By the time she was six, Joanne Leung Wing-yan, born a boy with the name Donne, felt she should be a girl. But it wasn’t until four years ago that Leung completed the sex-change surgery that would finally make her at peace with herself.
While Hong Kong society has gradually become more liberal in its views of gay and lesbian people, Leung says it’s still tough for the transgender community.
“Already at six I felt I should be a girl,’ she says. “In primary school I always played with the girls. Then I was at a secondary boys’ school, so I tried to fit in.”
Leung hid her dilemma for decades, and the strain led to four suicide bids. The self doubt, the feeling that you are alone and there is no one else like you, ate at her. Making it worse was the fact there was very little information available for transgender people.
Based on her own struggle, Leung works with several organisations, including as chair of the Transgender Resource Centre – where she works full time – to ensure other transgender people do not have to go through what she endured.
The centre provides services to transgender people and aims to raise gender awareness in the community.
For years Leung, 50, struggled to deal with her situation.
She saw “a lot of counsellors, psychiatrists, a Christian pastor. I talked to a lot of friends. At that time I still couldn’t think about surgery.”
The psychological strain was enormous. “I discovered I was attracted to women, and hoped the church could turn my mind back to a ‘normal’ life,” the committed Christian says.
Leung’s father died in 2000. While saddened by his death, he was a very traditional man, so Leung had never talked to him about her conflict.
“In 2004 I started to think about whether I could have surgery and went to the sex clinic,” she says.
“After the surgery I felt as if I could do anything because I no longer had that confusion in my body and soul. I also started to think about how I could support the transgender community.”
Leung estimates there are 10,000 to 20,000 transgender people in Hong Kong – it’s a difficult number to calculate as many keep it hidden.
She has become the poster girl for the transgender community.
“Transgender people don’t support one another,” says Leung, who is vice-chair of the Pink Alliance.
This is often because they’re terrified of people finding out. The recent victory of “W”, the transgender woman, born a man, who won the right to marry her boyfriend, shows that at least the Court of Final Appeal recognises it as a human rights issue.
But society is still a little slow to follow.
“Society is in general quite accepting of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] community,” says Leung. “But if one is a colleague, that level of acceptance goes down. And if they are relatives it’s not good, and if they’re your kids, then definitely not.”
Leung’s mother has been supportive. She was initially concerned that the operation would affect Leung’s health, and she’s unsure about Leung becoming well-known through the media.
Leung is never short of an aspiration.
She never went to university when she was young so was very proud last year when she got a degree in computing from the University of Greenwich in the United States.
“I’m planning to study at the University of Hong Kong and research transgender topics.”
The beat goes on.