Asia Catalyst releases report highlighting issues faced by Chinese trans* sex workers

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Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent
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Asia Catalyst, an NGO which focuses on the health and human rights of marginalised communities in China and South East Asia recently released an extensive 79 page report, “My Life is Too Dark to See the Light: A Survey of the Living Conditions of Transgender Female Sex Workers in Beijing and Shanghai”. Several local NGOs, the Beijing Zuoyou Information Centre and the Shanghai Commercial Sex Worker and Men who have Sex with Men Centre collaborated with Asia Catalyst to develop the report. Between December 2013 and September 2014, 70 trans* sex workers were interviewed as key respondents for the research. The 35 trans* sex workers interviewed in both Beijing and Shanghai all presented as women whilst engaging in sex work.

The report, which primarily explores the issues faced by Chinese trans* sex workers identified that trans* sex workers in China are highly stigmatised and regularly experience discrimination and abuse from broader society, service providers, family members and state actors, including the police..

Despite the proliferation of sex workers in China, sex work is criminalised. According to the Asia Catalyst report, trans* sex workers are some of the most marginalised sex workers in China, primarily due to broader society’s refusal to recognise the rights of trans* people, Confusion standards of morality which discourage people from challenging gender roles, and socially institutionalised traditions which hold men in higher esteem than women.

Under Chinese law, being trans* is not a crime; however, only trans* people who have fully transitioned are able to change their gender on official documents. Trans* sex workers report engaging in risky transitioning practices, including self-medicating with hormones as an alternative to accessing prohibitively expensive gender reassignment surgery options. In addition to the majority of Chinese trans* sex workers lacking the economic means to access gender reassignment surgery, trans* sex workers also report a distinct lack of medical professionals familiar with gender reassignment surgery issues and difficulty in accessing medical resources for transitioning.

Under Chinese policy, sex workers and trans* people lack the protection of anti-discrimination laws, resulting in sex workers reporting regular abuses from the police and clients. The Asia Catalyst report indicates that over 60% of interviewees had been arrested by police, with many research participants reporting that they had been subject to, or threatened with, physical violence, extortion, entrapment and other forms of police harassment. Xiao Huli, a participant in the research articulated her experience with the police, saying, “Under normal circumstances, it’s not convenient to report things to the police, because we have an embarrassing identity that’s not approved. Although the law is supposed to apply equally to everyone, there are still limitations. This profession (sex work) isn’t out in the open, so if you go to the police, nothing good will come of it. It makes more sense to just suffer in silence.”

Due to the stigma associated with being both trans* and a sex worker, 97% of the research participants reported that they are forced to live “hidden lives” and had left their home towns due to family issues. These participants identified that their families were not aware of their status as either sex workers or trans* women.

The report also highlighted the sexual diversity of China’s trans* sex worker community, with research participants self-identifying as gay, transgender and transsexual. According to Shen Tingting, Asia Catalyst’s Advocacy Programme Director, “Some people do sex work because they need to earn money – they tell us they earn more after they dress as women. But everyone has different motivations.”

Research respondents also stated that a lack of targeted service provision options means that many members of the trans* sex worker community miss out on access to basic health care and information about HIV and sexual health. Subsequently, the report identified that in an international context trans* sex workers are 49 times more likely to contract HIV than the general population and 9 times more vulnerable to HIV than female sex workers.