Transgender refugee goes through 'hell' in Hong Kong to be recognised as a woman

Transgender Colombian finds herself stateless after problems getting into Hong Kong following hormonal treatment that altered her looks

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 April, 2014, 3:15am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 April, 2014, 10:48am

For transgender Colombian national Eliana Rubashkyn, Hong Kong is "a jail - it's a hell".

Just six months ago, Rubashkyn was studying at the Taipei Medical University; now she is a stateless refugee.

Her ordeal began last September, when the MBA student visited Hong Kong on what was supposed to be a quick trip to update her passport photograph.

A year of hormonal treatment had transformed the male look she was born with to match her female identity, and Hong Kong's Colombian consulate was her closest option.

Watch: Transgender Colombian stranded in Hong Kong

But at Chek Lap Kok airport, Rubashkyn was refused passage into the city - apparently because her womanly appearance contradicted the "male" identity on her passport.

During several hours of detention that followed, the 25-year-old said immigration officers "behaved like animals", ridiculing her for being dressed as a woman. They denied her repeated requests to have a woman carry out a body search on her, and touched her penis and breasts, she said.

The Immigration Department denies these allegations, saying Rubashkyn was stopped because "we could not confirm her purpose of visit".

All staff "are well aware of providing quality service without discrimination and treating each member of the public with respect, consideration and compassion, irrespective of disability, sex, marital status, pregnancy, family status, race, nationality and religion", it said.

Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights have urged governments around the world to implement policy and training to ensure transgender people can travel freely despite real or perceived inconsistency between their gender expression and what is stated on their identity documents.

Rubashkyn was finally allowed to enter Hong Kong after she contacted the UN High Commissioner for Refugees through Amnesty International.

But to secure the UNHCR's protection, she surrendered her passport and took on the status of refugee. She is now seeking legal aid to take court action over her alleged mistreatment while being detained by immigration.

Despite being under the UNHCR's official protection, Rubashkyn describes her life in Hong Kong as "a nightmare". Like all refugees in the city, she relies on minimal provisions by NGOs, is barred from paid jobs and has very limited rights to education and health care.

"I don't have a coin in my pocket," she said, adding that she had lost about 10kg since she arrived and is anaemic.

Until last week, Rubashkyn was staying in a 3.75 square metre room in a seedy Kowloon guest house, her rent paid by donors. But her landlord has now decided he does not want a refugee as a tenant, and Rubashkyn, without a Hong Kong ID card or an income, is caught in a fix.

Her dilemma illustrates the widespread negative perception of transgender people in Hong Kong, reinforced by government policy that lags behind global human rights standards.

"It is a merge of two rather complicated areas, refugees and sexual minority rights," said Michael Vidler, a lawyer who represented "W", the transgender woman in a landmark Court of Final Appeal case last year that granted her the right to wed.

Following that court ruling, the Security Bureau published a bill in late February to amend the Marriage Ordinance to allow transgender people to wed. But the bill also seeks to enshrine in law an existing government policy that transgender people must have complete gender-reassignment surgery - described by some as forced sterilisation - before their acquired sex can be recognised legally.

For Rubashkyn, the Immigration Department refuses to recognise a letter from the UNHCR addressed directly to them instructing that she be recognised as a female.

She has been issued a "Recognizance Form 8" by the department that omits stating her sex. Asked why, the department said it did not think "the sex is important to us in her case". It denied gender was usually recorded on the official document.

Victoria Wisniewski-Otero from the Justice Centre Hong Kong, who deals regularly with the "Recognizance Form 8", said it was customary for gender to be indicated on it.

The Hospital Authority acknowledges the UN directive, however. Rubashkyn is registered as a woman patient - a decision the authority said was based on her lack of a local ID card or any other identity document.

For Rubashkyn, that registration is a small victory.