EOC under fire for using Mr in transsexual case

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has been criticised by academics and human rights experts for its insensitivity after it cited 'legal reasons' when it insisted on addressing a transsexual as 'he' against her expressed wishes.

Sandy Lau, 19, was sacked by a transport firm in July because of her gender identity disorder, which has been diagnosed by a doctor.

The disorder is protected by the Disability Discrimination Ordinance, and the Equal Opportunities Commission is required to enforce it.

When the commission contacted Sandy, she was addressed as 'Mr Lau' verbally and on documents.

Sandy, who dresses and speaks as a woman, expressed her discomfort with being referred to as a man.

'The way the commission addressed me made me feel uneasy. I have mentioned to them several times that I want to be called 'Miss', but they declined, stating legal reasons. I don't know how to respond.'

Sandy is consulting doctors about undergoing a sex change, at which point the law allows her to change the sex listed on her identity card.

When Sandy asked why her preferred gender was not used in communications, the responsible officer said the transport firm would not recognise her preferred gender, so the commission would only refer to her as 'Mr Lau' and 'him' for consistency.

Mariana Law Po-chu, the commission's spokeswoman, said the commission would not comment on individual cases.

'In general, if any individual asks for a chosen name to be used, we will decide case by case. We also have to consider the respondent and we are not going to take sides.'

Sam Winter, associate professor of the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong, said the commission's actions did not amount to neutrality.

'It seems to say very clearly and loudly that from the outset they agree with the employer's view that [Sandy] should be treated in every respect as a male.

'It would be perfectly possible for the EOC to state to Sandy and her employer they will address her as female, without in any way prejudicing the case,' said Dr Winter, whose research interest is gender-identity development.

Patrick Yu Chung-yin, executive director of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, said the case showed the insensitivity of the commission. 'In the UK, self-identified gender is usually used among equal opportunities bodies. The public have higher expectations of an equal opportunities commission as it is an agency for equal opportunity,' he said.

Five years ago Mr Yu was in line to become the commission's operations director but in a widely criticised move was sacked by a newly appointed chief before taking up the post.

Britain's Equal Opportunities Commission recommends using a transsexual's chosen name, rather than the given name, and to use whichever pronoun is consistent with the person's appearance and expressions about their sex.

The Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission in the Australian state of Victoria, which has trained Hong Kong's EOC staff, states a person can be protected from discrimination on the basis of gender identity regardless of whether they intend to undergo a sex change, receive hormone therapy or similar treatments.

Asked if the Equal Opportunities Commission should have a guideline relating to transsexuals, Ms Law said Hong Kong was not yet ready for specific legislation relating to transgender or sexual orientation.

Roddy Shaw kwok-wah, of Civil Rights for Sexual Diversities, disagreed. 'There should be a policy or a set of practices that will ensure transgender persons ... enjoy proper respect and dignity.'