China Has One Amazing Transsexual Celeb—But Lousy LGBT Rights

China’s Jin Xing, a former army colonel, is a massive hit on stage and on screen. But beyond the limelight, the situation of the LGBT community is grim.

Dermot Tatlow/laif/Redux

HONG KONG — Jin Xing is extremely successful. She’s not just an internationally renowned modern dance choreographer and the artistic director of the dance company she founded. She’s also a film actress, a stage performer, a TV talk show host, a mother, a wife, a true alpha personality.

She is as confident spitting staccato fire while offering her take on the latest happenings in China as she is judging dancers who muster the courage to perform before her and the rest of the nation. She has three adopted children and a German husband, and they live happily in Shanghai. It seems like Jin Xing, whose name means both Venus and golden star, has it all, and it’s clear that she has worked hard to achieve her professional and personal goals.

But there’s more. Jin Xing was born a man, and learned how to dance by receiving training from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the age of nine. Her education in dance was intertwined with military service, and she eventually rose to the rank of colonel in the PLA. In 1995, a couple of years shy of 30, she underwent gender reassignment in China to fulfill a lifelong desire. At the time, she was already known in the dance world as a serious contender, someone who was pushing the envelope in China’s modern dance scene. Even though the surgery left her left leg paralyzed, she managed to recover, her career in dance and choreography only briefly placed on hold.

Crossing from the world of performance art to mainstream popular entertainment took a bit more time. Jin Xing was becoming a recognized name as she toured China and Western Europe to direct and perform her work, but it wasn’t until she appeared as a judge on televised Chinese talent shows that lightning struck. She secured a role in Tom Yum Goong, better known as The Protector, a popular action movie produced in Thailand. She continued her television appearances, and hosted her own talk shows.

Jin Xing is popular. She speaks seven languages. She can probably blow up a bridge thanks to her military training. But she’s an outlier. Her success as a public figure is a special case. Those who stray out of cultural norms and identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or transsexual in China typically need to live with unreasonable friction. The state of LGBT rights in China is abysmal. Activists, in particular, face a slew of problems that stretch beyond the personal and become political.

“Hooliganism”—a placeholder for consensual homosexual conduct—was decriminalized in China in 1997, but things haven’t gotten much better for the LGBT community since then. Peer to peer, Chinese society is becoming more accepting of the LGBT community, but positive depictions of LGBT characters on the silver screen are still illegal. Films in which a major character identifies as LGBT are usually banned, like Brokeback Mountain, or Wong Kar-wai’s film festival gem, Happy Together. (Stores that sell bootleg DVDs, however, don’t attach themselves to the same standards, so the banned films are actually still easily accessible.)

Jin Xing is sharp. Her celebrity persona is tempered, silver tongue stabbing outward. While an artist may use her work to explore her own identity and place in the world, Jin Xing hasn’t done this, at least not in a discernible manner. Her public image is not defined by her past or the body she was born with. Avoiding that discussion has been key to her success. Yet, part of her celebrity status—her brand—is based on the reinvention of herself, even though it’s not spoken of. That she was born a man is ambient noise—ever-present, unavoidable, not ignored but forgotten if you’re not thinking about it.

Most LGBT folks in China aren’t so lucky. Because of China’s urbanization and urban migration, they might be able to find acceptance and support within new social circles. But for many, heading home, as everyone in China does at least once a year, means heading back to smaller towns or agrarian villages, where conservative mindsets are firmly entrenched. LGBT issues are spoken of like maledictions, or an affliction of the spirit. Like anywhere else, double lives are common. Sham marriages are organized for convenience. Members of the LGBT community often have to live as an abstraction of who they are.

Because of China’s laws, stubborn Confucian social constructs, and general expectations attached to gender roles, the concept of LGBT folks being part of a relationship is muted in China. A relationship in the LGBT community, seen from the outside, is often considered to be not real, not honest. It might be something that takes place extramaritally, perhaps known by a select few but never spoken of. As a gay friend in Shanghai put it, “As long as we don’t talk about it, as long as we give our parents grandchildren, everything else is fine.”

Earlier this month, five women’s rights and LGBT activists were arrested ahead of International Women’s Day. They were suspected of “creating a disturbance.” One of the activists, Wu Rongrong, has hepatitis. When her supporters showed up at the detention center to urge the authorities to provide adequate medical treatment for Miss Wu, they were arrested, too.

Last month, during the Chinese New Year holiday, a seven-minute film went viral in China:

Opening with the sounds of firecrackers, we meet the protagonist, a young man who is in the closet. He does well in school, he excels at work. His parents ask about his girlfriend (or lack thereof), when he might get married, about potential grandchildren. He eventually tells his mother that he is gay. His parents disown him, which is not an uncommon action taken by parents in China. It takes a while, perhaps months, but his mother eventually calls him and tells him that it is alright to come home. As the credits roll, parents of the LGBT community in China share their own messages: to the parents, love your kids; to the sons and daughters, don’t be afraid to go home, even if things are a little rough. The video racked up millions of views within hours. Maybe the holiday glut left too many idle minutes. Or, maybe, that click counter is telling us about a much-needed tectonic change.