It's never too late to be yourself

Updated: 2012-07-04 09:35

By Xu Jingxi in Guangzhou (China Daily)

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It's never too late to be yourself

Related: In transition

While Qian Jinfan wanted to become a female from age 3, it wasn't until age 80 that she did.

And in June, the 84-year-old Foshan native in Guangdong province became the country's oldest person to open up about her transgender identity, bringing a media maelstrom that has led her wife and son to "ground" her.

However, she snuck out of her home to speak with China Daily for an exclusive interview because she believes it's time Chinese society understands its transgender members.

"People may ask why I come out as a transgender person when I'm so old, but I ask, why can't I?" Qian says. "Chinese stereotype the elderly as people who can't do anything but wait for death. But I've just entered the best time of my life. I can finally be myself."

Qian's decision has caused conflict within her family and brought public derision online.

While many admire her courage, others call her "a nasty old man" and "attention-seeker".

Qian says she doesn't relish the attention paid to her as an individual but hopes to use the interest in her story to advocate tolerance and understanding - despite the objections of her family, who says she has made them a "laughing stock".

"I won't reach out to media but won't hide from them either if they approach me," Qian says.

"I haven't done anything wrong. My life as a transgender person doesn't harm anyone. Why should I hide?"

Qian also believes her identities as a famous calligrapher and painter, and as a retired civil servant of the bureau of culture, radio, television, press and publication in Foshan, can help the public overcome misconceptions that male-to-female transsexuals are "abject" and can't do anything but stage nightclub performances as "ladyboy" dancers.

"Transgender individuals aren't marginal and shouldn't be marginalized," Qian says.

Qian becomes visibly angry when talking about a doctor in Sichuan province, who was fired after undergoing sexual reassignment surgery and was forced to become a stripper.

But Qian says she understands why transgender people are hesitant to show their true identities.

Her neighbors talk behind her back. Children playing near her house once called her a "monster".

But while Qian has lost some friends after going public, she has gained others, such as professor Ke Qianting, director of Sun Yat-sen University's Sex/Gender Education Forum.

The two met in 2008, after Qian wrote a long letter to Ke's colleague about her life and desire to know more about other transgender people in China.

Ke describes Qian as a person with a "strong sense of justice", who becomes indignant upon hearing about discrimination and is generous to those in need. "The only way transgender people can strive for better lives, free of discrimination, is to increase their visibility. How can a group of people ask for equal rights when society doesn't know they exist, let alone the difficulties they face?" Ke says.

Ke believes Qian's case shows others can't change transgender people.

"Scorn won't do it," Ke says. "Neither will medicine because it's not a disease."

Qian's childhood conceptions of gender relations were coupled with an obsession with feminine appearance.

He would nag his grandmother until she took him to shoe shops to admire high-heels. And he would imitate his aunt's smiles, frowns and sashay.

In the 1950s, he wore lingerie under his clothes.

In the 1960s, he began taking fertility medicine to grow breasts. The young man was delighted when his skin smoothed and his chest began to grow. But he stopped because he didn't know sex reassignment surgeries existed and believed he had no choice but to live as a man.

Qian felt relieved when 1980s' fashion enabled him to grow long hair, and wear tight tops and flared pants. "I could dress in a way that made me feel beautiful and do it publicly," Qian says.

"But it wasn't until 2005 that I finally understood I belong to a group called transgender people. And I'm not the only one."

Qian contacted a male-to-female transgender person she had read about in a newspaper.

That woman introduced Qian to online communities and transgender friends, and taught her about female hormone use and sex reassignment surgery.

Four years ago, she started living as a woman, Qian explains, while clad in a sleeveless leopard-print top under a see-through shirt, white pants and sparkly blue high-heels.

Qian decided to become a woman when she was "physically and mentally prepared".

At 80, it became now-or-never, she says.

But she had to consider her wife, whom Qian married when Qian was 54.

"My wife is 25 years younger than me," she says.

"I waited for two years to take hormones until she finished her menopause. I had to consider her sexual needs. That's my duty as a husband."

Qian hopes to undergo reassignment surgery but fears complications.

"I'm waiting for the development of a medical procedure that could change my DNA from XY to XX," Qian says.

The one thing she believes reveals her genetic sex is her voice. "My throat isn't in good shape these days," she says, blushing.

Qian only uses women's bathrooms with divided stalls. She also doesn't wear skirts, which might reveal her birth sex, and she doesn't touch women friends - not even a shoulder pat.

She promised to behave with discipline when she told her former workplace in a letter of her transformation. "I welcome supervision," she says.

The bureau hasn't replied to Qian's report. It hasn't changed her pension, which is something she had worried about. And Qian hasn't been turned away from the monthly retirees meetings.

Acid Chen, a male-to-female transgender person who met Qian in Beijing two months ago, says she's impressed by Qian's courage to live openly as a transgender person.

"But it's easier for a retired transgender person to live openly. A former employer won't interfere, while young people encounter job discrimination."

Ke believes people like Qian and Chen break stereotypes about transgender people's work and lives.

"Many transgender people live like anyone else," Ke says. "It's important to be yourself. Qian overcame pressure to live with a new gender at 80 and is enjoying this life. We should respect transgender people."

Erik Nilsson contributed to the story.