A new survey finds that only 5 percent of China’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) population is completely open about their sexual or gender identity at school or work.
The study on social attitudes towards sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression was published in Beijing on Tuesday May 17 to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia. With almost 30,000 responses, the survey is the largest to date on the topic in China.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Peking University Sociology Department, and NGO Beijing LGBT Center conducted the nationwide study, which was based on 28,454 online surveys submitted by both sexual minorities and non-minorities, supplemented with 44 in-depth interviews.
The study finds that a surprisingly low number of LGBTI individuals choose to be open regarding their sexual orientation or gender identity — less than 5.5 percent were “fully open” in their schools, workplaces and religious communities, and 14.6 percent to their families. More were “selectively open,” for example to chosen trusted friends, relatives and colleagues. Respondents were particularly cautious at work, with 74.9 percent saying they were “not open” — neither fully open nor selectively open — in the workplace.
Those who disclosed their identity also faced more discrimination, which often related to gender expression as well as sexual orientation, the study finds. The most common form of discrimination was minority respondents being told to watch their appearance and mannerisms, though verbal abuse, being forced to change the ways in which they dressed, spoke or acted, and being forced to enter heterosexual relationships were also common, especially after coming out.
The UNDP report recommends several measures to protect the rights and equality of LGBTI people in China, including strengthening the awareness of sexual and gender diversity among government, health professionals and educators, and including sexual minorities in current legal protections.
Agi Veres, country director of UNDP China, said in a press release that attention to the needs of sexual and gender minorities was essential for achieving sustainable development that left no one behind. “LGBTI people represent some of the most marginalized and vulnerable populations in Asia and the Pacific, including China,” she said.
In the interviews, respondents shared more in-depth experiences of discrimination. One transgender woman said that her biggest issue was in job hunting, because her ID card doesn’t match her current gender. On May 10, China’s first claim of unfair dismissal on the basis of transphobia failed in a local arbitration court.
A lesbian quoted in the report said that she experienced social isolation from her colleagues after they found out about her sexuality. “Although they said they could understand and accept me, they never invited me to lunch anymore,” she said.
Healthcare was another issue. One transgender man was quoted as saying that he’d sought a gynecological examination in Beijing but that the doctors laughed at him and refused to treat him.
A gay man featured in the report said that though his parents knew he was gay, they would still introduce him to girls and hurry him to get married and have children. A significant proportion of respondents who were part of sexual and gender minorities were married, though less than non-minority respondents in the same age group. Most married minority respondents were married to heterosexuals (84.1 percent) while 13.2 percent were in “marriages of convenience” with gay people of the opposite sex, and 2.6 percent were in same-sex marriages registered overseas.
The survey sample leaned towards the young, urban, and college-educated, which, along with the self-selection bias of those interested enough in the topic to answer, led the authors to suggest that the results may represent “a situation which is more positive than reality.”
But the high levels of acceptance among the non-minority respondents — over 80 percent felt the law should explicitly protect the rights of sexual minorities, and nearly 85 percent supported legalization of same-sex marriage — indicate an encouraging shift in attitudes in this demographic.
Previous, smaller surveys by Pew Research Center showed that a majority of respondents felt homosexuality should not be accepted by society — 69 percent in 2007, 61 percent in 2011, and 57 percent in 2013.
(Header image: LGBT people wave rainbow flags during a gay concert at Zhongshan University, May 19, 2013. Liang Yingfei/IC)