Kaspar WAN is a transman from Hong Kong. He has made an award-winning short documentary, “Kaspar X – If I Had a Soul”, on his journey in finding himself. In 2015, he set-up a self-help charitable organisation, Gender Empowerment, to support trans individuals go through the different stages of their gender transition —to adapt to the changes in their appearances, bodies, daily lives and social relationships. We also provide support to families of transgender persons, and educate the general public about the identity of transgender persons and related issues.
“More attention and work needs to be done in raising awareness and acceptance within the family setting as people spend more time confined to their home during the lockdown. Privacy issues and conflicts with other family members have become emerging concerns.”Kaspar Wan
What was life like before COVID-19, and service availability for transmen?
Before the pandemic, Gender Empowerment provided regular counselling services, monthly support groups for trans-women, trans-men and their parents, and organised different activities and workshops covering different topics, such as speech therapy, make-up classes (mainly for trans-women), gender recognition, hormones, surgery and insurance concerns.
With the effect of COVID-19 outbreak, how did you respond to this? Can you detail the evolving service needs of transmen during lockdown, and how community groups are able to address the issues?
We had to suspend all activities during the first outbreak in Hong Kong during February to April. We met some of the trans individuals and their parents in April when we were able to distribute some protective items we procured, such as masks and hand sanitiser. We took the opportunity to talk to them.
We resumed our activities at the end of April and had to suspend everything again in early July due to the second outbreak in Hong Kong. We tried to provide limited support through an online platform with our counselling service and support groups. Some of the members did not prefer this way due to fear of being overheard by their family members and lack of confidence with the technology.
Fortunately, people became more adaptive to the lockdown in terms of getting protective and essential items compared to other countries.
A few trans-men were able to join the online support group because their regular schedule had changed.
What were the issues that transmen in your country experienced during this time? What are the gaps in terms of addressing the issues?
The main impact to the trans community is that some of them may not be able to have access to medical support, from either their local gender clinic or having to postpone their overseas surgery plans. Some of them have tried to communicate with the hospital overseas and the immigration department in Hong Kong in the past few months, hoping to proceed.
Some trans-men are running short of hormones as they used to get the supply from Thailand. They have been trying to source it through other channels but we do not have many alternatives on these issues.
The mental health of some community members are not good, especially with those who have a history of having mental issues, such as depression. The mental issues and emotions have been triggered not only by the lockdown or the pandemic, but also by the social movement that has happened in Hong Kong since June last year.
The mental health of our community members is a major concern; we have yet to find a proper way to address or relieve it.
How have you, staff, and volunteers working for NGOs been coping?
Our team has been communicating through Whatsapp and have weekly online meetings with some interns. We have changed our work focus by producing resources, building the organisation structure and strengthening our networking with other organisations, while also trying to connect community members on a personal level. We are hoping that we are able to serve the community better with more resources once everything can be resumed.
How have you been able to seek resources to fill in the gaps? Who has been able to help provide support to your work during the pandemic?
The social service sector in Hong Kong is very well established, providing support to different groups of people and minorities in need, such as elders and people with different disabilities and sicknesses. Apart from networking with other LGBT organisations and joining their major activities, such as PinkDot HK, Gender Empowerment has been striving to develop as a local charity by applying funding from different government departments, including the Social Welfare Department, and connecting with other local NGOs. Also, we have just been accepted as a member organisation of The Hong Kong Council of Social Service. These all have helped us to source protective items and learn from other NGOs in coping with the pandemic.
How has COVID-19 outbreak changed the way that you/your organisation and other NGOs will be working in the future?
Online platforms are definitely one way of interaction with our community members in the future, especially the younger generation. However, it has also revealed that in-person connections, which our services have been built on, is not replaceable. Many community members have reviewed how they longed for meeting in person again. Also, support has been totally suspended for those who do not feel comfortable in using online platforms, such as elder trans and parents, as their mental health might further be affected. We are still yet to find a way to tackle this gap.
Moving forward, what do you think must be adjusted/rethink in LGBTQI work post COVID-19?
Enhance local resources, strengthen connection with other local NGOs and localise the work as a stakeholder of the society, especially when international connections might be limited during lockdown.
Acknowledge the diversity within the community and find ways to meet diverse needs. For example, some members may be economically underprivileged while others may have mental health issues, or have concerns with personal relationships.
More attention and work needs to be done in raising awareness and acceptance within the family setting as people spend more time confined to their home during the lockdown. Privacy issues and conflicts with other family members have become emerging concerns.
Equally important is the mental health of community members and how we can provide alternative support during different times (such as not being able to meet in person) to meet their demand.
Are there any positive lessons learnt from the effects of COVID-19?
People treasure more of their freedom to go out and meet one another. Our work in cohering community members has been in the right direction but needs to be enhanced.
What would you like to say to donors, development partners, and the government?
Thank you for sharing materials and news with us so that we don’t feel alone in the struggle. Thanks to you, we have expanded our networks and learnt from other