Transgender people are people with gender identities that differ from the one they were assigned at birth. Individuals who don’t fit inside the binary of man and woman experienced microaggressions coming from fear or lack of knowledge, systemic discrimination, and violence worldwide. A 2021 study conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong examined the lived experiences of transgender people in the city. Of the 234 people surveyed, the study found that 59% had faced verbal assault, 76.9% had contemplated suicide, and more than half had faced discrimination in employment, education, stores, and from building management.
Under Hong Kong law, transgender people must fully medically transition before they can legally change their gender status. However, many don’t or can’t prioritize these gender-affirming surgeries for financial, health, or psychological reasons, or just because they don’t want to. This kind of non-affirming legislation, which makes it seem as if self-assigned identities aren’t valid unless the body matches the identity, is part of the systemic discrimination of transgender people. Brian Eagen Lau, an educator, dancer, and advocate for transgender issues, spoke with The HK HUB about his/her experiences as a transgender person in Hong Kong and how the perception of transgenderism differs in his/her mom’s native Thailand, where gender fluidity is more widely accepted.
#1 – How do you identify yourself, gender-wise and pronoun-wise?
Biologically, I’m intersex. I was born with this condition with XXY chromosome. Normally, males are born with XY chromosome and females are born with XX chromosome. But I have one X chromosome, meaning that my body developed in a more feminine way during puberty. I was born a baby boy, but then my body changed in a really different way. I have less bodily hair, my chest developed. The regular genders are just male and female, and anything that is not in those two categories is defined as transgender. I don’t really desire to be a full woman. I would define my gender as transfeminine.
For pronouns, I am cool with ‘he’ or ‘she’. I don’t really like the word ‘they’ for myself. I’m an English teacher, so to me using the word ‘they’ is a bit hard for me to teach my students. Should I use “they is” then, when I’m singular?
Actually, in Thai language, we only have one third person pronoun, which is เขา (khao). Other than the first person pronoun, which is gendered, we don’t really identify other people’s gender with a pronoun.
It’s my understanding of my gender. It’s not your understanding. As long as I think I am a certain gender, then others should not have the right to gender me. But if someone genders me as a male, that’s totally fine because it’s their upbringing that affects how they conceive a male. Maybe they see that I have a male name and broad shoulders, so in their eyes I am a male. But in other people’s eyes I’m a straight up woman.
That’s why I use ‘he’ or ‘she’, but in any official documents I always use ‘s/he’. If it’s something that’s official or public, people should have the choice to choose what gender pronoun they want to use for me. Some friends that have known me since I was young, they still use ‘he’. Most of the people that I know these days use ‘she’.
#2 – When did you start to realize that you were different from the other kids?
I only knew about XXY chromosome when I was in Year 5, which was not long ago, four years now. I always noticed my chest is developed, my Adam’s apple is not there, I have less bodily hair, and my genitalia is smaller. So I always felt that I was a bit different, but I never really looked into it. I thought oh, I’m just weird.
There was one evening that I was chatting with a student of mine and he told me that he also has this XXY chromosome, and I’m like what is that? He thought I knew already. We realized we both have similar stuff going on. I went to a clinic to check my blood, my hormones, my chest area, and found that it’s actually breast tissue there instead of fat. And my female hormones are indeed higher than a lot of other people.
I don’t intend to change [my legal name] even though it sounds quite masculine, because it’s part of my history.
However, I haven’t done a DNA test to confirm I have XXY chromosome. I don’t really care whether I have that proof or not. I know my body. I don’t think it’s something I need to prove, because my body is already in the middle.
Brian is my legal name, but I have many names. I chose my name with my mom because of its meaning: strong. I don’t intend to change it even though it sounds quite masculine, because it’s part of my history. I have a Thai name, which is คริส (Chaakrit). The name is quite masculine in Thai, but I don’t really mind that. Sometimes my Thai friends will drop the “Chaa” and it becomes “krit” or “Chris”. I also have a stage name, which is Briar Armani, so some people call me Armani or Briar. Especially when I belly dance, I am way more feminine and it’s a bit hard for them to call me Brian.
My Chinese name is 劉伊浚 (Lau Yi Jun). Yi means beautiful for female, and jun means handsome for male.
I don’t even know why I have this name. My parents went to those Chinese fortunetellers to name me, and they gave my parents three names. My mom chose this out of the three just because it sounded good to her. She didn’t really know the meaning behind it. I didn’t really realize until a tutor once said to me, “Your name is so weird. People don’t really put these two words together because they’re in two different spectrums of beauty.”
#3 – How do you express your masculinity and femininity in your daily life?
I don’t think about it, to be frank. The idea of masculinity and femininity is quite man-made. I don’t really think like, oh, this is masculine so I’m going masculine today. This is feminine, so I’m very feminine today. When I do dancing, I put makeup on and dress in a rather feminine way. I don’t feel like I need to showcase my femininity or masculinity in any way. I just move the way I feel like it. I also do Thai dancing, which is really elegant. You have to look smooth, slow, and effortless. But in order to look effortless, you need very strong muscles to control your body.
So although dancing may sound and look very feminine, in fact, the behind-the-scenes training is actually quite masculine. In my daily life, I do feel very proud that I am able to do home repair by myself. I can do a lot of seemingly male things that people may not think a girl can do. I was literally wearing a dress while drilling a hole in the wall. I just loved that. People may think that a female can’t do a lot of things. But I can do anything when I need to.
#4 – You’re part Thai, born and raised in Hong Kong. How did your multicultural upbringing shape you?
I’m one-quarter Thai. The first time I was in Thailand, I spent two months in an HKU program teaching students in a rural area. It was the first time I felt like I could be free about my gender. I hadn’t worn a dress yet, but the principle of that rural school was very open-minded. She literally let me teach anything even if it wasn’t in the textbook. I could do drama and sing with them, I taught dancing to them. And I was a bit more feminine, I was wearing makeup, I was wearing more flowy clothes.
There was this breakfast place opposite to my hotel. The lady [who worked there] was just so nice, bringing me everywhere in that little town after she closed shop. She brought me to buy clothes so I could get more interesting, flowy, Thai-style clothing. I tried them on, although I hadn’t dared to wear a dress yet. I think that was quite a breakthrough for me.
That experience of being so accepted […] when I’m not ‘male male’ just meant so much to me.
Before that, I always thought, “I’m going to be a teacher, I have to be a male because it’s what’s written on my ID card.” I didn’t think it was appropriate to wear anything remotely feminine. That experience really allowed me to feel like I can be free.
Thai people are very open-minded in terms of gender. They’re not very educated about gender, they think that you’re either a boy, girl, or lady boy. Lady boy is a really derogative term, but in Thailand they don’t really have that idea. Anyone that’s transgender, they will just use the word กะเทย (kathoey) [Editor’s note: Kathoey is a gender identity some people in Thailand use that usually refers to a transgender woman]. Translated into English this word isn’t that nice, and in Thailand it does have a bit of a negative connotation, but it’s not that bad. That experience of being so accepted by the school administration and students when I’m not ‘male male’ just meant so much to me. That really gave me courage to be more myself when I came back to Hong Kong.
I actually learned Thai at HKU as a minor. In my third year of learning Thai, I went to Thailand to my university where I had to wear a uniform. I can’t wear male uniforms anymore, but when I used to wear one, I had to bind my chest. The shirt would either fit my chest and not my waist, or fit my waist and feel so tight around my chest. I hated pants when I was young.
When I wore my female uniform, I felt like it was very coherent and felt me in the mirror.
So my Thai buddies and female friends suggested that I try on a female uniform. I tried it on and really liked it. I just felt so dumb, like why didn’t I try it way before? I didn’t feel any incoherence. The only reason I was restricting myself to try anything feminine outside the stage was that I might feel really disoriented or incoherent in terms of how I look. I’m not against any crossdresser that may look male, but wanna wear female clothes. I’m not opposed to it, but I just don’t want to see myself in that light. When I wore my female uniform, I felt like it was very coherent and felt me in the mirror.
On the last day of school, my Thai lecturer, who is almost like my second mom, also flew to Chiang Mai for Thai teacher’s day. She was very proud that I finally chose to do what I want. I think a lot of my experiences in Thailand helped me shape my gender. I wish I was there earlier.
#5 – How would you compare attitudes towards transgender people in Thailand and Hong Kong?
In Hong Kong, I get stared at a lot. Some people literally look from head to bottom and from my chest to my face, that kind of look. I was quite conscious in the beginning, but I stopped noticing because I’m so used to it already. In Thailand, I don’t experience that. I think people just don’t even care. It’s so normal there that I don’t even look like an alien.
I had this experience of teaching a group of students who were from very prestigious international schools in Hong Kong. I was teaching drama, and the students reacted well to me being myself and dressing up how I want. But then the parents wanted to have a drama class and requested me to be a male when I taught it, which I felt very uncomfortable about. I was asked to wear a shirt and pants and I was addressed as Mr. Brian.
But in the second year I stopped caring. I let my hair down. Sometimes I would wear pants and a shirt, but I would still wear a bra underneath. And I wore some shirts and pants that were more feminine, and no one really talked about it. The vice principal just said “This is school policy, I have to tell you to wear a shirt and pants. But if you really don’t want to do it, it’s up to you.” So in that way, it’s better.
There have also been situations in Hong Kong when I try to buy bras and female clothes and haven’t been allowed to go into the changing room. But in Thailand, I can do whatever. The lady in the bra shop even helped me to check my bra size. I am really, truly treated like a woman in Thailand.
I have also noticed a difference when I go for facial treatments in different places. In Thailand, I was always treated as a woman. When spas do face treatments for guys, they only touch up to the collar bones. But for girls, they would do some massage on the upper chest and back. In Thailand, they don’t really understand me as a male, so they do whatever they would do to a female.
While in Hong Kong, the place I’ve gone to since I was 19, they still don’t do any massage on my upper body, which still annoys me sometimes. But I kind of understand, they also have to protect themselves. They don’t know how to draw the line there. Although they may know that I’m quite feminine, maybe a man can lie and say he feels more feminine because he wants someone to touch their body to feel good. I understand, but I just don’t like it. That’s the difference between Thailand and Hong Kong.
#6 – Have you experienced discrimination?
I was in this drama company which is pretty renowned in Hong Kong. I was their assistant leader, which means teacher assistant. I was pursuing my teaching degree at HKU, while all the teachers had drama degrees. It’s hard to have a drama background in Hong Kong unless you attend APA [Editor’s note: Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts], which is in Cantonese. I have extensive theatre experience so I consider myself qualified, but I just don’t have it on paper.
I had to take the role of main teacher that day […] the parents actually complained, saying “Why was my child taught by this person?”
In the second year, I was working with a main teacher who was white and male. The main teacher told the students they could ask us any questions and we would honestly answer them. One student asked me if I was a boy or girl, and I told them that I’m not a boy and I’m not a girl. I’m in the middle and I choose to be in the middle. A week later, my manager called me and said, why are you talking about sex in the class? I was like, I wasn’t even teaching about sex, I was just talking about gender. I felt like, you’re a manager in a drama company and you can’t distinguish that. I was super disappointed.
There was another time where that male white teacher was sick, so I had to take the role of main teacher that day. The parents actually complained, saying “Why was my child taught by this person? That’s not right.” The manager called me and told me to tone down my makeup. And I was like, so you think your customers are more important than the teachers?
Then, although the hiring manager said I could be a leader after two years, I didn’t get a reply to a letter explaining why I deserved a promotion for five months. When I did hear from them, they sent a short email saying, sorry, we don’t have any position for you at all. I’m not sure if that was a gender thing, a race thing, or anything, but I believe it was a sort of discrimination.
#7 – How do you try to bring awareness to transgender issues?
I did a series of talks with Africa Center last year. On International Day of Transgender Visibility, I did the first talk sharing about what being transgender is actually like, and what transgenderism means in broad terms and narrow terms. It was well received and the director of Africa Center then asked if I wanted to do a series with them. The center really wants to bring up the ideas that sexuality and gender can be very diverse, like skin color. Even though he faced a boycott from his partners about my workshop, he still went for it. I really respect him.
In regular schooling, there isn’t much material that is actually gender- or sex- positive.
After doing this workshop for a few months, things became quite unstable because of Covid. People came less because they were scared. We may restart when things get better.
The talks were not only about transgender and intersex, they were really more about sexuality and gender and sex. In regular schooling, there isn’t much material that is actually gender- or sex-positive, or even sexuality-positive. There are a lot of workshops still going on online, but I feel like this kind of topic is way better discussed in person.
I do have this one problem that I don’t know how to solve, which is that people who come to the Africa Center talks are already quite open-minded already. I’m still working on how I can reach a wider audience where I can gradually introduce my ideas to them. It’s really hard for me as a one man band to do anything that’s really great. But I’m always up for different collaborations. That’s why I was honoured to have this experience, to share my story and my beliefs about gender.
Brian’s TedX HKU talk
Assigned as male at birth, Brian Eagen Lau was once lost in the myriad complexities of their intersex body, transfeminine gender and Thai-Hongkonger cultural identity. S/he found him/herself through the performing arts. Having experienced the transformative power of devised theatre alongside voice and speech training firsthand, s/he now guides his/her students on similar journeys of self-discovery through the various art forms and developing one’s voice as an educator.
Follow Brian on Instagram at @brianeagenlau.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of The HK HUB.
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