A Gender Dilemma (Amended)
Whether transgender people should be legally and socially allowed to acquire a gender that differs from their sex at birth without undergoing sex re-assignment surgeries remains a matter of debate in the not yet trans-friendly city.
Maggie Leung, a transgender person, faces a dilemma every time Maggie has to use a public restroom – men's or women's, that is the question.
Restrooms for the handicapped are usually Maggie's way out, as long as they are not closed for maintenance, which is not uncommon.
"I remember going into a men's restroom once. A man said some rude things to me," the 27-year-old man by birth, who feels and behaves like a woman and showed up in a Hello Kitty T-shirt for the interview, recalled.
Apart from experiencing difficulties in everyday life, Maggie has also encountered discrimination in the workplace and lost Maggie's job to gender. Maggie was fired from the high school Maggie used to work for because the principal regarded transgenderism as contrary to his religious belief.
Transgender people, sometimes known simply as "trans", do not identify with the gender society expects of them based on their genitalia or physical appearance, and often prefer to dress and act in ways associated with the opposite gender. They differ from transsexual persons in terms of medical intervention – they have not yet had undergone sex re-assignment surgeries or opt not to do so.
Persons like Maggie are currently categorised as suffering from a kind of mental disorder known as Gender Identity Disorder, which is specified in the widely used "bible of psychiatry" Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. As a result, transgender people in the city are protected from discrimination under the Disability Discrimination Ordinance instead of the Sex Discrimination Ordinance.
The categorisation is bashed by the transgender community, who think they should be treated as a minority rather than handicapped individuals as transgenderism, in their words, is merely a "condition" but not a kind of "disability".
Dr Day Wong Kit-mui, Associate Professor of Sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University, said Hong Kong was lagging behind other developed economies in terms of upholding rights of minorities.
"Put in a global context, you can see that many other global cities have followed the trend of safeguarding minority rights," she said. "Hong Kong as a global city will have to seriously consider following this direction as well."
Restroom quandary and mental health doubts are not the only woes plaguing the city's trans. Transgender people are not allowed to change the sex shown on their identity cards before undergoing full sex reassignment surgeries, a set of potentially dangerous and prohibitively expensive surgical procedures that alter the appearance and function of one's sex characteristics to make them resemble that of the opposite sex.
Having only the upper body transformed, under the current law, does not qualify a transgender person for a legally recognised reverse of gender, leaving half-done trans in a tight spot.
In an opinion piece published in the South China Morning Post, Dr York Chow Yat-ngok, Chairman of Equal Opportunities Commission, the statutory body responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws, argues that transgender people deserve legislative protection since the sex on their identity documents is frequently a giveaway that brings transgender people troubles under many circumstances.
"(T)he possible incongruity between a transgender person's physical appearance and the sex on their legal documentation leaves them at high risk of discrimination and harassment, not to mention violence," he wrote.
Dr Chow and Dr Wong both suggest that Hong Kong consider adopting the UK's Gender Recognition Act, under which transgender people can establish their desired gender legally after an at least two-year-long doctor observation, while having undergone surgeries is not a necessary condition.
Ms Mimi Wong, almost 60 years old, is one of the activists who are calling for legislation and education to ensure equal rights and opportunities for transgender people.
She had sex reassignment surgery several years ago with zero support from her family. Prior to the surgery, she felt she was a woman trapped inside a man's shell and the social intolerance of her gender identity had been upsetting her.
"I think people just look upon us as freaks," she said. "People do not know who transgender people are and that's why I think more education is needed."
Ms Wong visited Britain and described her experience in the opposite hemisphere as eye-opening. Having witnessed the British society's acceptance of the transgender community, she is determined to bring about some changes in Hong Kong.
"We need anti-discrimination laws," said Ms Wong. "I have a plan on my mind to change the mindset of Hong Kong people."
Ms Wong then founded the Association of World Citizens Hong Kong China, which organises campaigns for legislation to protect transgender people, provides them with psychiatric therapies and educates the public.
She also plans to start a business where transgender people can work and engage with society.
Ms Wong believes that a person should be legally and socially recognised as having the gender he or she is determined to live as rather than one's biological gender if the person is diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder. And this should be the case even if this person did not want to undergo sex reassignment surgeries, she added.
"However, if you try to put this kind of thinking forward to the Hong Kong public, people just won't agree," she said.
Dr Chow noted that how the most vulnerable group was treated was a measure of a society's level of civilisation and encouraged Hong Kong people to see transgender people as equals in his op-ed in the South China Morning Post.
"(B)y recognising and shedding our outdated gender stereotypes, we can be more inclusive of not only transgender individuals, but also others who may not conform to traditional gender expectations," he wrote.
"It is the right of everyone to live a life of dignity free from harm and discrimination," the piece reads at the end. "When we fail to protect one group, no matter how seemingly small a minority, from equally accessing this right, we chip away at our shared humanity. Surely, we can do better."
Reporte by Lokie Wong
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