action, and/or a perception misplaced by society on a person, oftentimes through transphobic biases. Depending on the context, the term itself can be seen as outdated or problematic.
- Trans masc or trans masculine: A trans person who is masculine identifying.
- ANHPIA: AsianNative Hawaiian, Pacific Islander American
- Medical transitioning/gender affirming healthcare: Various forms of healthcare for trans or queer people that help with physical gender affirmation and/or to alleviate gender dysphoria.