An 84-year-old retired government official from southern China has become an unlikely trailblazer for transgender rights after speaking out about his decision to become a woman – in his ninth decade of life.
10:09AM BST 14 Jun 2012 By Tom Phillips in Shanghai
Qian Jinfan was born in Jiaxing, a city around 50 miles from Shanghai, in 1928. A Chinese calligrapher, literary theorist and art collector, he built a career as a mid-ranking civil servant in Foshan, in southern Guangdong province, and married aged 54. Four years ago, aged 80, he decided he wanted to be a woman.
This week Mr Qian spoke publicly for the first time about his decision, transforming himself into an unusual symbol of changing attitudes toward sex and sexuality in China.
"This is my real-self. I have covered myself up for the past 80-ish years," Mr Qian, who now prefers to be called Yi Ling, uses female lavatories and is reputedly China's oldest openly transgender person, told Guangzhou's Southern Metropolis Daily.
"I hope to stand up against the prejudice people hold towards transsexuals. I want to eliminate it," he added.
Mr Qian told the newspaper he had felt female since he was a child. But his transformation from Jinfan to Yi Ling only began in December 2008 when he started taking hormones to enlarge his breasts and wearing women's clothes.
The following year he sent a letter to his former employers at Foshan's cultural bureau complaining he had been forced to wear men's clothes all his life. He received no official response, but took that as tacit support.
His income and welfare benefits were unaffected, he said.
In 2010 Mr Qian, who is still married, wrote another letter informing authorities that he was a woman. Liu Chunling, head of the HR department for Foshan's cultural bureau, told the Southern Metropolis Daily Mr Qian's choice was "private". "We all see it with an open attitude [and can] understand and accept [it]."
Chinese LGBT activists praised Mr Qian's decision to go public.
"I think it's definitely really brave – it is great news for the transgender community that people are speaking out," said Wei Jiangang, a Beijing-based activist and founder of Queer Comrades, an online television channel about LGBT issues.
"Compared to 10 years ago there has been a big improvement. There are more and more LGBT organisations doing different things. There is more and more space for LGBT people and more help." Mr Qian's revelations came a few days after tens of thousands of people attended a government-backed sex fair in Xi'an, northern China – to some, another sign that conservative attitudes towards sex were changing.
The event reportedly included "an exhibition of ancient sexual artefacts, an exhibition of sexual arts and painting, live body painting, a sexy lingerie show, an exhibition of ancient Chinese erotic pictures, seminars on sexual knowledge and an exhibition of nude photography." "As China develops socially and economically, the Chinese are becoming less likely to view sex as a taboo subject," Xinhua, the government news agency, reported.
"Sex was a taboo subject when we were young, and now it can be openly discussed. I think that's an example of social progress," said Zhao Guiyao, a 61-year-old local.
Mr Zhao's wife, named as Liang, appeared less open-minded. "I do not think some of the fair's contents really embodied progress, such as the sadomasochistic show and homosexuality," she told Xinhua.
Mr Qian's experience suggests prejudice remains. While colleagues had been broadly supportive when he began attending meetings in female clothes, Mr Qian said he had suffered abuse from children near his home. He reported them to the local neighbourhood committee after being called a "man-monster." "I don't think I am inferior to others. I will not give up easily. I am not wrong," he said.
Online responses to Qian's story were mixed.
"It is individual freedom to live as one wishes in this world, as long as it does not harm other people's interests," wrote one user of the Chinese internet portal, NetEase. "This old man lives freely." Others were less receptive. "This guy might be mental. There are all kinds of birds in a big forest," wrote one.
"There has been progress but [the LGBT community] is still facing lots of problems," said Mr Wei, the activist, pointing to continued government censorship of LGBT issues and events and widespread prejudice among ordinary Chinese. "People are still afraid of other people being different."