'My Hong Kong boss thought playing guess my gender with colleagues was funny'

Alice Ho (left) and Liam Mak have reported negative experiences in the workplace relating to their gender.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

When Liam Mak Wai-hon began a part-time bartending job at a steakhouse in Hong Kong’s Tsuen Wan earlier this year, he did not sense anything amiss at work.

Mak, born a female, started his hormone treatment in around August last year to embark on his transition to becoming a man.

Boasting a stylish comb-over, and a totem tattoo in his inner arm, the 19-year-old had fully adopted his male identity by the time he took up the job.

But because he has not undergone the full sex-reassignment surgery required to have his gender status legally changed, he had to declare his gender as female when filling in his employment form with the restaurant.

A few days after he started work, Mak’s colleagues suddenly volunteered to take on back-breaking chores for him. He later found out why.

“They told me that the manager had been going around, asking people to guess whether I am a man or a woman … He thought it was really funny,” said Mak, who eventually quit his job.

His experience illustrates challenges the transgender community in Hong Kong continue to face and treatment they often encounter at the workplace.

Most behaviour from colleagues stem from a lack of understanding, despite some headway gained in recent years for the city’s LGBT community as a result of a series of high-profile legal victories over the government.

Last week, the Association of World Citizen Hong Kong China, a charity founded in 2013 to support the city’s transgender community, released online content called “Guidance To Employers To Build Trans-friendly Workplaces”, in the hope it could provide some advice to businesses in the city.

It urged employers not to get bogged down by documentary proof when addressing the gender of an employee, and to train human resources staff to avoid potentially discriminatory situations.

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The booklet, which is available on the association’s website, also urged employers to protect the identities of transgender employees.

The association’s founder Mimi Wong said 25 companies, mostly multinationals, had pledged to implement the guidance as of Sunday.

“As most companies do not have the knowledge on how to deal with transgender employees, even if they want to treat them equal. So, we conceived of helping these companies first,” said Wong, a victim of discrimination herself when she was forced to retire early 10 years ago.

It is hard to ascertain the actual size of the transgender community in Hong Kong as the definition varies.

The strictest one, as adopted by the authorities, requires a person to undergo full genitalia reassignment, something vehemently opposed by the transgender community due to the risks involved of such procedures.

Between 2010 and 2015, 495 people were diagnosed with gender identity disorder and 40 had undergone either a partial or full sex-reassignment procedure, according to research conducted by Suen Yiu-tung, a Chinese University scholar who specialises in gender studies.

But the figures are unlikely to paint the full picture as they do not include those avoiding treatment, or people who head overseas for care in countries such as Thailand and Taiwan.

Alice Ho (left) and Liam Mak pose together in Yau Ma Tei.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Engineer Alice Ho Nga-sze, 33, said her company had barred her from using the female toilet before she had undergone the full sex-reassignment surgery. “What have I actually changed after I had the operation?” she asked.

Despite having a diversity unit, her company once urged her to withdraw from frontline field work and invited her to postpone her adoption of a female persona in the workplace.

She said she was finally allowed to use the female toilet after the operation, but added she had been given “unsatisfactory” work reviews and gone without a pay rise for the three years since her transition, although she was classified as an “outstanding” employee by former employers.

Although the number of company sign-ups for her scheme is low, Ho said: “Everyone now has guidance to follow.”

“If a company has signed it, but a manager openly defies the guidance, he may fear there will be repercussions,” she said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.