Every person’s story is different. No two paths are the same. But at times, we see parallels: Whether lesbian, bi, trans or gay, many LGBT+ Hongkongers have overcome some form of stigma or discrimination when expressing their true selves in Hong Kong. We hear from three people – all with unique experiences – about their personal journeys to self-acceptance.
After years of questioning her identity, Joanne Leung realised she was a trans female lesbian in her 40s. Today, the 53-year-old politician and author of “The Book of Transgender in Hong Kong,” a guidebook for trans people, is one of the city’s best-known trans advocates. She shares her story:
“From the age of six, I knew I was different. That year, I started thinking of referring to myself as a girl. I enjoyed borrowing my mom’s and my sister’s clothes because I wanted to become a woman. But as I got older, I learned this was unacceptable.
I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Hong Kong society wasn’t as progressive. Before the age of 40, I tried to repress my feelings. I hid who I was for decades.
When the internet started gaining popularity around 2000, I researched crossdressing and found communities in Hong Kong. It was then that someone told me I was not a crossdresser [someone who dresses in ways normally associated with the opposite sex] but transgender [someone whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth].
I explored this idea and connected with other trans people in Hong Kong. Through my research and talks with others, I finally understood that I was trans. I told some of my close friends and, at first, they were accepting, but then some told me that it wasn’t okay.
I became severely depressed, but I continued to identify as trans. I tried to commit suicide four times during this period, due to the lack of acceptance I felt from my friends and peers.
“We’ve come a long way, but it’s still not enough.”Joanne Leung
At an art workshop for the public in 2007, a reporter from Next Magazine asked me to do an interview. I naively said yes – thinking that not many people would read it. Later, however, I realised my mom would probably read it and go into shock. At that point, I hadn’t come out to her yet. A week before the interview was scheduled to be published, I told my mom that, my whole life, I had wanted to become a woman.
She didn’t react too poorly, but she did ask me if I wanted to undergo sex reassignment surgery. I actually hadn’t thought about it until that moment. Then she asked me, like a typical mom: ‘Will it be expensive?’
I thought things would be okay because my mom knew the truth. But after the interview was published, a family member told me that my mom had cried after some acquaintances asked her if that was really me in the story. That was painful to hear, because it hurt my mother.
In 2009, I finally decided to have male-to-female sexual reassignment surgery including a penectomy – to remove my male genitalia – vaginoplasty [vaginal construction], and breast augmentation in Hong Kong. I also changed my Hong Kong Identity Card from male to female.
Before my surgery, I had already started advocacy work to support the trans community. In 2008, I founded the Transgender Resource Center, a support centre where we provide counselling for trans people. I was surprised when passersby stopped to learn about it – aunties holding bags of groceries from the wet market would come by and say, ‘This is a good service.’
Twenty to 30 years ago, few people knew what LGBT+ was. These days awareness has increased. In the early 2000s, when I first started dressing trans, shop-owners would chase me down the street, shouting that they wouldn’t take my business.
Since I came out, it has become acceptable to be an LGBT+ politician, celebrity or public figure, but many people won’t accept someone LGBT+ as a coworker, friend or family member. The city’s lack of anti-discrimination legislation for LGBT+ could harm a lot of people, since they may not be able to get a job due to their sexuality or gender identity.
I am not the only trans politician in Hong Kong. Robin Bradbeer, a UK-born robotics engineer became the first trans woman politician several years ago. However, since she is an English-speaker, she did not raise as much attention with the local media as I did, as a Chinese trans woman. It’s not easy for trans people to come out in society – and not many people have the opportunity to become politicians.
Society has improved, and we’ve come a long way, but it’s still not enough.”
A social worker specialising in family services, Alvin Cheung came to accept himself as a gay man in 2007 after undergoing a year and a half of conversion therapy. The 35-year-old explains how he overcame homophobia, religious conflicts and depression:
“I grew up in a very religious Christian home and school. I attended church from a young age, and tried to be obedient, hardworking – always striving for social approval and good grades.
Since childhood, I started to feel attracted to other boys at school. I couldn’t tell anyone because I was in denial. In high school, some of these boys found me weird and different. They would avoid me, and it hurt a lot. Thinking back, I grew up in a homophobic environment, and I internalised much of the prejudice.
In university, I confessed I was gay to some of my straight male friends. They told me that I should try conversion therapy [the practice of using religion and psychology to change one’s sexual orientation] led by a church-linked group to ‘cure’ myself.
In 2005, at the age of 21, I began conversion therapy which consisted of both private and group counselling sessions. First, my counsellors advised me to avoid certain sexual behaviours and thoughts, and to suppress my sexual attraction towards men.
Secondly, I had to build up my masculinity in the heteronormative sense, which they believed God wanted all men to embody. For this, I asked my friend to teach me how to play basketball like a man. Third, I had to develop so-called healthy, platonic relationships with men. And finally, I had to share my history, so the counsellors could link my homosexuality to trauma or family issues.
The experience had a serious impact on my health and life. I would dream about men and feel so guilty. In time, I learned to control my thoughts, to eliminate my desires. For several years, I did not dream.
The side effects of denying who I was were terrible. I would wake up in the morning shaking with heart palpitations. I couldn’t focus on my studies. I had promised myself I would try five years of conversion therapy. But after a year and a half, I broke down. I was depressed, had severe anxiety and had to take medication for both.
My counsellors told me conversion therapy wasn’t about changing my sexual orientation from gay to straight, it was about becoming a true Christian. ‘It’s a lifelong process,’ they said. ‘After you die, God will tell you if you have succeeded.’
“I would dream about men and feel so guilty.”Alvin Cheung
One of my counsellors was in a heteronormative marriage and had a son, but he confessed to me that he was still attracted to men. It was then that I realised that my sexuality wasn’t something that could be ‘cured’.
During this process, my mother came to accept me as gay because she didn’t want me to continue struggling, or to develop suicidal thoughts. She encouraged me to watch LGBT+ friendly TV shows and would talk to me about celebrities who were openly gay.
In 2007, I left conversion therapy. I studied social work and counselling for my postgraduate degrees and worked on rebuilding myself. I am openly gay in my personal life, as well as in my career as a social worker.
My life has improved drastically since I came out, not only because I can be myself, but also because my supervisors assign me LGBT+ cases where I can help others. But for me, coming out is a lifelong process. It’s not something you do just one time. I have come out more than 100 times to friends, colleagues, through social media posts…
I think Hong Kong has become more open in the past 10 years. Through social events like concerts, Pink Dot [an annual LGBT-organised pride event] and the Hong Kong Pride Parade, the public is more accepting. However, there are still things I have to consider: Should I bring my boyfriend to a family gathering? How do I tell relatives who I don’t see often that I am gay?
I still have a lot of fear inside – I think many LGBT+ people feel the same. They fear society’s judgment and prejudice. Today, I no longer consider myself a traditional Christian, but I do believe in universal love. I think God is more accepting than people think. After all, he gave us sexuality and diversity.”
As Hong Kong’s only intersex advocate, Small Luk is known in the community as “Sai Sai Lo See,” or Small Teacher. The 55-year-old was born with both female and male reproductive organs, due to a genetic condition. She campaigns on behalf of intersex individuals – those who are born with reproductive organs that don’t fit typical definitions. She shares her journey:
“When I was born, my parents and doctors noticed straight away that my genitals looked a little bit male, but not completely. I had a very small penis, and the structure wasn’t normal. The doctors told my parents, “Small is a unique boy,” and gave me a male birth certificate and Hong Kong Identity Card (HKID).
Growing up, I was raised as a boy, and my parents would bring me to hospital to fix my ‘problems’ and undergo operations for reshaping my penis. I had over 20 genital surgeries between the ages of eight and 13.
At the time, I believed that I had a disease because this was what I was told. But I also felt very confused, because unlike my peers, I could not use the urinal and could only pee sitting down. I didn’t understand why they told me I was a boy when I had to use the toilet like a girl.
I didn’t know I was intersex until many years later, in my 30s, when I went for a medical check-up during which they found a set of undeveloped female reproductive organs inside my body.
That’s when I was diagnosed with partial androgen insensitivity syndrome. Doctors recommended that I have a penectomy – or removal of my male genitalia – because partial androgen insensitivity syndrome could lead to cancer in those areas. After I had surgery, I had to change my HKID from male to female and, based on Hong Kong law, I would be legally female based on my remaining sex organs.
I had tried for years to meet people’s expectations of what it meant to be male, but I never fit. After my HKID changed to female, I didn’t seem to meet people’s expectations of what it meant to be female, either, in terms of my appearance and general behaviour.
“Today, when someone asks about my gender, I say: I am intersex.”Small Luk
I didn’t tell my parents I was intersex until after my surgery. I worried if I were no longer their ‘son,’ they would become depressed. My mom already felt guilty because she thought she had given birth to an abnormal son. She thought it was her fault.
After the penectomy, my parents visited me in the hospital, and I told them. My mom understood it was for health reasons, but my father wasn’t able to accept it. He felt as though I was betraying them since I was their first-born son – like I had given up my responsibilities towards our family.
At the time, my parents asked me not to tell anyone. So during events like Mid-Autumn Festival or Chinese New Year, I would present as male. “Don’t ever let your little brothers or sisters know about it,” my mother said.
I was frustrated because, as a child, I didn’t get to choose to be male. And now, as an adult, I couldn’t refuse the genital removal surgery, and couldn’t stop the government from changing my legal status from male to female.
Before my surgery, I mainly dated women, and today I am still primarily attracted to women. What is frustrating is that before I was ‘heterosexual’ and now, I must identify as a lesbian because of the gender on my HKID card and how that corresponds with my sexual orientation, which has always been the same. It is frustrating.
I don’t feel angry at my parents like I did when I was younger anymore. As I got older, I slowly came to understand that they were also victims within our rigid social system. I realise that I wasn’t the only one suffering. My parents loved me – when I cried during my surgeries, they also cried. I understand what they had to go through because I was not a normal baby in the eyes of society.
As a social worker and a licensed traditional Chinese medical doctor, I began working as an intersex advocate in 2011. Since I became an intersex advocate, around 11 people in Hong Kong have reached out to me to say they too are intersex.
During the first few years, I told everyone I was a medical expert concerned about intersex human rights. But in 2015, I had the chance to speak on behalf of intersex people at a United Nations’ Regional Dialogue on Rights and Health in Asia and the Pacific conference in Bangkok. It was the first time I came out and spoke about my personal experiences as an intersex person.
Intersex people are not free to choose their own lives in Hong Kong. Our parents and doctors tell us we are sick and bring us to hospitals as children. We don’t have the right to refuse. This is why I am an advocate for the intersex community.
It’s difficult and lonely, but I hope my work will help society understand that intersex people are just like everyone else – we have more in common than the sum of all of our differences.
With my long hair and bone structure, my appearance is not very masculine. But nor am I a beauty, or a modern-looking lady. In most people’s eyes, I am somewhere in between. Why must I declare myself male or female? Today, when someone asks about my gender, I say: I am intersex.”