For Lorde Cai was a source of joy and success to share her life as a transgender woman in the Chinese social media. Until one day it was not.
The 28-year-old started making online videos in early 2020. As the cosmopolitan Lady Cai, she found a niche by creating makeup tutorials in which she seemed to transform from a scruffy, bearded man into a chic office worker. She quickly attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.
But then, in late 2020, Cai told her fans that she usually used the ladies’ room when presenting herself as a woman. The backlash was swift and violent. Netizens flooded their feeds with hostile comments.
As Cai had not undergone hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery, users said she had no right to enter a women-only room. The reaction was so intense that Cai struggled with her mental health for months afterwards.
“That was the only moment that was a matter of life and death,” she tells Sixth Tone. “They don’t understand the meaning of transgender. They’re scared…which is understandable.”
For transgender Chinese this type of online discrimination is nothing new. But the problem seems to get worse as China intensified its crackdown on “Sissy” -Influencer in social media.
The campaign – which aims to address China’s perceived “masculinity crisis” by banning effeminate male role models – kicked into gear in 2021 when a number of high-profile users had their accounts banned or shut down. Although the policy does not specifically target LGBT Chinese, it does have a chilling effect on the community.
Transgender influencers say anti-sissy rhetoric has prompted a surge in transphobic comments on social media. Many fear falling victim to abuse or losing access to their social feeds.
The crackdown threatens both the mental health and livelihoods of many transgender people. A growing number of trans Chinese have launched influencer careers, posting videos and hosting live streams on platforms such as Bilibili, Xiaohongshu and Taobao Live in recent years.
A GIF shows videos that influencer Benny Dong posted before the anti-sissy campaign in March 2018 (in red) and afterwards in December 2021. By @千户长生 on Bilibili
The total number of transgender Chinese employed in these roles is unclear, as most users are careful not to overtly state their gender identity in their account descriptions. However, Sixth Tone observed that many users hinted at their identities through euphemistic usernames such as “Winnie who used to be a boy” and “I’m like Jin Xing” — a reference to a famous transgender TV host.
Some Chinese influencer agencies have started actively recruiting transgender people, believing they can offer something different and offbeat in a competitive market. Yoki Xu, a former employee of a Shanghai-based agency, recruited several trans hosts to livestream beauty products in 2019.
“They rise very quickly because of the image they present: their characters, looks, and backstories capture users’ interest,” Xu tells Sixth Tone. “If you’re a regular pretty girl, you’re just a pretty girl… But users watch trans hosts like they’re reading a tabloid, and they’ll start opening their wallets if they trust them.”
The voyeuristic curiosity displayed by many viewers makes some in the transgender community uneasy. But the growing number of trans influencers has made a real difference by increasing the community’s visibility, which experts say will be beneficial in the long term.
“I always believe that social media will help increase LGBTQ+ visibility in China, which will lead to social acceptance of LGBTQ+ groups,” says Yang Yifan, an associate researcher at East China Normal University, who focuses on social media and sexual minorities. “Social networking platforms for sharing videos certainly help to bring their everyday lives to life.”
Social media has also provided a useful source of paid employment for transgender Chinese, who face pervasive discrimination in the workplace. A 2017 report found that the unemployment rate in the transgender community was nearly 12% – almost three times higher than the national rate at the time.
“The job doesn’t have many technical barriers and anyone can do it,” says Huang Xi, founder of Trans Wellbeing Team, a nonprofit based in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. “In a way, it encourages employment, which is good for the community.”
But Xi, who is non-binary herself, fears trans influencers are putting themselves at risk. By allowing authorities to pressure them to discuss their personal lives online, they may expose themselves to discrimination in the future.
“In the short term, you can do that for a living,” Xi said. “But in the long term, it’s unclear if this will have an impact on your family or career.”
Lorde Cai at work in an office in Shanghai, September 17, 2021. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
The anti-sissy campaign only increased these concerns. Both Xi and Cai, the makeup tutorial star, say the social media bans imposed in the second half of 2021 on a number of high-profile influencers – such as Kang Yaya, Feng Xiaoyi and Benny Dong – have stoked fear in the trans community.
Kang, Feng, and Dong didn’t come off as LGBT, but all three were famous for deviating from traditional male gender norms. Kang – a male college student who is often cross-dressed as female fairytale characters in his videos – publicly apologized for being a “bad influence” after losing access to his account on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok.
“I didn’t consider my impact on society and teenagers – I was leading them in the wrong direction,” Kang wrote in a post on the Twitter-like social platform Weibo. “Me as a man disguised as a girl is a bad influence. I want to apologize to everyone.”
Another incident that raised alarm in the trans community occurred in January when Jin Xing – China’s most famous transgender celebrity – became embroiled in controversy. All scenes with Jin were adapted from popular reality shows Shine! Super Brothers” and “Work for Dreams” without explanation. In a social post that was later deleted, Jin called the removals “discrimination and abuse of power.”
TV host Jin Xing poses for a photo at an event in Shenyang, city of Liaoning province, September 20, 2020. Wang Ruizhong/VCG
For Cai, the anti-sissy campaign may not be intentionally targeting the LGBT community, but the authorities’ use of derogatory terms like “sissy” fuels hatred of sexual minorities.
“I don’t think they should use words that have anything to do with being feminine or feminine,” she says. “It makes online bullying acceptable in real life because now people will have more reasons to bully and attack you online.”
Yang, the university researcher, says he’s also seen an increase in the use of abusive language regarding “sissy men” on LGBT dating apps.
“I wouldn’t say it targets the LGBTQ+ community,” Yang says, referring to the crackdown. “But it has negative implications for LGBTQ+ groups as they certainly feel pressure to speak out publicly.”
The toxic atmosphere on the internet discourages some trans-Chinese from using domestic social platforms. Wei Lai, a trans woman from southern China’s Guangdong province, has posted vlogs on YouTube documenting her struggles as a trans person and her journey to Thailand to undergo gender determination surgery.
Sharing her life on YouTube has boosted her mental health, Wei says, and she hopes to one day make money from her hobby. But she is reluctant to post similar content on Chinese platforms like Douyin, despite her huge user base.
“The guidelines have been in recent years so severe that male celebrities who wear ear plugs, be pixelated,” says Wei. “I’m afraid that many LGBT content creators be taken down.”
However, Cai says she refuses to live in fear. The firestorm of abuse she suffered in 2020 left her terrified of using public restrooms. But now she’s decided to be herself, at least around the people she cares about.
Screenshots from the video shared by Cai on Bilibili, posted February 19, 2022. By @都市丽人菜 on Bilibili
During the New Year holiday, Cai came to her extended family and documented the experience in a vlog, which she shared on video sharing platform Bilibili. She has now stopped masking her gender identity on her accounts. If that means facing setbacks, so be it, she says.
“When my account is gone, I work behind the scenes,” says Cai.
Additional Reporting: Zhuge Rongrong; Publisher: Dominic Morgan.
(Cover photo: Lorde Cai poses for a photo at her office in Shanghai, September 17, 2021. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)