Chinese trans woman wins sex discrimination lawsuit against employer in landmark victory

Society & Culture

More than a year after she first began her legal fight, a transgender woman in Beijing has won her case against Chinese ecommerce platform Dangdang after the company fired her when she took a leave of absence for her gender confirmation surgery.

More than a year after she first began her legal fight, a transgender woman in Beijing has won her case against Chinese ecommerce platform Dangdang after the company fired her when she took a leave of absence for her gender reassignment surgery.

The ruling was made in January by a Beijing court, which ordered (in Chinese) Dangdang to resume its labor contract with the woman, who goes by Ms. Gao 高, and recognize her new gender identity, including giving her the right to use female bathrooms in the company. It wasn’t until last week that the news about the judgment circulated on the Chinese internet and attracted national attention.

In 2015, Gao was hired as a product manager in the technology department at Dangdang. Three years later, Gao decided to undergo a sex confirmation surgery. During the summer of 2018, with her supervisor’s permission for medical leave, Gao took a roughly two-month break from work for her surgeries. But in September, before Gao was fully recovered following the major transition and was able to return to work, Dangdang terminated her employment, citing reasons such as Gao’s “absence of work” and her “mental health.”

According to Gao (in Chinese), she believed that her dismissal was discrimination on the basis of her sex. In a termination letter to Gao, the company called her a “person with mental disorders,” whose presence would constitute a distraction for her coworkers because they would feel “terrified, uneasy, and awkward.” Dangdang also said that Gao’s restroom usage would be a problem for the company because both female and male employees had voiced their opposition to Gao using their bathrooms.

About four months after Gao sued Dangdang for unfair dismissal, the Beijing court ruled in her favor in 2019, ordering Dangdang to rehire her and pay her overdue salary of about 120,000 yuan ($17,097). Dangdang immediately appealed the original decision when it was announced. But the court didn’t change its position in its second ruling in January.

Along with the judgment, the court also issued a heartfelt statement explaining the ruling and showing support for the transgender community in China. “We respect and vow to protect the dignity and legal rights of transgender people. Our attitude is based on our respect for individuals’ dignity and legal rights. By no means are we encouraging people to change their genders,” the court wrote while acknowledging that it would take a long time for the public to be more open-minded about gender identities.

Gao’s case has brought unprecedented public attention to the transgender community in China. On Weibo, the hashtag #当当网男员工变性以旷工被解雇# (“Male employee was let go by Dangdang for ‘absence of work’ after he had a transgender surgery”) has generated over 3.6 million views, with most internet users praising the court’s ruling. “Transgender people altering their bodies through surgery is not uncommon in this age. The society needs to be more inclusive in regard to this community,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

But the news has also prompted a stream of transphobic comments directed at Gao. “I see no reason to be accepting of him because I think he’s a sociopath. He’d better move to a remote place where no one knows him so he could be seen as a woman in the first place,” another Weibo user commented (in Chinese).

Gao’s is not the first case of a transgender person in China taking legal action after facing alleged job discrimination based on their gender identity. In 2017, a 28-year-old transgender man in Guizhou Province took his employer to court after being fired and told by the company’s human resources manager that he looked “unhealthy.” Although the court ruled (in Chinese) that the dismissal was unlawful because no legitimate reasons were provided upon the man’s firing, it decided that the termination was not a result of bias against transgender people.