New Paper: “I’d rather die as an ugly man than a handsome woman”

The New Paper
Print edition: Sunday 27 Sept 2009
Online edition: 28 Sept 2009
Link

‘I’d rather die as an ugly man than a handsome woman’
Female-born transsexuals speak up at first-ever forum that addresses their plight

By Benson Ang

Jack (not his real name) was born more of a Jill.

Only last month did he and three others summon enough courage to tell their story at an open forum.

The forum, the first of its kind, was organised by SgButterfly, a group for transsexuals here.

The speakers were all born women and want or subsequently got a sex change.

According to one study, there are far more men who seek to be women (transwomen) than the other way around (transmen).

Psychiatric study

A 1988 study by psychiatrist Tsoi Wing Foo estimated that there is one transman for every 8,300 Singaporeans and one transwoman for every 2,900 Singaporeans.

The National University Hospital (NUH) has seen 15sex change operations from 2003 to last year.

Jack, 27, was so determined to become a man that he started undergoing male hormone injections. He eventually went for sex reassignment surgery at NUH.

‘I would rather die as an ugly man than as a handsome girl,’ he said.

He said he felt uncomfortable with his female body from an early age. In his adolescence, he was repulsed by the thought of wearing girly clothes and shoes.

He attended a girls’ school and described himself as a ‘typical butch’ – a lesbian with masculine traits.

He had short hair, liked girls and felt uncomfortable around boys. ‘I didn’t know how to behave when I was with them,’ he said.

While studying in a local university, he felt that he could not be a ‘butch’ forever.

He said: ‘I felt that when I started working, I would either have to be more feminine, or more masculine.’

Jack saw a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with gender identity disorder, which he describes as ‘a mental illness that takes a physical cure’.

Another doctor who Jack saw suggested that he drop the sex change idea and try to meet men instead.

It was only after considerable effort that he managed to find a doctor here who supported his decision to change his sex.

The process of telling family and friends was the hardest part of the transition. Many asked why he wanted to be a ‘cannot-make-it-Singapore-guy’.

The first time he told his mother, she replied that everything was in his head and he didn’t have this ‘illness’.

But others, like his brother, who is straight, were more receptive, .

It took two years for Jack’s mother to accept him completely. He said: ‘She now tells people she has two sons.’

At work, he also faced discrimination initially, with colleagues using ‘her’ to refer to him. He now has a girlfriend and is active in the lesbian community.

On his experience, he said: ‘I get to see things from both genders’ (points of view).’

But he hesitates to give advice to others who want to take the same tough route.

Jack said: ‘Undergoing a sex change is a personal decision, so I would want others to think carefully before they actually decide to do so.’

Another forum speaker, Daniel (not his real name), is a 20-something now undergoing hormone replacement therapy.

He wants to go for a sex change operation in six months and change the sex listed on his identity card so that he can marry his girlfriend, which he hopes will happen next year. They have been dating for six months.

IC and marriage

Singapore is one of the few countries in Asia to legalise gender change on identity cards, but it will only do so after genital surgery.

Transsexuals can also get married to a member of the sex opposite to their new gender.

When contacted, Daniel’s girlfriend acknowledged that she and Daniel were in love, but she declined to be interviewed.

He said: ‘One day soon, I hope she can take me home to her parents as their son-in-law.’

Daniel, who grew up in a conservative family, said that body image was a big issue for him throughout his adolescence.

‘There was always this conflict within myself between how my mind feels and how my body looks.’

For Daniel, family is important, which is why he feels especially sad when his sex change harms his relationship with his family.

He said. ‘My mother believes that I’m more of a lesbian than a transsexual. She hopes that I’ll change back one day.’

Daniel’s mother could not be contacted for an interview.

Meanwhile, Daniel is scared of his future in-laws finding out about his past. This is why he did not want to be photographed and be named.

If the couple manage to adopt in the future, he’s not sure how he will tell his children the truth.

‘How am I going to tell them that their dad was female, and was supposed to be a mummy?

‘I can’t imagine how they will take it.’

Woman-to-man sex change surgery more complicated, costlier

WOMEN who have a persistent wish to be male are less common here than men wanting to be women.

Mr Daniel Kaw, 37, the founder of SgButterfly, said when people talk about transsexuals, ‘they immediately think about Changi Village and about Thailand’s transsexual cabaret shows’.

Mr Kaw believes that it is socially easier to be a transman than a transwoman because of the public’s different perceptions of them.

Transwomen are stereotyped as ‘ah kuas’, showgirls and prostitutes, he said, while transmen are socially ‘invisible’ and do not attract as much controversy.

‘Most start off in the lesbian community. They look and act boyishly, so people just treat them as tomboys,’ Mr Kaw said.

But the actual sex change process is more difficult for transmen.

For example, sex change surgery for transwomen is a one-stage procedure.

It involves turning the penis into a vagina.

But for transmen, it is more complicated and has to be completed in stages.

A semblance of a penis has to be constructed using skin and muscle. In the final stages of the procedure, a prosthesis – either a silicon tube or an on/off mechanism – is inserted into the artificial penis.

An NUH spokesman said that a woman-to-man operation costs from $15,000. This is more expensive than a man-to-woman operation, which costs between $8,000 and $9,000.

SgButterfly was set up four years ago. In the first three years, Mr Kaw said he knew only four transmen who participated in its activities. But this year alone, eight new transmen have signed up.

Mr Kaw estimates that there are about 20 transmen and 50 transwomen on SgButterfly’s mailing list.

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