The first time I learnt about “feminism” was from an online course called International Women’s Health and Human Rights that I attended during high school. The course demonstrated the problems of women’s health and rights around the globe with vivid examples and explicitly clarified the idea that “women’s rights are human rights,” which made me realize that we are still not living in a gender equal world.
Before that, I had never found women underprivileged. From elementary school to high school, China’s education resources are fairly accessible to both boys and girls. It is quite normal for girls to outperform boys in class, and quiet, hard-working female students are preferred by teachers, or even nominated as class leaders. Equality between men and women is one of China’s basic state policies, and I once even thought that we had already achieved gender equality.
Ever since my childhood, I have been told that “men and women are different,” yet I always tried to break the rules. When I was a kid, I used to cosplay Madam White Snake, the heroine of a famous Chinese legend, with my friends by draping sheets over my shoulders. I also wore my mother’s high heels and put on her cosmetics. Gradually the people around me started to attack my temperament. Classmates called me “shemale,” “sissy,” and “girly,” and my parents reproached me for not being a boy.
I felt guilty in the beginning and tried to suppress the true me to cater to the social standard of masculinity. But I soon gave up. If men and women are equal, why can’t boys do the things that girls can? Just because I am a boy, do I lose the qualifications in make-up and expressing sensitive feelings? I no longer blamed myself and my body started to be imbued with the joy of freedom. I was even able to silence the kids who verbally abused me by attacking the defects of their fallacies.
There was a sissy ranking in my class and I was ranked among the top two. Sarcasm, exclusion, isolation, and bullying were a common occurrence. In an elementary school class, a bad boy bullied me in public. He suddenly hugged me from behind, shouting, “you must want to be raped by being so girly,” and imitated a rape scene as played out on television. I tried my best to push him away, but he clung firmly to me. I had to beat him up until some classmates pulled him away. This experience has dragged me into a bigger puzzle: Why do I have to go through so many hardships simply because I am not masculine enough?
It was not until I read the book Woman-Haters: Misogyny in Japan, by Japanese sociologist Chizuko Ueno, that I finally found the answer. In the book, Ueno wrote that “deeply rooted in the core of this gender binary system is misogyny … Misogyny is diffused under this system, just like the gravity of an object, it is [so] taken for granted that people are almost unaware of its existence.”
Misogyny refers to the hatred of women, a contempt and disgust in opinion or behavior towards feminization, and feminine traits. It explains why “sissies” are more likely to be bullied than “tomboys,” as femininity is more disliked by society. According to the 2017 Chinese Transgender Population General Survey Report, 75% of transgender women have suffered from school violence. In 2011 a junior high school boy in New Taipei City jumped to his death after being mocked as a “sissy.” I came to realize that if we want to emancipate the “sissies,” we must first liberate femininity, we must declare war on misogyny and we must reform the culture of misogyny.
In college, I started an association to advocate for gender equality. In the events we organized, I heard many students sharing their painful and experiences of struggle and they greatly shocked me. This reinforced my determination to make a difference. I feel that no one should endure so much sufferings for their own gender expression and gender identity just because they are different from the “mainstream.”
We walked out of the classroom to advocate and speak out. We “occupied” the campus with over 100 rainbow flags; we used videos and photos to record students’ support for multiple genders and their rejection of school bullying. Our association has grown so fast that more than 20 people had joined us within three months of its launch. Knowing that many volunteers, including gays, lack an awareness of feminism, we hosted a read-through of the “Vagina Monologue,” a feminist play by the American writer Eve Ensler, for the purpose of bringing more feminist perspectives to everyone. We conducted a survey targeting the constant queueing at female toilets and sent the findings to the university president’s mailbox to call for a solution to this problem. The school wrote back and promised to conduct investigations and formulate plans. Unfortunately, we never heard from them any further.
In addition to the university’s negligence, I was even more dissatisfied with the events and promotion of “Girls’ Day,” which is a popular “take good care of girls” festival among Chinese universities. On this day boys buy breakfast for girls and hang banners on trees to show their “care” for girls. But just as a prominent Chinese feminist, Li Sipan, has commented, “Girls’ Day makes lascivious fantasies and consumerism a tradition and convention, which reinforces the gender stereotype of men protecting weak women.”
On May 7th, my friends and I felt outraged when we saw a banner on the school’s square that read “Your children can have 26 or 27 Gan die (干爹).” Gan die (干爹) is a Chinese word that in online social media usage often refers to a sugar daddy. Without any hesitation, we protested with a placard that read, “This is sexual harassment,” in front of the banner and posted a photo online. The photo has provoked an uproar on social media. Many students think that we have damaged the university’s reputation by exposing the scandal. Soon we found ourselves deluged by attacks. Some people sent us death threats and some mobilized the public to dox us. The girl who stands right in the middle in the photo above was too scared to go out of her dorm for three days, for fear of being recognized by classmates as she had only one coat.
Many people think the whole incident is a malicious sensationalization plotted by us to become famous and some even claimed that we were “exploited by external forces.” To counter-argue against this kind of idea, we published an article to explain the real motive behind our action, which surprisingly aroused more discussions online. Some netizens praised us for being rational and pointed out that the good intention of showing “love and care” is in fact manifested as sexual harassment, as those who hung the banners failed to break the stereotype of gender discrimination. Others also pointed out that the actions to protect the university’s “honor,” to combat individual rights of protest, to extend the attacks from the virtual world to the real world, have already constituted a kind of cyber violence. Apart from abusing us online, our attackers even requested that the university take serious disciplinary actions against us, which is utterly ridiculous. We have shown true love for our school by putting forward our opinions. And what’s the problem with sensationalizing the topic of gender equality? We received no benefit from this except fear and bullying.
Our article had garnered 7.43 million views on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, one day after its release. The university “talked” to me for three days in a row and threatened to hand me over to the police if I didn’t delete my post as they claimed to have evidence of me organizing an “illegal” association. And if the police detained me, they would expel me from school immediately. It didn’t work. They later threatened my parents with the same words. Facing huge pressure, I was forced to delete my post and dissolve the association to put the whole incident to an end.
With the development of the #MeToo campaign, women’s voices are now openly challenging misogyny and the unequal social structure. College students from universities across China are publicly exposing sexual harassment scandals on campus. However, in most cases, the responses from the universities are far from satisfactory. My experience can thus be viewed as a miniature of the Chinese feminist movement’s experience in China.
In 2015 five feminists were detained for plotting to distribute anti-harassment flyers on public transport, while this year, Feminist Voices, the biggest feminist platform on Chinese social media, was censored. Under the current wave of collectivism and nationalism, we worry that all the feminists and LGBT advocates will continue to be stigmatized. It was the solidarity from other feminists, who had supported me throughout this incident, that encouraged me to continue to speak out. Thus, I think that women’s rights activists in China might also need the support and encouragement from the international women’s rights movement.
The attacks and threats that I have received during the advocacy process did not knock me down. Instead, they have strengthened my determination to spread the idea of equality and empowerment. I plan to study in Europe after graduation and pursue my studies in human rights. I hope that more people, more organizations, more voices can emerge to promote gender equality, promote healthy reforms of our society, and ultimately to make our home a better and more equal place to live in.
(Written by Xiaomi, translated from Chinese by Zou Yun. Xiaomi was born a biological man and is now a queer feminist, who founded Kaleidoscope Association at Shandong University and co-founded China SOGIE Youth Network, that advocate the rights of gender minorities and women. On March 8th, 2018, Xiaomi and some friends were embroiled into a shower of online criticisms for protesting against Girls’ Day banner on campus.)