MOST PEOPLE DON'T think twice about their right to marry. But for 37-year-old transsexual Miranda, it is not so straightforward. Miranda was born male and had sex reassignment at 33. Now a graceful woman of medium build and a fair complexion, she wears her hair fashionably shoulder-length and straight, and accentuates her features with make-up. Two years ago, she was deeply in love with a man who planned to marry her. However, her adopted sex is not recognised under Hong Kong law because it is not possible to change the sex on birth certificates. Had she tied the knot with her boyfriend, it would have been treated as a marriage between two men, which is also unlawful. Worrying he might leave her if she spilled the beans, Miranda made a painful decision. 'I dumped him,' says Miranda, who is now single. 'He didn't know I was a transgendered person. I did not know how to tell him.' Miranda is among the estimated 100 or so transsexuals in Hong Kong frustrated by the lack of legal recognition of their new genders. Their plight has been highlighted by academics following the British government's announcement last month of a long-awaited reform to legally recognise the adopted gender of the country's 5,000 transsexuals. The change had been forced on the British government by a ruling in July 2001 by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that deemed its failure to recognise the new identities of two male-to-female transsexuals a breach of human rights. Under the measure expected to take effect next year, the transsexuals will be given the right to change their birth certificates to their new sexes, which effectively gives them the right to marry. Britain is one of only four European countries - the others being Albania, Andorra and the Republic of Ireland - that refuse transsexuals permission to alter their birth certificates. In the United States, all but three states allow the change. In Asia, however, only a handful of countries provide legal recognition, including Singapore, some parts of Australia and New Zealand. 'Hong Kong is way behind other developed and enlightened societies in this regard,' says Sam Winter, a psychologist at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), who specialises in gender identity development and transgender issues. 'It's very unfortunate.' Winter estimates Hong Kong is home to fewer than 100 transsexuals but believes one in 500 people grow up with transgender feelings, and the majority of these suppress such feelings. In 1981, the first sex reassignment surgery in Hong Kong was performed by an ad hoc group of doctors at the Princess Margaret Hospital. In 1986, the sex clinic of Queen Mary Hospital founded the gender identity team to offer comprehensive assessment and treatment of transsexual patients seeking a sex change. From 1986 to 2000, the team assessed 82 cases and 38 people received sex reassignment. Despite a lack of legal recognition of their adopted sex, few transsexuals in Hong Kong have challenged the status quo for fear of exposing themselves to social discrimination. Winter says a few years ago, one contacted the government pressing for a change in the law. Some medical experts have also called for a legal review. But the voices have never been strong enough to trigger public debate or government action. Miranda says this lack of legal recognition of her adopted gender makes it difficult for her to develop a relationship. 'This is always a problem for us: should we tell our boyfriends who we are?' she says, adding that although she doesn't want to lie, she believes few men could handle the truth. 'If the law is changed, then I wouldn't have to think about all that.' Ironically, marriage is not entirely off-limits for Hong Kong's transsexuals. Because the law recognises a person's biological sex only, a male-to-female transsexual could marry a woman and a female-to-male could marry a man - although Winter says such relationships are rare. Nonetheless, there is a host of other legal issues that confront transsexuals. According to Robyn Emerton, assistant professor at the HKU's faculty of law, a transsexual such as Miranda is open to prosecution for using a female toilet, although Miranda has not run into any trouble so far. Were she sentenced to jail for committing a crime, she would be sent to a male prison. In theory, Miranda cannot be a victim of rape because rape of male-to-female transsexuals is not covered by the law. 'But a female-to-male transgendered person would still be regarded as woman by law and so could be raped. Yet there has been no court case to test the issue,' Emerton says. After Miranda's sex reassignment, she had her identity card changed, with the new one showing her new sex and name. But there is a 'B' after the identity number to indicate either the sex, birthday or place of birth is different to that on the holder's birth certificate. According to Emerton, the 'B' flags the holder's transsexuality to those in the know, such as the police and immigration officials, because there are few instances in which the other two criteria are changed. Miranda, whose lawyer made sure she understood her rights before she went under the knife, says with contempt: 'I found it ridiculous that I could be arrested for going to a female washroom . . . It's like we're being treated as the third sex.' Miranda is frustrated because she believes too many things do not make sense, including the fact that her operation in 1998 was fully paid for by the gender identity clinic at the Queen Mary Hospital run by the government, which ultimately does not recognise her new identity. Winter points to the government's half-hearted stance. 'It seems so ironic that the government should help transgendered people to change their sex even to the point of providing surgery at its own expense, and at the end of all this, doesn't give them the legal status they deserve.' According to the Immigration Department, correction of any personal information on one's birth certificate is possible only if the holder is under the age of 11 or if it can be proven an error had been made. Asked whether there is any prospect of the adopted sex of transsexuals being recognised legally, a spokesperson responded in a written reply: 'The existing arrangement has been operating well.' Winter calls for the government to respect the rights of the minority and initiate changes. 'By changing the law, you would make the lives of a small but significant number of people a lot easier,' he says. 'What we are looking at are people who suffer fear, social isolation, depression, and many have attempted suicide.' Such experiences are not new for Miranda. Before she had the operation, she made four attempts to kill herself (two of them before the age of 20) by slashing her wrist or overdosing. Having suffered from depression for years, she still entertains suicidal thoughts. 'I had feelings of gender confusion when I was six or seven,' she says, explaining that she didn't understand what she was experiencing at the time. She says it was only around the age of 20 that she heard about 'sex reassignment'. 'Before the operation, every second of my life was torture,' Miranda recalls. 'I hated my body every morning I woke up. I wanted to damage it because I hated it.' Answering the needs of her feminine side, Miranda began dressing like a woman at 15, but she remembers the unfriendly attention she attracted from strangers. Once a woman approached her on the MTR and said: 'Why are you dressed like a woman?' Miranda responded by asking her the same question. 'I was discriminated against for 20 years. It was to do with the way people looked and stared at you,' Miranda says, closing her eyes as if to shut out the pain. 'You haven't done anything wrong, but people spread rumours about you and that scars you.' Although she chose to wear women's clothes in her free time, at work (she is wary of revealing her profession), Miranda dressed and acted like a man. But that did not stop people from gossiping about her, she says, which aggravated her depression. After her fourth suicide attempt, she was introduced to the gender identity clinic that offered her two years of counselling before she decided to undergo the operation, to her mo-ther's dismay. But Miranda refused to reconsider. She says: 'I thought, if I died, my mother would lose a child. If I didn't die, she had lost me [as a son] already. But if I had the operation, at least I would be happy myself.' Miranda had three operations totalling 29 hours over three months, during which she suffered tremendous physical pain brought on by breast augmentation and surgery that involved using part of the colon to form the vagina. 'We have to suffer so much to get what other people take for granted,' she says. 'Right after the operation, I asked myself, 'What's next?'' Wanting to start a new life with a new identity, Miranda transferred to a different department at work after her operation, trusting only a few colleagues with her secret. She still sees her mother, who struggles to accept Miranda's new identity. While she keeps in touch with a few former workmates, she stopped seeing her transsexual friends, a reaction Winter says is typical of transsexuals. 'I missed them sometimes, but we all wanted to have a fresh start,' Miranda says, referring to her and her friends. Although she felt 'totally relaxed' after the operation, she still is susceptible to black moods. 'I don't like this world,' she says matter-of-factly, explaining she has learned to protect herself by putting up the barricades. 'I try to act tough, speak tough. But I don't want to be tough.' Winter says many transssexuals' emotional problems are largely a result of how society treats them. 'Some [medical experts] claim that gender identity is a disorder,' he says. 'But you might say that it's society that has a mental disorder, not the people concerned. Transgendered people are ordinary people but their adopted sex is not legally acknowledged. That is an injustice.' Emerton says she and Winter are trying to bring the issue to the government's attention. 'We're very much at the beginning. We hope to form a concern group with the transgender community to discuss the issues that most concerns them and to try to effect change,' she says. 'We may raise the issue with the Equal Opportunity Commission or the Immigration Department.' Miranda says she has never contemplated coming out to fight for her right because the community is too small and, most importantly, she can't risk having her identity exposed. 'But I do agree that changing the law would give us something good,' she says. 'Even if all else fails, we would still have the law that gives us rights. You can get married and you have a choice. But we don't. That's what we want: the choice and the right.' Academic reports on transsexuality are available at http://web.hku.hk/~sjwinter/TransgenderASIA/ .