China's 'oldest transsexual': A life of silent denial

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Chinese transsexual Yi LingImage source, Reuters
Image caption,
Yi Ling says it took her a long time to admit who she really was

When I meet Yi Ling, her long black hair worn over her shoulder and a designer handbag slung over her arm, she is already quite a media personality.

Her story has been covered in both the Chinese and the international press. And no wonder.

At the age of 84 she is being billed as China's oldest transsexual, after finally making her decision, just three years ago, to submit to a life-long yearning to live as a woman.

But very few foreign news organisations have travelled to her home town of Forshan, in China's southern Guangdong province.

My trip was inspired not just by her noteworthy octogenarian status, but by an inkling that her case reflects some kind of broader social change and I was keen to meet her in person.

Yi Ling was born in 1928 in eastern China, a healthy baby boy, and given the name Qian Jinfan.

Throughout a life spanning eight decades of China's turbulent history, from the rigid social hierarchies of the age of her boyhood, through war and communist revolution, and up to the modern day economic boom, she lived as a man. Until now.

"I knew from a very young age," she tells me. "Even at age three I had a sense that I was meant to be a girl."

Silent denial

We are sipping coffee and garish red fruit cocktails in a cafe.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Yi Ling waited decades before coming out with her identity

She tells me about how older generations of her family had been wealthy officials in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, about how the money had dried up, and how she had go out to work.

She pursued a career as a mid-ranking civil servant and, at the age of 54, still living as a man of course, she married a younger woman and they had a son.

"It took me such a long time to admit to who I really am because I was worried about my family," she says. "I thought it would bring trouble for them."

Yi Ling shows me a set of photos, a poignant record of a life lived in silent denial; among them is a black and white photo from another age of a tiny toddler and an image of a slender formally dressed official, with slight, feminine features.

In the 60s and 70s, a time of terror and repression, Yi Ling, like so many others, was investigated and detained.

But, she tells me, during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, men and women dressed the same, so at that time she felt closer to being a woman.

She wore a bra beneath her clothes, hidden from her colleagues, of course.

"Before, I could only be myself when there were no people around. But now I feel I can really be who I am. I don't have to fake it anymore."

Her story is a clear illustration of how China is changing.

Alongside, the rapidly increasing personal wealth of recent decades have come new freedoms.

Homosexuality was decriminalised back in 1997, and China now allows transsexuals to officially change their genders.

Respecting rights

Yi Ling's decision, so late in life, is the reason she has made the headlines here, but the coverage in the main has been positive.

Her former bosses have been very understanding, she tells me, allowing her to continue to attend functions dressed as a woman.

She has kept her pension and other benefits.

"My case represents how advanced the Chinese government is in terms of catching up with the progress made elsewhere in the world," she says.

Yi Ling has, in the past, taken hormones to enlarge her breasts.

But, for now, she has stopped taking medication and has decided not to have the physical sex change operation.

It would be risky at her age and besides, she says, she is waiting until the science of gender reassignment becomes more advanced.

"I see no conflict," she says, "between recognising myself as a woman and yet retaining a man's body."

Like anywhere, of course, occasional prejudice and unkindness can still be found.

But for once this is a foreign news report about China respecting human rights.

Yi Ling says she is grateful to live in an era of rapid economic and social development.