Chengdu, China: In an old theatre between soaring tower blocks in China’s southwestern city of Chengdu, a choir of transgender singers are on stage belting out the empowering lyrics of Jolin Tsai’s anthem “Me”.
“My reflection in the mirror, is a stranger’s face, which one is the real me, which one is the fake?” the group sing in unison.
The members of the Trans Chorus aren’t professional singers and come from across China — but they share similar stories of their struggle with identities in a country where being transgender is still classed as a “mental illness”.
As the music fades out Fang Yuran, wearing a purple headband, silver suit jacket and pink top, takes a bow, smiles, and begins relaying personal experiences of growing up transgender in Hefei city, eastern Anhui province.
Members of the audience are moved to tears.
“In the last two years, Hefei has developed really well, but people’s attitudes and mindsets still need to catch up with the times,” Fang says.
Fang, who was born a girl but now chooses to go by the non-gender specific pronoun “ze”, grew up wearing dresses and putting on make-up.
After leaving high school for university, Fang began to identify as a lesbian and, thinking of it as an illness, even sought gay conversion therapy.
But in 2015, Fang began to identify as trans and started taking testosterone tablets daily, bought off the internet for around 200 yuan ($28).
It can be hard for many transgender people in China to access hormone drug therapy and many buy drugs through the black market.
“Perhaps I didn’t have much of a mind of my own, so I would ask myself: ‘Who am I actually? Who should I listen to?’,” Fang tells AFP.
“Around the same time, a friend said to me that I should find myself, and listen to who I am. So slowly I began to discover the person I am now,” explains the 31-year-old.
Advocates say social attitudes in China, where no official numbers of transgender people exist, are improving in a country that decriminalised homosexuality in 1997.
But many trans people still face prevalent discrimination and deep-rooted stigma. While homosexuality was removed from China’s list of mental disorders in 2001, being transgender is still there.
A 2017 survey by the Beijing LGBT Centre found that 61 percent of respondents had suffered some level of depression while 46 percent considered suicide as a result of being transgender.
Fang’s relationships with family took years to mend and even now there are awkward moments.
“When I cut my hair, and my mum saw me over video chat, she scolded me,” Fang recalls
“But during that conversation, when I spoke of my partner, mum would just furrow her brow, it wasn’t a big reaction. Their current attitude is as long as you’re with someone, it doesn’t matter who.
“I think that the way they think is ingrained in them.”
The choir was singing at the Milk LGBT Gala in Chengdu, a city known for being more open about LGBT issues than other places in China, where attitudes are still very conservative.
The name is inspired by the first openly gay US politician Harvey Milk, and the group is hoping to make strides in China’s LGBT community.
As well as Trans Chorus, the festival featured a play about transgenderism and performances by men dancing in dresses, helping to raise the profile of trans lifestyles.
“We hope that we can present the many different aspects of the LGBT (community), because most of the time we are still discussing gay men, or parents of gay children,” said the executive director of LGBT advocacy group Milk, who only gave his name as Matthew.
“I hope that we can show that there is more to that.”
Surrounded by the LGBT community in China’s gay capital, the festival is a far cry from Fang’s daily life.
In Hefei, there are few LGBT groups and the topic rarely comes up.
But Fang — who is not out at work — has helped fill the gap by taking part in running LGBT-themed movie nights, where LGBT community members can get together in a safe space.
The social worker is hopeful that as society becomes more accepting in time, more Chinese people will feel able to embrace who they are.
“Because after all, transgenders are a minority within a minority group, people around don’t really know about (us),” says Fang.
“There’s also a lot of transgenders, including myself, who stay hidden.”
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