May 24, 2012|
Sam Winter is an expert in his field. A professor of transgender issues, LGBT issues and gender and sexuality studies, Winter has taught at the University of Hong Kong for 28 years. This year, Winter, 59, has had to deal with an inevitable roadblock: mandatory retirement. While professors in Hong Kong can appeal to extend their contracts, the process is complex and results are often less than satisfactory. Even when a contract is granted, professors often receive significant pay cuts and are swept to the side with altered titles.
Winter attempted to extend his tenure at HKU, only to be faced with myriad obstacles. Over the course of two months, his case was discussed during numerous meetings and ultimately rejected. A subsequent appeal he made was also nixed. Winter comments that his track record is excellent, and believes that the rejection was solely due to his field of study. “I do a lot of community engagement in this area [sexuality education]—in the WHO [World Health Organization], the United Nations Development Program, UNAIDS, the World Professional Association of Transgender Health—I’m on their Board of Directors,” he says. “I’ve gotten evaluated as ‘excellent’ in every area of my work by independent reviewers. Is my health bad? No. Maybe there’s no money in faculty? No, there’s lots. It’s very clearly because of what I teach.” Winter responded to this unfolding of events by starting an online petition, which was signed by many of his previous students, heads of NGOs and LGBT organizations, and other scholars.
At the time of writing, Winter’s dean, Steve Andrews, has offered to continue employing Winter under downgraded conditions—with the title of “Teaching Fellow” (instead of “Associate Professor”) and at a 40 percent salary cut, although the contract has not yet officially been presented or signed. “[Andrews] is doing as much as he can without taking my case back to the committee,” Winter adds. A spokesman from HKU stated that their decision was unrelated to Winter’s field of study, and that the university has a positive attitude towards research in transgender studies, but was unable to provide further details regarding his employment due to privacy issues. The spokesman also couldn’t confirm whether anybody would be hired to take Winter’s spot in the event he is forced to retire.
Though the university’s stance on the matter may be ambiguous, many of Winter’s supporters have called for his continued employment at HKU precisely because of the nature of his research. As part of his appeal, Winter asked his previous students whether they supported the continuation of his popular course, “Sexuality and Gender: Diversity and Society.” All 219 respondents replied with a “yes.” Many students stated in their comments that they found the course to be an invaluable eye-opener in a culture where the open discussion of gender and sexuality is still often regarded as taboo. Previous student Jonny Junior Liu says that “As a young gay man, the course has allowed me to learn more about people like me and has boosted my confidence and erased the doubts about my sexuality. It also let my friends who have taken the course to learn more about the social stigma of being a sexual minority in Hong Kong.” Some students said that the course was a much-needed forum for discussion since they could not broach these topics with their family members. Another anonymous respondent, a university alumnus and secondary school teacher, states that since there is little to no teaching about LGBT issues at the secondary school level, homophobic and discriminatory behavior can easily result. And if fewer sexuality classes were to be offered at the tertiary level, the situation would probably be even worse.
Indeed, while Hong Kong may not be an actively hostile arena for sexuality studies and sex education, their development here is somewhat stunted. Elisabeth Grisoni, one of the founders of lesbian and bisexual women’s association “Les Peches,” was asked to speak at a lecture at CUHK as an out and married lesbian woman living in Hong Kong. She states: “We found it very surprising that after the lecture, people were asking us questions [by writing them on pieces of paper, then submitting them] that were so basic. The main one was ‘How do you know someone is gay or lesbian?’ Another was ‘What is lesbian sex?’” Besides having little knowledge about LGBT issues, youth and university students have also been found to be lacking sex education in general. In a survey conducted by CUHK’s student union among the student body, 40 percent of the 1,175 sexually active respondents reported having sex without a condom.
Grace Lee, education officer-in-charge of the Family Planning Association, believes that while sex education in Hong Kong is positive overall, there’s still room for improvement. “Many teachers still find it difficult to face some challenging issues like sexual orientation in class. Many Hong Kong parents are too shy or busy to discuss this issue with their children, and prefer to leave it to the schools or let nature take its course. So we can see our children becoming used to accessing incorrect knowledge through informal sources like movies, the internet, and their peers,” she says. Sex ed is covered in general studies classes in primary school, and in moral and civic studies classes and liberal studies in secondary school; all are mandatory core classes. Katrien Jacobs, a professor at CUHK who teaches various gender and sexuality courses along with media and communications courses, says that more workshops and resources should be organized for the public outside of the academic sphere. “What’s different in Hong Kong [compared to other Asian countries such as Singapore] is that there aren’t a lot of organizations that openly deal with sex,” she adds. “That’s the Chinese culture to some extent. People are more shy and cannot easily share these types of discussions in the public sphere.”
Hopefully this field will gain a more solid foothold here over the years, with more professors and educators coming in as experts like Winter’s careers begin winding down. It sounds like our city could definitely use it.