What you need to know
Siu-fung recalls her discovery of her non-binary gender identity through poetry and weightlifting.
This article was updated on Nov. 15 with a revised translation of Siu-fung's Law's poems. All poems in this article are taken from Siu-fung Law’s work “Unfinished.”
I murmur to the mirror
Speak out a body that does not
Belong, you wake up from my nightmare,
Discover a language not yet existing,
But you stare off into space and betray
A nameless organism
This poem is a personal confession about the body, written by an individual going through gender dysphoria. At the time of writing, Siu-fung Law (小風) was only 22 years old and a comparative literature major at the University of Hong Kong. The poem was written for her graduation project, which accompanied an autobiographical film she shot herself.
In the film, Siu-fung, who asked that this article identify her by the pronouns she/her, removes her jacket to reveal her tattooed chest, tries breast binding, and draws a mustache on herself in front of the mirror. In the last scene, she takes off her bandage and binds it over her eyes. It then cuts to her sitting topless by the window, lighting a cigarette, where the smoke starts to cloud the viewer's field of vision.
This completely black and white short film and accompanying poem served as a record of Siu-fung’s feelings during the period where she was most confused. She liked dressing in gender neutral clothing and fancied a few different girls, but she did not consciously think of herself as a lesbian. She tried hanging out in transgender circles but realized that she did not really want to change her gender as she had no desire to have her own male genitalia. She often felt despondent and couldn’t seem to find the words to explain the contradictory feelings about her body, so she usually identified as “a nameless organism.”
Five years since the film, the old “her” has now become more of a “he.” Her voice is just as low as it was before, but now her body is a few inches bigger, very muscular and threatening to burst through the seams of her jacket. The contours to her figure are as rough as any man’s, with her old tomboy charm stripped away.
Before I had a chance to say anything, Siu-fung started showing me photos of her bodybuilding competitions, in which she is wearing heavy makeup and a bikini.
“I am a genderqueer, neither male nor female,” says Siu-fung. “Physiologically I am a woman, but on the social side of things I am a man; I participate in female bodybuilding competitions, even though appearance wise I have the looks and muscles of a male.”
Apparently the Q in Queer is seen by the community as similar to the Q in Question, as they are always searching for their identities.
'If God made man and woman, then I was not made correctly'
It is said that there was an organism that existed long before Adam and Eve
They have two heads, two sets of arms and legs
They face back to back, two pairs of eyes have never seen each other
They have double our field of vision
They are beloved children of God, although
They have two male, female, or one-male-one-female bodies
They have special talents but they know nothing about the world
They live in harmony in a nameless planet
They do not understand desire, love or money
They do not need emotions or thoughts
They do not undergo birth, aging, illness and death, because they do not age
They belong to a certain illusionary eternity
They are just who they are, nothing more
Siu-fung’s given name is Law Man-ling, a Cantonese name that conjures images of a beautiful and elegant woman. Siu-fung admitted that when she was young, she was no different from the other girls. She liked wearing pink skirts, having long hair, and play-cooking. “I had no understanding of gender,” she says.
Sui Fung believes that gender views are acquired through the environment you grow up in. She emphasized that gender is flexible, meaning you never know who you will become or who you will fall in love with – and this is not limited to the LGBTQ community; it applies to everyone in the world.
It wasn’t until Siu-fung started to attend a traditional all-girls school that she noticed a change in her gender identity. During her second year of high school, she fell in love with a school friend and began dating her, but as she was influenced by the traditional values of gender binary, she dressed like a boy. “At that time, I had never heard of homosexuality, but those around me said that female couples can’t both have long hair, and that you had to choose a gender role,” she recalls.
Therefore, Siu-fung cut her hair short, only wore pants out of the house, and refused to wear a bra. When she went to school, she would occasionally get teased for her protruding nipples, but says she was far too lazy to pay this any attention. She said, holding back laughter, that half of that laziness came from being rebellious while the other half came from wanting convenience and comfort. “My breasts were small, there was no need to bind them,” she says. “Plus, I didn't like being restrained.”
However, when her peers started labeling her “TB” (tomboy) or “lesbian,” Siu-fung felt uncertain. “All the TB’s around me were sporty, but at the time I had a very neutral temperament,” she recalls. “I never had many words I could use to describe myself during high school, especially as it seemed like girls that liked girls were definitely thought of as lesbian. However, around the time I graduated from high school, I discovered that I also liked boys too...”
The most problematic thing for her was that her dad taught at that same high school, which meant that she could never hide her love life from him, especially as many other teachers would find out that she was in a same-sex relationship and would immediately tell her dad. “Ten years ago, people had very negative views on non-heterosexual relationships,” she recalls. She had to suppress much of her identity because she would constantly bump into her dad every day and had no private space.
Siu-fung could accept that her dad didn’t understand her, but what really upset her was that she didn’t understand herself. “At the time, there was very little discussion about body image and sexuality,” she says. “I had a vague understanding that I wasn’t lesbian, but I also wasn’t straight, and I also didn’t think I was bisexual. So what was I?”
During her elongated identity crisis, Siu-fung thought of committing suicide several times. She felt that she was the weirdest person in the world, and that if God only intended to make man and woman, then she must have been a mistake.
The muscles of a man, the reproductive organs of a woman
Finally, I can’t help but peek at your wardrobe.
Found a secret of human civilization
Adam and Eve are just your fictional stories.
When Zeus separates the children of the gods
Some gods when the child is blown away
Mark the other half of them
Siu-fung’s search for knowledge was an important step in changing her fate. After she was admitted into the University of Hong Kong, she chose to study comparative literature, in order to soak up information on gender theory. There, she discovered that, along with man and woman, there was a third gender: transgender. She discovered that among the variety of sexual orientations, there was a type of orientation known as pan-sexuality, where a person does not consider gender in their search for love. These two distinctions resonated very deeply with Siu-fung and her broad outlook on the world.
In her spare time, Siu-fung focused on writing poetry and started a poetry club. She also explored budding interests in canoeing and marathon running. Sports helped Siu-fung discover that she was competitive. She enjoyed the feeling of winning, especially when competing against her male counterparts. These experiences made her feel that she wanted to become a real manly, masculine, macho man.
However, after being exposed to the trans-male group in Hong Kong, Siu-fung was shocked to find herself become marginalized again. “The main activities of the trans-male group was sitting down, and mostly just discussing sex-reassignment surgery, doctors, or things related to their bodies,” she says. But Siu-fung was certain that she didn’t want to undergo surgery. “I am someone who is motivated by vanity,” she says. “Everything must look perfect, so I wouldn’t even want to have a scar anywhere.”
Another important reason was that Siu-fung did not feel she wanted her own male genitalia, as she felt comfortable with her female parts. She also isn’t the dominant, assertive type. “In terms of romance I am more submissive, as I enjoy being on the receiving end, so I don’t think I really need one [a penis],” she says.
As a result of her perspective, she, once again, pushed the envelope on the mainstream theories of “physiological” gender identity. She lifted weights to remodel her body, and in the process transformed her breast fat into solid muscle. Since sculpting her masculine chest, Siu-fung has never felt afraid of removing her top and being ridiculed for revealing her breasts. She feels the act is far more liberating than going braless.
Siu-fung ordered a collection of books related to gender theory from the United States and was particularly amazed by one photography book called “Gender Queer.” On the other side of the globe, there was a large group of women who, like herself, also turned to bodybuilding in order to break through gender barriers. They were assigned female at birth (AFAB) but pursued the muscular physique of a bodybuilder, blending male and female attributes together without the sense they were violating any rules.
The gender spectrum of this group of women is vast. Some identify as “tomboys,” some as “pure les” (pure homosexual), and others as straight. After looking at everyone in the book, Siu-fung finally felt like she had somewhere she belonged. She was no longer a miscellaneous organism.
Creating the manliest female in the world – but retaining that feminine touch
You have been living here before my consciousness
(I have a secret, I never told anyone before)
You said you have a name that cannot define you
(I don't know you have long known about the secret)
You always think you are my whole
(I always think I do not belong)
You discover people look at you differently
(I don’t know you share the same thoughts as mine)
You suspect yourself and deny me
(I want to tell you a secret nobody knows)
You hurt yourself, and blame
me, I want to say, I discover only years later—
After graduating from college, Siu-fung joined the Department of Comparative Literature’s Master of Philosophy program in the University of Hong Kong. She made herself the primary focus of her research, exploring how she lived with the contradictions in her life. She wanted to explore in depth the problems that trans-males across Hong Kong needed to overcome, and she made for the perfect test subject.
“One time I went down to the gym and wanted to bench some dumbbells, but some instructor came over and stopped me. He said that women shouldn’t bench press because it would make them lose their breasts,” she recalls. “Once in a large gym chain, a staff member wanted to revoke my membership, complaining that I was too big, and was intimidating the male instructors.”
Siu-fung was not going to put up with that. She became more determined than ever to build a bigger chest, so she switched to a gym with more foreigners where instructors were more understanding of gender identities. However, as her ID card showed she was female, she was only allowed to join “fitness” classes. Siu-fung thus decided to challenge the heavyweight class and compete with the largest woman in the gym.
“Bodybuilding is such a contradictory sport,” she says. “It has created the largest and manliest woman in the world, but at the same time it also places the most emphasis on gender distinctions, as even female bodybuilders must exude femininity.”
Siu-fung spent nearly half a year getting used to wearing a bikini during competitions. “When you never wear a bra in your life,” she asks, “how are you meant to get used to wearing a bikini?”
She broke through these obstacles by reading literary and theoretical works. She read Leslie Feinberg’s semi-autobiographical novel “Stone Butch Blues” and her cultural and historical study “Transgender Liberation.” The novel is about a genderqueer female named Jess who resists conforming to society and dresses like a man, only to be discriminated against by his family and classmates. Once Jess goes one step further and takes hormonal therapy, he is also rejected by the lesbian community. In the end, Jess moves to New York, and finally feels accepted as he falls in love with a trans-girl and they build a family together. He finds affirmation of his gender identity: he is not a man nor a woman; he is sandwiched between the two genders of male and female.
The novel was written in 1993, when acceptance of homosexuality was in its relative infancy. Feinberg’s work was very avant-garde for its time – if we were to describe it now using modern terminology for these blurred sexual identities, it would either be Queer or Genderqueer.
“I eventually figured that the bikini was just a feminine object that internalized the idea of the gender binary,” she said. “What I wanted was to take away these frameworks set by society.”
Siu-fung branched out and went to the Philippines to compete. While wearing her bikini, she put on her most seductive poses and took home first prize in the female bodybuilding category. A year later, she participated in a Hong Kong competition and was even more feminine, wearing heavy makeup, earrings, a necklace, and a shimmering gold bikini.
Like Feinberg, Siu-fung’s growth has been littered with painful experiences in a process where she has constantly reevaluated herself her identity. She has had to be cruel to herself and put her will to the test. Siu-fung wrote about her experience in her master’s degree thesis and reflected on it with Buddhism and gender theories: gender is “fluid” and nobody’s gender is “solid.”
Combating discrimination with empathy: With knowledge comes compassion
You said our eyes only contain vision of 180 degrees
If we face back to back, it becomes 360 degrees
Between us, there is still a less-than-one-degree blind spot
Siu-fung has found the language to free herself, but for the people of Hong Kong, the idea of her body will, from time to time, cause panic and beckon discrimination. Those who do not understand her may label her a “freak” or a “monster.”
“I participate in women's bodybuilding competitions, and when I go to gyms I always go to the women’s locker room. However, once inside, I am often mistaken for being a man and am treated suspiciously,” she says. “I’ve had the experience of someone pulling open my shower curtain to check what I had down there; and also the experience of someone screaming and dialing 999 (HK emergency services). Then I had to wait for the police to come, just to show them my ID card.”
At the beginning, Siu-fung would often go hammer and tongs when quarreling with them. “Once, some harpy started pointing at me, whining that my chest wasn’t that of a man’s,” she recalls. “So I retorted: ‘What does a women's chest look like? You can obviously see that I’m wearing a sports bra.’” She has also tried sneering at those trying to mock her, but without success: “I tried death-staring a woman once, but she just laughed out loud and thought I was dumb, so I definitely lost that battle.”
She then decided to adjust her mindset and tackle every malicious confrontation as though it were a lesson on gender. “The best method to approach these situations is still through communication,” she advises. “When they start whispering and discussing between themselves about if I’m a man or a woman, I will act first to break the ice: ‘Ah, you probably think that I am a man.’” Then she would explain her body situation or use humor in response: “If I really was a pervert, I would have already flashed you my bits.”
“I found that this method real worked, and that most people would apologize,” she says.
Siu-fung said that being rational and communicating to try and understand other people was the first step to finding harmony. She went from hating bigots, to understanding that even older aunties are afraid of being spied on, to consoling them about their worries. “I wanted to deal with the disputes in a compassionate manner,” she says. “I believe that humans are good by nature, and that they just need to unlearn some prejudices.”
On a legislative level, establishing “gender neutral” toilets and locker rooms for gender uncertain or transgendered people to use would probably be the best solution to the misunderstandings. However, the Hong Kong government is extremely behind in terms of gender-friendly projects and all public toilets in the city are divided into male and female.
In 2016, the University of Hong Kong took the first step by setting up neutral toilets on the campus for all genders to use. This development happened in the same year Siu-fung passed the school’s assessment to become a teaching assistant in the Department of Comparative Literature.
There is no such thing as a 'weirdo.' There are only those who are different
The Earth invented a powerful, controllable
Human emotion machine, called language
It is said that as soon as you enter it
All past memories will be frozen
Any living creature on earth is implanted
Language chip, we learn
Describe yourself under its shadow
Give yourself a noun, an adjective, a helper word
The Siu-fung of today is far removed from the despondent and dysphoric poetry in the film “Unfinished.” She has stepped out of the oppressive black and white film and into the spotlight to show off her body to welcoming crowds. When interviewed by the press, she proudly tells her story to each and every inquirer.
“My parents don't like it when I appear in the media,” she says. “They think, if you can live your life then shouldn’t you just be happy; why do you need to have such a high profile? But if I don’t do it, then no one will do it, and all the LGBTQs will never gain visibility. If we keep a low profile, then society will never progress.”
All of our past paths were built by humankind, and so Siu-fung wants to pave her own: one for genderqueers that breaks out of the constraints of gender binaries.
“I have experienced life’s lowest point, where I felt that there was no meaning to my life, and all I wanted to do was commit suicide,” she recalls. “If our social environment doesn't have the language [to express] or the possibilities [to explore], then Hong Kong will keep on simplifying our world, and this type of environment will be a very dangerous place to grow up in for the next generation.”
On the weekdays, in order to avoid causing panic, she uses the men's toilet. In terms of sexual orientation, she is still very much female. During bodybuilding competitions, she has a man’s body but the face of woman. Her latest goal is to go a step further and become a professional bodybuilder, and compete against men. When that time comes, I wonder whether Siu-fung’s gender identity will have evolved again.
However, when I mentioned that muscles in the visual arts usually represented masculinity, much like a phallic symbol, Siu-fung immediately disputed this claim. “I don't think so,” she says, “because women can be muscular, yet not masculine. Muscles can be neutral.”
Siu-fung said that 90% of foreign women who participate in bodybuilding are actually heterosexual. Since she started competing in bodybuilding, she said she has had far more straight men show interest in her, because there are some men who like muscular women.
In the past, she loved composing long poems. “Unfinished” was a four-page contemporary poem. It felt like a series of confessions to society, and to herself, venting about her body. But now, Siu-fung’s body is itself a poem in its own right. It helps to subvert the most negative definitions used against Genderqueers – the word “Weird.”
“I want to come out and show others that there is someone just as strange as they are,” she says. “When I was at my lowest point, I thought that I was the one and only ‘weirdo’ in this world, but once I started reading foreign literature, I discovered the existence of transgenders and queers, and that helped motivate me to keep living. I want all these types of people who are struggling in the world right now to know – don't be afraid to be different.”
Let me leave you with a beautiful song written by Siu-fung about the fluidity of gender:
Sometimes I see the fire in full bloom in the cold air
I can only take a photo for you.
Take the only proof that you and I don't match each other
And what is screaming in the sky
Earth people call it fireworks
In Taiwan, the 24-hour suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 0800-788-995. Foreigners in Taiwan can call the 24-hour toll-free 1955 telephone counseling hotline. Other international suicide helplines can be found at https://www.befrienders.org.
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This article first appeared on the Chinese-language Hong Kong edition of The News Lens and can be found here.
Translator: Zeke Li
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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