City Weekend

Hong Kong law must change to recognise my true self, transgender activist says

Angel has waged a painful struggle for years and dreams of gaining the same sort of acceptance as achieved in Taiwan

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 July, 2017, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 July, 2017, 3:03pm

Transgender activist Angel says she first knew she should have been born a woman in her early 20s, when she increasingly desired to inhabit a woman’s body.

During this time, she recalled trying on one of her mother’s dresses when she was about 15 years old – perhaps an early sign of contemplating her gender identity.

“It started with having certain feelings inside; I longed to have a woman’s face and body shape,” she says. “But most importantly, I wanted to be treated as a woman in society. Yet at that point, I had no knowledge about the issue and I didn’t know what to do next.”

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Soon after her revelation dressing as a woman, Angel says, became one factor in persuading her doctor in Hong Kong that she was serious about having gender reassignment surgery.

But the former hair stylist says she lost her clients after she began wearing women’s clothes at work.

My mother told me: ‘If you go down this path, then I will throw you out’
Angel, transgender activist

She subsequently lost her job because the role was commission based. Around this time, she was cut off by her family because they could not accept her transgender identity.“When I was considering gender reassignment surgery, my mother told me: ‘If you go down this path, then I will throw you out,’” she says. “That is quite common for families of transgender people here; they have those reluctant feelings. But my family is just a small part of society.”

Once her gender reassignment surgery was complete, Angel subsequently had a series of facial surgeries in Taiwan, paid for by a friend, in order to look more feminine.

“I felt the only way I could be treated as a woman was to completely change my appearance. I had a lot of plastic surgery. I would not choose to do that if it wasn’t so essential to look like a woman.

“It was quite a burden to me; it was quite painful. My body was rejecting some of the changes, particularly around my face. I know many other transgender women and for them the transition has been more difficult because of their more masculine body shape, which I sympathise with.”

Despite the turmoil she has faced, Angel appears confident in her own skin during her interview with the Post at the offices of LGBT community group Rainbow of Hong Kong in Jordan.

Clad in a black lace skirt and chiffon shirt which complement her jet black hair, she says her biggest frustration with the Hong Kong government is it makes being transgender “more complicated than it is”.

She suggests the government should urgently update laws on gender recognition to make it easier for transgender people to formally identify how they choose, like in Britain, where ministers are considering proposals to allow people to pick their gender without a doctor’s diagnosis.

“Reforming gender recognition laws would make it easier in all areas, such as travelling abroad, opening a bank account, or just using public toilets,” she says. “If the government can recognise gender identity earlier, then that would be the biggest help for us.

“We need more resources, like transgender hostels if a transgender person becomes homeless, to cover the problem, because people make it more complicated than it is.”

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Angel, who officially adopted a single name after completing gender reassignment surgery in September 2003, is one of a growing number of transgender Hongkongers to seek counselling and surgery from doctors at public hospitals.

The numbers of people seeking treatment for gender identity disorder more than doubled from 75 in the 2011-12 financial year to 158 in 2015-16. During the same period, the number of people who underwent gender reassignment surgery at public hospitals increased from two to 12 per year.

It can still take 70 weeks for such patients to be seen for the first time. Hong Kong’s first designated centre for gender reassignment surgery opened at Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin in October last year, with doctors receiving specialist overseas training.

In order to qualify for gender reassignment surgery in Hong Kong, a doctor must be convinced someone suffers from gender identity disorder, a condition which means the individual feels as though he or she was born the wrong gender.

After her diagnosis, Angel says undergoing gender reassignment surgery was the only way for her to be accepted as a woman in society.

Various political and community groups are currently petitioning the government to set a timetable for a “Gender Recognition Act”, which would provide protection for Hong Kong’s transgender population in line with United Nations human rights standards.

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Although the government set up an Interdepartmental Working Group on Gender Recognition, chaired by the secretary for justice, in January 2014, new legislation appears to have stalled.

Hong Kong’s Transgender Resource Centre, a campaign group that lobbies for better legal and welfare protection for the transgender population, has warned of how the societal vulnerability of transgender people means they are often at greater risk of contemplating suicide.

This month a 24-year-old transgender woman fell to her death from a Tai Wai bridge in a suspected suicide. Her multiple Facebook posts subsequently revealed her angst over her gender dysphoria.

Angel, now aged in her 30s, is currently in a relationship and identifies as bisexual. She has previously been forced to sleep rough in parks but has sometimes sought refuge at Rainbow’s office in Jordan.

Currently unemployed, she is struggling to find work, which she says has become increasingly difficult despite her now legally being recognised as a woman.

“It’s hard to get a job. I get panic attacks about applying for work and interviews. I also have trouble sleeping and I have had bouts of depression. I have had difficulty socialising too because of the way people stare at me.”

But she insists she does not want to force people here to accept her.

“I do not want to preach what Hong Kong people should think,” she says. “People will often say they think transgender people will harm children; those people just fear us.

“I just wish we could be more like Taiwan, where I’ve seen transgender people working in restaurants as waiters, being treated well by their colleagues. I was very happy to see that.”