No place to call home, say transgender outcasts
Rejected by families and employers and misunderstood by social workers, people awaiting sex-change surgery in Hong Kong say they are often forced into a poverty-stricken limbo in which they have no choice but to sleep on the street.
Still legally male but living as women, they are shut out of shelters run by non-government organisations because they would have to share a room with a man.
One told how a government social worker from whom he sought help jeered at him saying he 'should have expected' this situation when he 'chose this path'.
Some 107 transgender people are awaiting sex-change operations in public hospitals in the past five years.
Ray Ray, 28, who first decided he wanted to be a woman when he was 23, said welfare groups did not understand their dispute with their families was 'permanent'.
'We won't decide not to change sex after several months and be able to return home. They are just ignorant. They do not understand sex changing is a life-long decision.'
Ray Ray told his mother about his decision two years ago and she verbally abused him and threw him out of the home.
He got a job as a trainee in a hair salon and was able to rent a room in Fanling for HK$1,400 a month. But when he started to dress like a woman, his boss became more and more reluctant to give him any work and eventually told him to 'take a rest' without giving any reason.
Out of money, he approached the Social Welfare Department for assistance in job hunting, accommodation or help from a social worker, but was rejected.
'The staff insisted that they could only follow up my case if I could provide them with a mobile phone number. But I really could not afford a mobile phone at that time,' he said.
He also approached Tung Wah Group of Hospitals (TWGHs), but a staff member said he did not know what a 'transgender person' was.
Ray Ray lived in a park for a month, sleeping on benches and showering in the public washroom before he was referred to TWGHs' CEASE Crisis Centre, the only domestic violence shelter in Hong Kong which accepts victims of both sexes, but was rejected.
'I was very disappointed. Some of them were scared. You could feel they were really scared. When I told them I was a transgender person, they just wanted to hang up in a hurry.'
Now he is living in a community centre organised by Rainbow of Hong Kong, a concern group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people - which is so crowded he has to sleep on the floor - and is looking for a job. But even admission to a proper shelter does not remove all worries..
Risaki, 19, a student, said he was beaten by his father for months after he was diagnosed with gender identity disorder and was kicked out of home in February. After sleeping at a friend's home and a 24-hour McDonald's for several days, he approached a Social Welfare Department centre in Tuen Mun.
But a social worker there jeered at him, saying 'you should have expected [such a situation] when you chose this path' and refused to open a file on his case or refer him to a family social worker.
'I was really anxious. If no one could help me, I would have to sleep on the street,' he said. 'It seemed there was no way out for me. I was hopeless.'
He was eventually referred to the CEASE Crisis Centre and was admitted to a single room. But he can stay only to the end of next month. He said the centre's social workers have offered him little help in finding alternative accommodation.
He tried many other NGOs, but as he was still legally a male, he could only apply for male shelters where he had to share a room with men.
'Have they considered my personal safety if I need to live with a group of men?'
He also tried applying for public housing, but faced a waiting list of seven to eight years. 'I am afraid I will get raped if I sleep on the street for seven to eight years.'
Rainbow executive officer Tommy Noel Chen said the government always told him such shelters were sufficient for transgender people.
'But in fact they are not,' he said. 'Our centre often receives transgender persons who got expelled from home. Transgender persons usually have special needs. They are reluctant to live with men.'
The Equal Opportunites Commission, which has received 11 complaints from transgender people in the past three years, said the situation reflected a lack of social acceptance and proper legislation to protect their rights and interests.
'They are often seen as outcasts of the community... [they] should be given their reserved rights and protection,' a spokesman said.
He also said their service provision needs as victims of domestic violence should be taken into account.
Bell Wong Chor-ling, CEASE Crisis Centre Supervisor, said the centre offered only short-term shelter, usually two weeks, to victims of both sexes with an immediate family crisis and every case needed telephone assessment before admission.
She said Ray Ray faced no immediate threat of domestic violence as the dispute with his family was months ago. What he needed was long-term accommodation, so he was not eligible for the centre.
She also said social workers in the centre mainly provided emotional counselling and suggested Risaki approach the social worker assigned by the Social Welfare Department to take care of his welfare needs.
A TWGHs spokeswoman said she felt sorry if its staff had caused any bad feeling .
A Social Welfare Department spokesman said any transgender person with welfare needs could approach the integrated family service centres where social workers provided appropriate services, including emotional support, counselling and financial assistance.
Transgender people often find themselves sleeping on the street
The number of transgender people awaiting sex-change operations in Hong Kong public hospitals: 107