“I discovered I was a girl when I was five, through Wonder Woman,” she says with the rhythm and pace of a teacher who has told this story before. “She is beautiful, she’s powerful and she helps other people, I just thought at the age of five, I want to grow up to be like Wonder Woman.”
“Then I discovered my sexual orientation when I was seven years old, through Superman,” she continued as she emphasised that sexual orientation is very different from gender identity and gender expression.
Dr Brenda Alegre is a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong. She teaches the popular “Sexuality and Gender” course that introduced concepts about sexual orientation and behaviour to the institution’s curriculum for the first time in 2011.
“I’m a transgender woman because my gender identity is Woman and I identify as a woman, and it’s not because I like men. Incidentally, I have only liked men, but liking men is not the reason I want to be a woman,” she explains.
Like many of us, the first thing Alegre does when she wakes up at 9am is to check her mobile phone. She scrolls through some photos of her current crushes (Man of Steel actor, Henry Cavill, makes the cut along with Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Channing Tatum).
Next, Alegre spends a few minutes looking into a mirror as part of a body-acceptance practice, and she also sings – a passion of hers – as she goes about preparing for her day with breakfast, a shower, checking her social media accounts and finally to her 11am classes.
Hong Kong, she says, has given her a greater freedom to act as who she is, away from the restrictions of the Philippines’ predominantly Christian society.
According to Alegre, she thought of herself as a girl naturally as a child. However, in the Philippines, her friends and people around her used to call her “Bakla”, a term that can translate into many identities including, gay men, effeminate straight men, bisexual men, straight men who have sexual relations with gay men, transgender and transsexual women.”
She recalls being six and her friends asking, “Why do you pee sitting down? You’re not a girl.” and she would reply, “Yes I am a girl.” “No you don’t have a vagina, you have a bird,” they would say and she replied, “Well it’s just for peeing, I still think I’m a girl.”
Alegre says she was happiest as a child, as she did not require reasons to tell others she was female.
“It was enough already to know that I am,” she says, “At my age, I am turning 40 next year, I am a lecturer, I have a PhD, I am an activist. Sometimes I don’t know what reasons I have to prove, to justify, I am the gender I claim I am. It’s more frustrating now as an adult. “
Although Hong Kong has the advantage of being a relatively non-religious society compared to the Philippines, Alegre still laments that it is only the heterosexual, transsexual women in Hong Kong who can be married here legally.
“I want to go to a country where I can find [love and] a job as me,” she says, “I love my job at the University but to be honest, I may not have gotten into HKU if I didn’t have bosses who recognise gender diversity.”
Alegre says that the Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), an independent statutory body that implements the Sex Discrimination Ordinance amongst others, “needs to be aware of what’s going on out there, are there truly equal opportunities?”
While the ordinance, implemented in 1996, makes it illegal to sexually harass a person and to “discriminate against a person on the grounds of sex”, it does not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or inter-sex status.
Last year, the EOC launched a consultation on extending anti-discrimination laws to include protection for unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples, but conservative groups have opposed the idea as they say that this would encourage homosexuality and infringe on their freedom of speech. Some have also expressed fears that the move would lead to the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
Alegre sighs as she says that more has to be done especially, to increase the visibility of trans people in Hong Kong, and this is why her job is so important to her.
“Teaching this course is one of my ways to raise awareness for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights,” she says, “It’s my platform for change, I’m very protective of that.”
I ask her if she’s become Wonder Woman as she wanted to be.
“If I only thought of Wonder Woman as a woman who is special, then I am already Wonder Woman,” she reflects.
But if Wonder Woman is supposed to be an ideal woman, Alegre says that she doesn’t think of herself as the superhero yet.
“Maybe my ideal self is based on a set of criteria that I have not fulfilled, maybe it is what I’m going to discover about myself with just looking at who I really am.”