Kao said that because his parents told him he “shouldn’t act like a boy,” and his teachers questioned him about his closely cropped hair and his refusal to wear dresses to school, he grew up assuming that he was homosexual.
But when he was 19 years old, Kao read a newspaper article about transgenders.
“It suddenly struck me: Hey! I’m not a lesbian. After that I went to speak to a psychiatrist,” he said.
For Kao, the long process of trying to gain sympathy from his family overshadowed the relief of finally understanding his sexuality. Even after dragging along his parents to see his psychiatrist, they still refused to accept his identity.
“[The psychiatrist] told them that I wasn’t the only one … but when my mother saw her other friends and saw that their children were ‘normal’ that caused her tremendous stress. She was very upset. My parents, especially my mother, felt that it was their fault — that they raised me wrong, or educated me wrong, or that when she was pregnant she took some bad medicine. They really blamed themselves. And other parents blamed my mother as well,” he said.
As with the extended family, the neighborhood and local community — especially in villages — exert a profound influence on parents’ behavior and the added pressure reduces their willingness to support a transgender child.
“Taiwan … [remains] very conservative about this kind of sexual issue,” said Hwu Hai-gwo (胡海國), chairman of the Mental Health Foundation and a psychiatrist who has been working with transgenders at National Taiwan University Hospital for more than two decades.
“Especially with the older son. The parents feel very [ashamed] in their family circle or their neighborhood. An uncle becoming an aunt … causes problems,” he said, alluding to the importance parents in Taiwan place on the eldest son as the child who passes on the family lineage.
As a result, “the patient leaves home and becomes very lonely and has no family support in their life,” he said.
But even when parents do remain in their child’s life, they often do little to alleviate the social pressures their offspring is feeling. Hwu recalls an incident a few years back that encapsulates the difficulties transgenders face with their parents.
“The … patient was being brought to the surgery room and the parents came in and they began hitting the operation room … [forcing] the surgeon to stop the procedure,” he said.
Surprisingly, NTU Hospital still doesn’t offer a support group for either transgenders or their parents, although it does employ social workers to help parents deal with children’s gender identity.
Cynthia’s parents refused to take her seriously when she told them she would prefer to be a girl and even tried to talk her out of feminizing herself.
“My family did everything to change my mind and make me become a ‘normal’ person. But in fact their efforts made my life more painful. Through not wanting to make my life difficult, they made my life more difficult,” she said.
But things began to change in her third year of university.
“The Internet had just started to take off and I discovered some information about transgender issues. I read some sites with stories related to what I was going through. Afterwards, I began to find the transgender community and got to know some people within that community,” she said. “From then on, I became more comfortable knowing that I am transgender.”