Vancouver mother Fiona Chen knew her daughter was different, almost as soon as she could express herself. "From age three she refused to wear dresses...there were so many beautiful dresses that I had to give away," said Chen with a laugh.
But it was the start of a difficult journey. Now aged 11, Chen's gender-non-conforming child finally found happiness six months ago after summoning the courage to tell her elementary school principal, after yet another playground fight, that she wanted to be referred to as "he." The principal called to explain the situation to Chen, a Taiwanese immigrant, who said she was "not surprised at all" by the news. "I had long suspected."
Now, Chen's only child is her son, and is accepted as such by all who love him.
The experience prompted Chen to speak out in favour of the Vancouver School Board's proposed policy on LGBT students, which has drawn intense opposition from some in the Chinese Christian community. Among an extensive list of goals, the proposals seek to protect transgender students' rights to decide who gets to know about their gender-identity status, to use whichever bathroom makes them feel comfortable and to dress as they feel appropriate.
Opponents say the proposals will snatch away parents' rights to raise their children as they see fit.
Chen (who is also Christian) doesn't see it that way, and instead applauds the proposals as means to codify "a safer and a more protective learning environment for my child, and the kids in similar situations."
Nor does Chen see opposition to LGBT-friendly policies as consistent with "Chinese values": "I asked my husband about this and we both scratched our heads and said, 'Really?'"
Dora Ng Cai-lam, who identifies as gender non-conforming and works with LGBT youth, agreed.
"A lot of people are feeling misrepresented, that this group of people [opposed to the policy] have their misinformed views and they are hiding behind a label of Chinese traditional values, or Christian values," said Ng.
Two consultation meetings have brought out opposition from the Chinese Christian community, for whom LGBT issues are a hot-button subject. The consultation period has been twice extended, and a third meeting is scheduled on Thursday. A decision by the board on whether to approve the proposals is expected in June.
Chen received loud cheers at the initial consultation meeting on May 14, after she spoke poignantly about her child. "For the longest time I could not figure out what is wrong with her. And why, every time I told her 'you are a girl', she cried. She cried every night. She had a lot of sleepless nights," Chen told the meeting.
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After Chen's child confided in the principal, meetings were set up between the parents and the school board's LGBT mentor to chart the way forward. "I told the principal ... I will support [my child's decisions] because I respect my child as a human being who can make a decision for himself," Chen told me. "He is the best person to make that decision. I know he is young. But I do not want him to be afraid."
The situation was explained to staff and older students. Now, everyone refers to Chen's child as "he," and by a male name. Her son's lifelong depression lifted, a change Chen described as "like night and day."
Chen said the process has been a journey not just for her son, but for the entire extended family, including two sets of elderly Taiwanese grandparents living under the same roof.
"When my husband told my in-laws, he expected, because they are more traditional, that he would get an earful," said Chen. "But actually, it was the opposite. My mother-in-law had noticed our child was so unhappy. But she had no clue why ... so then she realized, 'Oh, that's why.' And she said, 'Just let him be.'"
Chen said she was concerned about the reaction of her own elderly mother, a devout Christian. For a week, the 70-year-old was "very worried, very hurt" about her grandchild's request to be treated as a boy. "But at the end of that she came to me and told me she has thought about it and she accepts her grandson totally," said Chen, her voice cracking with pride. "And she said she supports him 100 per cent, because she loves him."
Chen's mother, who spreads the gospel twice a week in a shopping centre, now proudly spreads her grandson's story, too. "She has become an advocate for him," said Chen. "She is telling her church friends, 'Look what happened to my grandson. He is born with it. And there is nothing at all wrong with him.'"
This was first published in the South China Morning Post Hongcouver blog, devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver.
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