Society's hang-ups over people who switch their sex

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 August, 2010, 12:00am

Angela is a transgender Hong Kong student who has known since early childhood that she was a girl. She is currently recuperating from the sex reassignment surgery she finally had in Thailand last month.

'At kindergarten I wanted to play with the girls and the girls' toys. At school I wasn't interested in football or basketball or other interests that are traditionally seen as boys',' she says.

Her voice is high and feminine. She classes herself as 'one of the lucky ones' with supportive parents who understood her needs from early on. She decided to save up and go to Thailand because she felt the surgeons were more experienced with the procedure. She has lived as a woman for years and didn't want to wait any longer under the Hong Kong health system.

What constitutes a man or a woman is a question that arose last week in the case of 'W', the woman who was born anatomically a male but had sex reassignment surgery and went on to challenge the Hong Kong government in the Court of First Instance for the right to marry her boyfriend in a heterosexual marriage. The government argues that because 'W' is classed as a male, a wedding would be a same-sex marriage - something Hong Kong does not recognise. A ruling is expected later.

It is not the first time such a case has gone to court. In 2002, Briton Christine Goodwin challenged the British government in the European Court of Human Rights. Born a man in 1937, Goodwin was a bus driver who wore girl's clothes as a child and was given aversion therapy - treatment aimed at discouraging specific behaviour - in the 1960s. She had been married and fathered four children before being diagnosed as a transsexual and undergoing sex reassignment surgery in 1985.

She won the right to marry her boyfriend after the court in Strasbourg found that to deny her otherwise breached Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights. 'Men and women have the right to marry and to found a family,' it ruled.

Her case and a similar one involving a dental nurse led to Britain changing its legislation. 'In a lot of countries in Europe, changes in law have followed court cases. They have transformed the daily lives of trans people,' says Justus Eisfeld, who is the co-director of Gate - Global Advocates for Trans Equality, an organisation that works on transgender human rights.

The judges found that the terms 'men' and 'women' shouldn't be defined purely by biology. A transgender specialist at the University of Hong Kong, associate professor Sam Winter, agrees. He says that there is increasing research to show that 'brain sex' is a key component of what makes up a person's gender.

'There is more and more evidence to suggest that human beings are born with brains that are already male or female brains,' he says. 'There's increasing acceptance of the view that people like 'W' may always have been female, biologically female, at least to the extent that they were born with a biologically female brain, that maleness and femaleness is hard-wired from birth. And that speaks to the issue of what makes a man or a woman. In a very real sense one can see that 'W' for her entire life may have been female and should be treated as such, even though she happened to have been born with a penis.'

Winter, who works in the division of learning, development and diversity in HKU's faculty of education faculty, says transsexuals in Britain can now have the legal status of their sex changed, even without undergoing surgery. In Hong Kong, legal documents such as one's ID card are only changed after surgery, which leaves many transsexuals in limbo for the months and even years leading up to surgery. For those having surgery in public hospitals in the city, there is a year of 'real life experience' - living as a man or a woman prior to being suitable for surgery.

Lennie, a transgender woman who works in fashion, used to be a social worker. People would arrive for appointments expecting a man because of the name she had given on the phone, only to find a woman - which led to acute difficulties. Likewise, in those months ahead of surgery every time a person goes to the bank, talks to a policeman, gets a new telephone line or any of the other multiple scenarios where ID cards are required, their boss, that police officer or company employee see the ID card stating the other sex. Those transsexuals who opt not to have surgery can never change the sex on their ID cards. This scenario, which happens worldwide, can lead to transsexuals not seeking help when they need it, such as hospital treatment - they can't bear the curiosity and questions - or worse, prejudice. In the same way, Goodwin prior to her surgery, was robbed of GBP200 (HK$2,450), Eisfeld says, but didn't go to the police as she felt the questions would turn to her gender rather than the crime committed.

Winter says the awareness that a person feels they are in the wrong body does not go away. 'It's not something that can be fixed by psychological treatment,' he says.

Lennie had surgery in 2000 just before she turned 30. Her boyfriend is aware that she is transgender. She has been watching the case of 'W' closely and is angry that it has been seen both in the court and in Chinese media as a prospective same sex marriage.

Both Lennie and Angela are women, as far as they are concerned, and interested in men. Any marriage entered into would be a heterosexual one, they say.

For most people born male who feel they are female, or vice versa, the worst time is puberty, Winter says. As their body begins to develop, those changes can horrify them in the mirror.

'Actually my classmates were understanding at school,' Angela says. 'But I hated having to wear boys' clothes and having my hair cut short.' While both Lennie and Angela have undergone surgery, Winter emphasises that not all transgender people take that path. While some wish to change their anatomy, others live their lives as women and the appearance of their genitals is not relevant. Britain now allows transsexuals to change their legal sex status, whether or not they have had surgery.

'There has been a shift in that instead of looking at people's anatomy, increasingly [society] is looking at people's identity,' Eisfeld says. 'Most people can count the number of other people who have seen their genitals on two hands. What they do get to see is how you dress, how you act in relation to other people, how you present yourself. These are much more of a deciding factor than what is between your legs, or your chromosomes.'

The transgender community has high suicide statistics. Often, transgender individuals kill themselves because of isolation from families and friends and the lack of opportunity for heterosexual marriage, the invasion of their privacy and periods of self-hate. Transsexuals have also been the victims of murder, to the extent that in the United States 'trans rage' as a crime of passion was a mitigating factor until recently and still is in some states. Other states have now legislated that it is a hate crime and thus worthy of more jail time.

Murder, of course, is the extreme end, but still transsexuals face prejudice, mockery and discrimination.

Eisfeld says, though, that people are becoming more understanding. 'I think people get so upset about it because gender is such a basic definer of who a person is. It's one of the first things you see,' he says. 'It's such a basic core of what people see in others. When people get confused about such a decisive factor, they can get curious, confused, angry, you see all of these emotions.' Adds Lennie with emphasis: 'We are human beings.'

'Nature loves diversity, but people sometimes have a problem with it,' Winter says. Women such as 'W' deserve to live with dignity, he says.

A way to break down barriers is for the transgender community to speak up, he says. 'I am a woman or a man and here I am. Terribly easy for me to say. But it happened with gays and lesbians - I'm here, get used it, get used to us.'

Eisfeld says that as a community 'we are in the early stages of development'.

'We're where the gay community was 20 years ago. There have been informal networks, but the groups are becoming more formal and political. There are websites and more formalised group members. A part of that is that trans people are beginning to speak up more.'