No more pretending

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am


Ealin has been hiding a secret from the world for nearly 80 years.

Born into a well-educated family in Tianjin in 1928, she witnessed the Japanese invasion as a toddler, the fall of the Kuomintang and the rise of the Communist Party as a student, and the disastrous Cultural Revolution as an adult.

Now, at the age of 84 and in all likelihood the world's oldest transsexual, Ealin says it is time to consider the final step in claiming a true gender identity.

The soft-spoken Ealin decided to live as a woman four years ago after a lifetime of dutifully playing the roles of son, husband and father.

Ealin now wears stiletto heels no shorter than 5cm, but she still climbs the nine floors to the family apartment in Foshan , Guangdong, without taking a break on a hot summer's day.

'Old people are expected to perform a certain role by society - to just settle for stability while waiting for their lives to slowly fade away,' Ealin said.

'They [family members] think the way I live my life is too tiring and that I should just be happy with who I have been for the past 80 years.

'But coming out is about abandoning my male disguise and revealing the true woman within - this is about living the life of who I really am and establishing a correct gender identity for myself. After having to wait for more than 80 years, I will not wait any longer.'

Ealin agreed to an interview with the Sunday Morning Post to mark LGBT pride month celebrations and to take a stand against gender inequality.

'Gender transition has existed among mankind since the oldest times,' Ealin said. 'The discrimination we experience is fed by thousands of years of feudalism, which is still throttling humanity today.'

Four years ago, when the senior citizen's wife turned 60, Ealin began taking hormones - developing breasts, softer skin and more delicate facial features.

'I've wanted to become a woman ever since I was a child. This is a serious life goal. It has nothing to do with satisfying sexual needs, as perceived by mainstream prejudice. I'm simply bursting out of a cage which has bound me in a traditional gender role.

'I declare myself a woman and I live like one in public. This is about my gender integrity. Although parts of my body are not completely refined, there is no way I can be mistaken as a male.'

In 2009, US media reported that Renee Ramsey, then 77, had become the oldest transgender person to undergo gender reassignment surgery in order to become a woman.

For the first 80 years of life - as a literary theorist, calligrapher, Marxist theory expert, Bank of China manager, factory worker and serving and then retired government official - Ealin was better known as Qian Jinfan.

'My earliest childhood memory can be traced back to when I was three, when I was brought out to play and peed in public,' Ealin said. 'A stranger cast doubt on my gender, saying how could such a pretty little girl turn out to be a boy.'

The education she received from the ages of seven to 10 - with its focus on ancient Chinese classical works and writers and intellectuals Lu Xun and Hu Shi , who were influential in the May Fourth Movement - was a critical turning point, Ealin said.

'I'm familiar with ancient Chinese philosophy and yet those writers instilled in my mind pro-democratic ideas. I was trained to think independently as a student, and oppose gender imbalance throughout Chinese history.'

Ealin's idol is Shisan Mei (the 13th sister) from the novel The Gallant Maid, by Qing dynasty (1644-1911) writer Wen Kang .

'She stands for righteousness and is not afraid to speak her mind, so I thought to myself when I was young that this is the kind of woman I want to become one day.'

Growing up as a teenage boy was a torment. Ealin hated the deep, masculine voice he developed and preferred the company of girls to that of boys.

'For years I sought to gain control over my vocal range, but I could not get around it until I met a Peking Opera teacher. She taught me some tricks and I'm much more at ease now in controlling my voice in a feminine way.'

Life was especially hard for Ealin from the late 1960s.

'I was brought down by the class struggle during the Cultural Revolution. I never had flexible morals. But I lost my mind when I was confronted by the ideals of Marxist theory and all the wrong things happening in reality. I didn't know what to think. I began shutting myself off and was eventually kicked out of the bank.'

For more than 20 years, Ealin worked in run-down factory workshops for minimal pay. It was not until the 1980s that Ealin was once again recognised as a well-educated cultural expert and given a job in Foshan's culture bureau.

'I am upholding my roles as a scholar and a retired government official who comes from a well-educated family in challenging the thinking of mainstream society. I refuse to be marginalised.

'Most would think that someone with my status would probably be the last person in China to change gender, but that's exactly why I'm even more determined. I refuse to be bound by public expectations, or allow myself to be dominated by prejudice.

'Another reason for disclosing my official status and educational background is to hold myself responsible. I will try even harder to engage in serious academic work by focusing on the study of ideology and national issues. I refuse to subscribe to the world view of transgender people as only being fit for entertainment or commercial businesses.'

Ealin followed the 1980s male fashion of long hair, flared jeans and tight tops until four years ago. After developing permanent breasts in 2009, Ealin wrote twice to Foshan's Culture, Broadcasting and Press Bureau, which pays her pension, to explain her decision to switch genders and apply for female identity.

'The government did not write back to me or express any disagreement. My retirement pension is still the same and I am not treated differently at the local retired officials' club.

'I was expecting a furious battle but, to my surprise, nobody said a single word about it.'

Until four years ago, Ealin only acted in a feminine way when alone. It was a secret he even kept from his wife when they married in 1982.

The couple have a 26-year-old son who stays at home most of the time because he has a learning disability.

'My son will occasionally scold me for pretending to be a woman,' Ealin said. 'He doesn't understand.'

Most of the time, they ignore each other in their spacious three-bedroom apartment, the son playing computer games and Ealin pursuing literary studies.

Despite a Confucian tradition requiring respect for elders, some local children call Ealin ren yao (human demon), a commonly used Chinese insult for transgender people.

'These poisonous words against transgender people show a lack of understanding towards those who have overturned the male-dominated model that has served as the foundation of our society for thousands of years.' After Ealin came out, friends drifted away and family members offered little understanding.

'My wife was bothered by the gossip she heard from strangers outside. Most of the time, she doesn't say much about it, but it depends on her mood. When she's moody, she scolds me, but there are also times when she comes home and tells me about boutiques where I can get girly clothes.'

But the challenges and discrimination have not dissuaded Ealin from wanting to become a 'complete woman'.

'Gender reassignment surgery is a must for me in order to become a complete woman. Even though I no longer have any male sexual function, male physical characteristics still exist.

'I can't wait for surgery, but I'm still not satisfied with surgical standards. If I can live long enough for better standards, I won't hesitate for a heartbeat, even if it means my health is put at stake. I'll leave it to the doctors to determine whether I am fit for surgery when the right time comes.'