Transgender in China: secrets and surgery

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Chinese society remains deeply traditional in many respects

Chinese society remains deeply traditional in many respects (AFP Photo/)

Beijing (AFP) - At home her son still calls her daddy, at work she dresses in a masculine style, but this Chinese person has a "little secret" -- she was born male, but is not any more.

She had long identified as a woman, and suffered from depression after starting a family, opting in the end to have a surgical sex change.

"I had wanted to kill myself, but then I decided I should do something -- if I die, I'd rather die on the operation table," she adds.

Chinese society remains deeply traditional in many respects so in public she still has to hide her new identity and does not want her name or occupation revealed, for fear of the consequences.

“It will be very easy to find me, and I might lose my job,” she explained.

US-based NGO Asia Catalyst estimates there are four million transgender people in China, and says they face severe discrimination.

Sexually ambiguous characters have a long history in Chinese art and literature, but being transgender is still classified as a mental illness in the country --homosexuality was removed from the category in 2001 -- although sex reassignment surgery is legal.

Those who come out as transgender to their families risk being rejected or forced to marry and have children.

"I married my wife when I still had a man's body, thinking I could live with her without changing myself physically," AFP's interviewee said.

"My wife did not mind my identifying as female. She is from a small town. Our personalities do not match well, but we both wanted to get married."

She says she did not want to become a father but her family persuaded her to have a child, and the couple have not separated since her surgery for the sake of their son.

"I tell my nine-year-old boy: 'Daddy has a little secret -- daddy is not a man,'” she said. "He is not yet old enough to feel confused about this."

- 'I thought no one would love me' -

Now she tries to help others in her position, running an online network from her home in Jinzhou, in the northeastern province of Liaoning, to connect transgender individuals with each other and professionals such as doctors, psychiatrists and lawyers -- who can help with divorces.

"As I tried to solve problems in my life, I gradually built a safe environment around me," she told a meeting at the Beijing LGBT Centre, a resource centre in the capital.

"You just have to be brave enough and tell people your trouble -- if one doctor doesn't understand you, talk to another. Eventually you will find someone."

Transgender issues were given unusual prominence in China last year, when the country's most famous sexologist, Li Yinhe, announced she had been living for 17 years with a partner who was born female but identifies as a man, referring to him as her "husband" and stressing she saw herself as heterosexual.

The couple were profiled by a national magazine and the Communist party mouthpiece the People's Daily said on a microblog: “Respecting the choices of people like Li Yinhe is respecting ourselves."

Together with the success of male-to-female transsexual dancer Jin Xing, who often appears on mainstream television shows, the reaction to Li's statement was taken as a sign of slowly shifting attitudes.

But many Chinese doctors and psychiatrists know little about how to deal with transgender individuals, the Beijing LGBT Centre's executive director Xin Ying, told AFP.

Those who have changed their physical appearance face difficulty getting a job, having a medical operation, or even boarding a train, she said, as there is no established legal procedure to change information on Chinese identity cards.

Hong Kong-based transgender activist Joanne Leung urged the audience at the meeting not to lose hope: "Before I had sex change surgery, I thought no one would love me and I would be single until I die. But I was wrong."

Even so fears about others reactions remain. Fang Yuran, another speaker at the meeting, was born female but wants to become a man. She has only come out to her family as a lesbian, fearing their response if she explained further.

She explained: "If I told my parents the truth, they would think I am ill and never let me be."