Tuesday 17 August 2021

Interview with Joanne Leung

Monika: Today I have invited an inspirational woman. Joanne Leung is a transgender activist from Hong Kong where she became the first openly transgender politician. Joanne is the former chairwoman of Pink Alliance and the founder and chairwoman of Transgender Resource Center (TGR), both non-governmental organizations that aim to service the LGBT community and promote LGBT equality. Hello Joanne!
Joanne: Hey Monika!
Monika: I am so happy to talk to one of the icons of the Hong-Kong transgender community! How are you doing in these crazy pandemic times?
Joanne: I am now doing a Master’s degree in Taiwan in Gender Studies and being locked down means I can be more focused on my studies. After more than 11 years servicing the trans community, I found that research data is so important in providing a better environment for transgender people, especially there were much less empirical data in the area of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. That’s why I planned to step down in 2019 for my ongoing learning path. Yet the new chairman after a year of service has got a studying offer and decided to resign.
As in the pandemic period, it is hard to engage physically with the community, I have shifted mostly the activities of the Transgender Resource Center online and it is also good for me to handle them remotely from Taiwan.
Monika: Before we touch upon your illustrious activist career, let me ask you about your childhood. Were you a happy child?
Joanne: That is a very interesting question you have asked. I don’t think I was a happy child as far as I can remember. I did a lot of silly things and tried to be happy with my innocent character. Yet keeping the secret of the desire to be a girl tore me down so much!

"I tried to recognize my gender identity but it seems
that no one could understand and accept it."

Monika: In Wikipedia, I found a note about your four attempted suicides caused by the fact that you had to hide your female identity.
Joanne: Yes, I felt so frustrated and depressed during the time I tried to recognize my gender identity but it seems that no one could understand and accept it. That led me to the idea to establish my own organization to help other people like me. It was not the first one in Hong Kong but when I found out that those groups are more like a secret clubhouse for people to live in a shadow, I decided I have to do something different to bring people back under the sunlight. I am not sure I am right but at least I hope I can live a life in the open.
Monika: Given my own experience as well as that of many girls and women that I interviewed, I wonder whether we should be called ‘runners’ instead of transwomen. We run, run, and run away from our feminine self until it catches up with us. The only difference is how long we can run away from our true identity. Did you experience the same?
Joanne: Haha… that’s also my experience too! I kept refusing my desire but finally, I got caught. And then I realized that embracing my true identity is the best in my life.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Joanne: I think I am so lucky! I thought I would have to pay a high price for coming out but in fact, nearly all my true and lovely friends have stayed and have been a part of my life until now. My father passed away before I had my gender recognized and I am still sorry about not telling him earlier. My mom accepts me with her unconditional love and I am happy to have her in my life. I believe my innocent manner helps me a lot in my all-the-time coming out games. I nearly encounter no rejection in my thousands of coming out experiences. I am really a crazy person trying to grip every chance to tell people that I am a transgender person.
Monika: After you were officially recognized as a woman in 2009, you became an activist fighting for the rights of the Hong Kong transgender community and founded the Transgender Resource Center (TGR) to support transgender individuals and provide information about transgender issues. What was the biggest challenge at that time?
Joanne: I think the biggest challenge is the inner tension within the transgender community. I am not saying all transgender individuals are having this problem but those who approached for help usually have different kinds of personal issues and mostly hostile to some other members of the community including me. Yet I can understand their internal fears and anxieties which I have experienced before too. That’s why our organization used to put a lot of effort into counseling service and peer support groups before the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet raising funds, volunteering, and counselor training is not easy, and it is resource-draining. I am now seeing if we can rebuild and enhance that service in the next phase of our work.

"I believe my innocent manner helps me a lot in my
all-the-time coming out games."

Monika: And what is the biggest challenge today?
Joanne: I think the biggest challenge is how we treat challenges. I believe challenges are trials that can build up our abilities and personalities. Overcoming challenges does not mean that we will never fail. It only means we will never give up. Everything we keep doing for love will surely be meaningful.
Monika: I tried to search for some information about transgender women in the history of China and I could not find too many references. They mention Peking Opera, also known as Beijing Opera, that used to have male actors playing female characters, and in modern times Jin Xing (Chinese: 金星), a famous Chinese ballerina, a modern dancer.
Joanne: There actually quite some transgender women are known in several decades in China. There could be different reasons why it is not easy to find such pieces of information but what I can be sure of is that the term 'transgender' has been introduced and translated into Chinese quite recently. Before that term, 'transsexual' in Chinese was usually affiliated with negative news. Jin Xing is the first character being recognized by the general public and is still famous in China.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China?
Joanne: It is not easy to answer this question. I can say the social acceptance towards transgender people in all these locations are getting higher provided that they are not your family members, colleagues, or anyone who is close in your social circle. Trans people still face different kinds of discrimination and violence in some domains especially in families, workplaces, intimate relations, and religion. There are some laws to protect the rights of trans people in Taiwan but none in Hong Kong and Mainland China except the rights on SRS and marriage to the opposite sex after that.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Joanne: Hmm… I can’t think of any and that’s why I am so difficult in my transition journey. Yet I am lucky that there is lots of information from the western countries that I can find through the internet. Not all of them are useful but at least I can have a reference and know that I am not alone. That’s also why I established the Transgender Resource Center in 2008 to provide localized information for people like me.

"Trans people still face different kinds of discrimination
and violence in some domains especially in families,
workplaces, intimate relations, and religion."

Monika: I heard only about Liu Shihan, probably the No. 1 transgender model in China, and Alicia Liu, a successful model from Taiwan.
Joanne: The first transgender person in China should be Zhang Kesha (張克莎) who underwent the SRS back in 1983. Alicia Liu is a famous model in Taiwan, and her transgender identity was disclosed in 2010. And we cannot forget about Jin Xing, transgender identity is not what Alicia Liu would like people to see who she is. I am not so familiar with the pop culture in Taiwan and really not sure about that.
Monika: Do you remember the first time when you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Joanne: I still remember in 2000, I found a crossdresser group in Hong Kong and finally saw someone like me face to face. It impacted me a lot and I still treasure the time I have with these friends. I see crossdressers as members of the transgender community but not all members share the same view.
Monika: Is the Chinese Health Service ready to provide health services to transgender women?
Joanne: The Health Service Systems in Hong Kong, Mainland, and Taiwan are so different. I don’t think they are up to the international standard yet, but they are catching up in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Monika: Would Chinese ladies go to Thailand for GRS or have it done in China?
Joanne: It all depends on their wealth. I heard most transwomen would like to have GRS in Thailand and many transmen would like to have it in Taiwan due to technique-wise consideration. The surgery is free of charge in Hong Kong but still, some people would consider doing it abroad.
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Joanne: In my experience, passing does not largely rely on facial looking and cosmetic surgeries. It is how you interact with people and be natural. There are a lot of cisgender women who do not look really like a woman but still ok to hook up with their social life. I am in favor of the concept from Judith Butler that gender is performative. Yet how to incorporate that performative will need some special know-how. For me, I won’t see passing as a must to please other people to recognize my gender. I just am myself and that’s why I have been more identifying myself as a non-binary in these recent years. It doesn't work very well interestingly as people are getting used to seeing me as a woman.

"I am in favor of the concept from Judith Butler that
gender is performative."

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Joanne: When I was young, I always dreamed of a life partner that I could care for and love. But my last relationship ended more than 20 years ago and I wasn't sure if it was caused by my gender issue. Yet this single status gave me more time and energy to spend my love on servicing the transgender community and then on myself as I am not good at loving myself. And now, love the Lord my God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind, and as well love my neighbor as myself.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Joanne: Yes, I did think about that in a few moments of my life. I think I am preparing for the best time to do it and hope it can be a gift not only for the community but for people who have a gender.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Joanne: I hope I can continue for a doctoral degree to do more research related to gender identity.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Joanne: Fear not and be courageous. If you are sure you don't want to live a life in this gender, then try something new.
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Joanne: Absolutely! The only limitation is your imagination.
Monika: Joanne, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Joanne: It was my pleasure too! Love this conversation!

All the photos: courtesy of Joanne Leung.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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