Straits Times special feature: Trans Singapore

Straits Times
6 September 2008

Trans Singapore

AA new study suggests that there are at least 1,500 transsexuals in Singapore, higher than previously thought. They come from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds, and many – debunking stereotypes of lowly educated sex workers – are high-earning professionals in both the corporate and public sectors. The majority prefer to lead invisible lives because transphobia is still very prevalent in Singapore.

By Wong Kim Hoh, Senior Writer

A DEGREE from Curtin University, Western Australia, and a regional management position in a large logistics organisation.

While laudable, Juliet’s achievements are not likely to make most people sit up and take notice.

Until, of course, the 40-year-old tells them she is a transsexual.

‘When you say transsexual, a lot of people immediately think of Changi Village and Desker Road,’ she says, referring to two of Singapore’s most notorious vice haunts.

‘People harbour so many stereotypes. Not all of us are prostitutes. In fact, a lot of us lead and want to lead very normal lives,’ says the articulate professional whose company and colleagues know of her status.

Three photos accompanying the Straits Times special feature

Three photos accompanying the Straits Times special feature

Transsexuals – people who do not identify with the gender they are born in and sometimes change their bodies through surgery or hormone therapy – in Singapore have Bugis Street to blame for this albatross hanging around their necks.

Before it made way for urban development in the mid-1980s, the street – and nearby Johor Road – was world-famous for its transgendered denizens peddling their bodies for profit.

The stereotype still dogs Juliet and members of her community, although many hold down respectable jobs in law firms, engineering companies and government departments.

They live with many other tags, including widely held beliefs that they are mentally sick and sexually deviant.

Make-up artist Lynette Leong aka Ginger, in her 30s, says the community has to put up with many derogatory names, including ah kwa and bapok.

The Singapore Polytechnic graduate, who has a diploma in mechanical engineering, says: ‘Even the Chinese newspapers describe us as ren yao (human monsters). How can society accept us when they perpetuate this nonsense?’

Not surprisingly, many transsexuals choose to live their lives as privately as possible. This makes it hard to determine how big the community is.

In 1988, psychiatrist Tsoi Wing Foo – Singapore’s foremost authority on the subject – carried out a study on the prevalence of transsexualism in the country.

That study suggested that the prevalence rate for male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals was 1 in 2,900, and female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals, 1 in 8,300.

However, a new statistical study by two renowned researchers last year indicated that the rates are higher.

Using data from Dr Tsoi’s study, Professor Femke Olyslager from Ghent University and Professor Lynn Conway from the University of Michigan extrapolated that the MTF prevalence here is 1 in 2,000, and FTM, 1 in 4,000. This means the little red dot is home to at least 1,500 transsexuals.

Singapore was once famous for sex reassignment surgery (SRS), thanks to the late Professor S.S. Ratnam who did the first one in the then Kandang Kerbau Hospital in 1971.

About 1,000 SRS were performed here until 1987 when the authorities asked hospitals to phase them out for fear that hospital staff might be exposed to Aids. The objection was lifted in 2001. By then, cities like Bangkok and Seoul had overtaken Singapore as an SRS hub.

Currently, the National University Hospital still offers such operations. Professor A. Ilancheran, a senior consultant in the department of obstetrics and gynaecology, says the hospital has performed 15 in the last five years. It costs between $8,000 and $9,000 for an MTF operation, and from $15,000 for an FTM one.

Compared to many other Asian countries such as Malaysia and Thailand, Singapore has fairly enlightened laws about transsexualism. It has allowed transsexuals – who have undergone SRS – to change their gender on their identity cards since the 1970s, and to marry since 1997.

These legal provisions, however, have done little to banish discrimination against transmen and transwomen.

In 2005, someone named Javier put up an online petition for SBS Transit to ban transsexuals on buses the way they ban animals.

Last year, Singapore’s most famous transsexual Leona Lo was denied entry to a Clarke Quay nightspot which did not welcome ‘ladyboys’.

Indeed, all the 15 or so transsexuals interviewed by The Straits Times have experienced transphobia socially, at work and even in the family. Almost all of them have attempted suicide because they cannot cope with the rejection.

Mr Daniel Kaw, 36, who founded, a resource portal for transsexuals, says: ‘I see scars on the wrists of many of the transsexuals I know. They’ve gone through the kind of sadness that you and I will never understand.’

Rare are the likes of Juliet, Ginger and Leona who have stepped forward to dispel the ‘culture of shame’ enveloping their community.

Several of those who spoke to The Straits Times wanted to go public, but were dissuaded by their families or fear that they would lose their jobs.

Ignorance surrounding the condition is one of the main reasons why transsexualism is a taboo subject in Singapore society. Dr Tsoi, 75, who has counselled more than 700 transsexuals over three decades, says many people do not know that transsexualism is a medical condition, not a sexual perversion.

The main symptom is dysphoria, an intense feeling of anguish and anxiety about having been assigned the wrong sex at birth. To seek relief, many transsexual persons ‘transition’ – through surgery and/or hormones – and begin to live their lives in their target genders.

Before SRS, transsexuals here have to be evaluated by two psychiatrists, and undergo RLT (real-life testing) where they have to live and dress as their target gender.

Almost all the transsexuals interviewed by The Straits Times say their families reacted harshly when they outed themselves.

The father of civil servant Ivan (not his real name) threatened to disown him and did not speak to the 24-year-old for over two years after his SRS.

S.L., a 37-year-old MTF regional manager for a public-listed education company, was thrown out of the family home. At least three other MTFs were beaten up by brothers and/or fathers.

Many of them underwent their SRS without their family’s blessings. Ivan – who has two older sisters – did it in Bangkok last year, accompanied by a friend.

After the operation, the surgeon handed him his removed womb. ‘I thought: ‘I will never have children’ and I remember feeling really sad and alone.’

Psychiatrist Calvin Fones, 37, counsels about 30 transsexuals each year. He says: ‘Most parents have dreams for their kids, and normal dreams include them having their own family and children.’

The working world is even more unforgiving.

Ivan, a National University of Singapore arts graduate, applied for a teaching job last year. Even though he already had his gender changed in his identity card, he came clean when asked why he did not do his national service.

‘They then asked if I would influence my students because of what I am,’ he says. He did not get the job, and is now an administrative officer.

Leona, 33, says transsexuals often have to lie about their NS status, or whether they have gone for operations, when filling up employment forms.

‘That’s why I decided to strike out on my own. I am hired and can hire on my own terms,’ says the entrepreneur who owns a public relations agency, Talk Sense.

Five years into her job as a regional manager, S.L., who holds a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Wollongong in Australia, says her employer has no inkling she used to be a man.

‘I’ve worked too hard to get where I am. I can’t risk coming out because I know it will jeopardise my career,’ she says. Her paranoia stems from an unpleasant experience. She used to be the operations manager for a local restaurant and oversaw its expansion from one to four outlets.

Her decision to ‘transition’, however, had dire consequences. ‘One day, when I was on leave, a letter was delivered to me, telling me I need not report for work the next day,’ she says.

Juliet, too, knows the odds that are stacked against transsexuals in the marketplace. To get hired, she went for no fewer than 60 interviews.

‘Many times, I could tell that the interviewers thought I was suitable for the job.’

But when she told them about her sexuality at the end of each interview, suddenly ‘their faces would change’.

Fortunately, Fanny Ler, 34, fared better. Several months ago, the administrative assistant sent out 60 resumes, all of which made clear she was a transitioning MTF.

She got three interviews, and was offered a job by a construction company which picked her over 50 others.

Her employer Betty Oh, 43, says: ‘No one would want to do what she did if they had a choice. I picked Fanny because she had the relevant experience. I’m not paying her a free wage. She has to do her work, which she has done very well.’

But Fanny, who was once married and has a daughter, is not too hopeful that she would fare as well in love.

While they have heard of cases of happily married transsexuals, those interviewed, particularly the MTFs, say finding a partner here is near impossible.

Leona – who will be giving a talk on transsexualism at the Pelangi Pride Centre at 9, Kreta Ayer Road on Oct 11 – says she has yet to meet a local man who dared to date her publicly. Juliet, meanwhile, echoes the sentiments of many when she says: ‘Many men just want money and sex from you.’

The FTM cases seem to fare better.

Dr Fones says: ‘Women tend to look less at the physical and overtly sexual attractions. Many can be happy with FTMs as emotional partners.’

The Straits Times knows of several FTM transsexuals who have become happy husbands. But none was willing to give his real name or be photographed.

‘We’ve gone through too much to get here, we can’t risk compromising our happiness,’ says businessman Andrew (not his real name), 45, who has been married for over a decade.

Juliet understands. She says: ‘Many transsexuals are afraid of losing the comfort zone they fought so hard to get.’

The feisty woman adds: ‘I was paranoid too, but now I guess I just want to do what’s right.’


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