LONDON – Xiao Tong was selling sex on the streets of Beijing when a man lured her into his car, flashed his police badge and took her to the station.
Once there, police pulled at Xiao’s wig and punched her, before removing her bra and groping her during a body search.
“They asked really perverted questions, like, how do you have sex,” Xiao said.
“I turned around and asked, do you want to try? Then he kicked me, really, he really kicked me.”
Transgender sex workers like Xiao are among the most marginalized and vulnerable populations in China, according to a report by Asia Catalyst, a nongovernmental organization which focuses on health and human rights in China and Southeast Asia.
Social stigma and workplace discrimination drive many transgender women, who were born male, away from their friends, families and hometowns and into sex work, leaving them vulnerable to HIV and abuse from police.
Being transgender in China is not illegal. But the absence of anti-discrimination laws, lack of medical support during transition and dearth of targeted HIV services leave transgender people poorly protected, the report said.
Prejudice is an obstacle to even the most basic, everyday tasks. Several transgender sex workers told Asia Catalyst they were afraid to use public transport, dress as they wanted or even leave the house to go shopping.
“Imagine being laughed at when using a public toilet, being evicted from your home or, even worse, dangerously self-medicating hormone use because no doctor will see you,” said Zheng Huang, the head of AIDS organization Shanghai Xinsheng.
The report, which interviewed 70 female transgender sex workers across Beijing and Shanghai, found that 97 percent had left their hometown and had chosen not to reveal their identity or the nature of their work to their families.
Sex work is illegal in China, and almost two thirds of those interviewed said they had been arrested. Many, like Xiao, said they had experienced entrapment, extortion, verbal abuse and physical violence.
Transgender sex workers also face abuse from clients, but one interviewee, Xiao Huli, said she was reluctant to go to the police because of an “embarrassing identity that’s not approved.”
“If you go to the police, nothing good will come of it. It makes more sense to just suffer in silence,” she said.
Chinese law only allows transgender people to change their gender on official documents if they have undergone expensive sex-reassignment surgery, leading many to self-medicate and engage in dangerous transitioning practices, the report said.
Globally, transgender sex workers are 49 times more likely to be infected with HIV than other adults, and nine times more vulnerable to the virus than female sex workers.