Trans folks in the media – Singapore-style


Written by Estelle Ng, Change Maker

4eb57acf36bdbf74d07a9a6ed94cd75aIn December 2015, an article published in The Straits Times caught my attention. Entitled “Transgender man with 2 ‘wives’ admits sex with teenage girl”, it was an extremely uncomfortable and confusing read.

Here’s why:

  1. In short, it was a case about a man who is charged with having sex with a minor.
  2. The word “married” is placed in inverted commas – making it unclear as to whether he really is married. If they are legally married, there should be no reason why “married” should be accompanied by inverted commas. Furthermore, it is unclear if his marital status(es) matter.
  3. He was constantly referred to as “her” even though his gender identity clearly shows otherwise.
  4. It is unclear if his gender identity actually matters in this case. Think about it, would his gender identity and/or orientation be worth a mention if he was cisgender? “Cisgender man with 2 ‘wives’ admits sex with teenage girls”. If not, is there really a need to identify him as a “transgender” while at the same time denying his gender identity?

The choice of words and language used in the recent newspaper report reflects a less-than-dignified representation of individuals from the trans community. And my opinion is even echoed in an unpublished letter written by Sayoni to the Straits Times.

Talking about how the trans community is represented in media is important because it reflects how they are treated in society. More importantly, it also deals with any social biases and prejudices they face in society.

Surely, in this day and age, there has to be more respectful representations of trans individuals in Singapore. Afterall, trans individuals are just like you and me – we go to school, get a job and pay due taxes. The only difference is in the bodies we identify ourselves in: yet, don’t we all have a unique way of identifying our preferred gender and performance as well?

Having said that, how can we best represent individuals from this community? Let’s take a look at three note-worthy media representations!

  1. The New Paper’s Mum, Am I a boy or a girl? Singaporean transgender individuals open up about struggles

Shortly after the above mentioned case was made public, TNP made the effort to engage in conversations with a few trans folks. In the report, trans individuals were given a chance to narrate their life stories. It featured three individuals: Cheong who shared about how she had to live under her mother’s expectations of her as a boy when she was growing up; Khor who spoke about his transition; and Salamat who expressed her joy after becoming who she really felt like. Though featuring three individuals cannot wholly represent experiences that all trans individuals face, the article humanises trans individuals and treats them with respect by giving them room to share their stories the way they want to.

  1. Grace Baey’s photo exhibition, 8 Women

If a picture speaks a thousand words, Baey would have spoken a great amount by bringing them in the limelight in the way the featured 8 individuals were comfortable with. Entitled 8 Women, this photo exhibition highlights how trans folks exist in diversity – each one is unique in their own right.

  1. Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 11.55.02 amChristopher Khor’s upcoming film-documentary, Some Reassembly Required

In an upcoming documentary, Khor features trans folks in different stages of transition. But, really this documentary is about what it means to be human for some individuals in a “modern country with conservative Asian values”.

In sum, various media platforms have an important role to play in providing information and educating the public. It is essential that information is tactfully chosen and media works are thoughtfully crafted and presented. Being insensitive to a person regardless of gender identity or orientation is not only disrespectful but also serves to fuel discrimination that the LGBTQIA community is already facing in Singapore.

It is time to recognise that trans folks are individual human beings who deserve respect too. After all, identifying with a particular life experience or gender identity is only a part of one’s identity.

“I am who I am (which is the sum of my experiences) but being transgender specifically is not the centre of my being… I think it’s become so much a part of me that I would not be who I am without it, but does it define me? I don’t think so.,” he offers. “We really are just the sum of our life experiences, and being transgender is just one part of mine.”

– Christopher Khor in an interview with Contented.

estelleAbout the AuthorLiving by the motto permanent impermanence, Estelle realises that with every moment never capable of repeating itself, life is simply too short to be spent waiting for things to happen. She is currently a Sociology undergraduate who believes that the power of words and the arts can inspire conversations.


Beyond The Binary: Ending Transphobia

by Kelvin Ng Jiawin, Change Maker

“My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s f**ked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.”

pic1transphThe last lines of Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note highlight what’s most heart-wrenching about her suicide: that it is not an isolated incident. Leelah Alcorn is one name in the long list of transgender individuals who have faced violence and hostility due to their gender identity, including Islan Nettles, Tiffany Edwards, Zoraida Reyes and Kandy Hall.

Transphobia is a unique form of gender-based violence that remains painfully under-discussed in mainstream discourse, but as recent events have shown, this is a necessary conversation to have – something needs to be done about the discrimination of trans individuals.

“Huh? Transphobia? What’s that?”

Let’s get some definitions out of the way, first.

  • Assigned sex: The sex you were assigned at birth and put on your birth certificate.
  • Gender identity: The gender you identify with; may correspond to or differ from your assigned sex! I can be assigned male at birth, and identify as a female.

For most people, gender identity has never been an issue. Most tend to simply take their gender for granted as they feel comfortable identifying with the gender they were assigned at birth. Individuals whose gender identity match their assigned sex are known as cisgender.

However, it is important not to universalize this experience: for many, their assigned sex simply does not reflect their identity as a human being. Trans individuals can identify as male, female or outside of the gender binary (i.e. neither male nor female, but as genderqueer, agender, non-binary*, etc.).

Simplistically speaking, transphobia arises from firmly conforming to concepts of sex and gender. Most of mainstream society tends to associate gender identity, assigned sex, gender expression† (and to an extent, sexual orientation) as synonymous concepts; this results in gender roles and stereotypes that affects cisgender, or ‘cis’, individuals as well (cis women, for example, are expected to conform to the feminine ideals of subservience and silence).

While society today, by and large, are more tolerant of cis individuals who don’t conform to a certain gender role, the discrepancy between a trans individual’s gender identity and assigned sex can be met with hostility due to ignorance. In reality, however, there is no one way to be human: just because something is more common doesn’t mean it is any more normal or natural, and it is perfectly normal to feel alienated in one’s assigned sex.

joelizTransphobia is also reinforced by the underrepresentation of trans people. Rarely do we see trans people being adequately represented in governance, civil society or the media. This creates ignorance: people tend to form stereotypes of trans people from whatever little they are exposed to – my first exposure to the word “transgender” came in the form of a disparaging insult toward how another person looked. Trans identities are relegated to punchlines about vacations in Bangkok and deemed perverted or unnatural. It becomes easy to demonize entire groups of people you don’t know much about, but the fact remains that trans people do exist and they don’t just come in the form of shimmying drag queens (they can, and there’s nothing wrong with that!) – they lead human lives as do all of us.

“But why should I care? It’s not like I’m actively persecuting them!”

Leelah Alcorn’s case has illustrated two important things: first, violence does not merely come in the form of in physical abuse or assault, but also (and perhaps more insidiously) in a disregard and disrespect toward a person’s gender identity; second, this violence can be inflicted by anyone – people like you and I, and in Leelah’s case, her very own mother. Hence, it is important to to be mindful of the effect our words and actions may have on trans individuals.

As a cis male myself, I find it essential to recognize the privilege I possess by virtue of my gender identity – while I try to do all within my means to be inclusive toward trans individuals, there is no denying that I myself benefit from a system that actively marginalizes them. Other than the misgendering and exclusion Leelah faced, trans individuals also face harassment, hate speech and violence in schools, at work, in public spaces or even at home. Employment discrimination continues to be rampant as ever against trans individuals, and trans people are still routinely excluded from gender-exclusive spaces as well as basic medical care. In Singapore, trans identities are not legally recognized until after transition, which can be an unaffordable luxury; this deprives trans people of the right to identify as who they really are.

“Transphobia sucks. What can I do as a cis ally?”

While it may be hard, and inaccessible for many, to push for legislative change on an individual basis, cis individuals can play a part as an ally by being more mindful to create a safer place for trans individuals.

The first step in doing so, undoubtedly, will be to respect and recognize a trans person’s gender identity and the terminology they choose. Use their preferred pronouns when addressing them and avoid misgendering them by using their name or gender pronoun assigned at birth. It is also important to realize that their narrative is no one else’s to craft but their own, and to respect their right to do so.

We also have to be respectful about boundaries; be fully aware about confidentiality and exposing a fellow trans person, unwittingly or otherwise, as this may create backlash especially in intolerant settings. (Not to mention the fact that invading someone else’s privacy is a completely asinine thing to do.) Avoid asking about a trans person’s “real name”, or genitalia, or sex life – not only can it be a trigger for unhappy incidences, you wouldn’t ask a cis person the same questions either!

Lastly, actively challenge transphobia – both internalized or otherwise. Growing up cisgender, it can be easy to disregard the existence of trans people. The fact, however, is that this willful ignorance does nothing for trans people – it doesn’t shift the status of their rights nor change the harassment they face on a daily basis. Challenge transphobia by calling out anti-transgender jokes and remarks in public spaces, by supporting gender-neutral language and facilities, and most importantly, by listening to trans individuals. It doesn’t matter if we’ve been problematic in the past – what matters is that we’ve learned from those mistakes and are consciously working towards creating a safer world for our fellow trans friends.

* Genderqueer individuals don’t identify as either male or female, agender individuals don’t identify with any gender at all, while non-binary individuals identify as a gender other than male or female.
The manner you express your identity, via mannerisms, fashion or behaviour. May or may not correspond to the former two categories; cis males who perform in drag adopt a gender expression considered feminine.

pic1About the Author: Kelvin Ng is a debater by training and part-time poet. His biggest accomplishment is remembering all the lyrics to Beyonce’s ***Flawless — both the original one and the Nicki Minaj remix — so that must mean something.


Some Reassembly Required: An Interview with Chris Khor

Interview conducted by Sing Rue, Change Maker

Christopher Khor is a transgender man who has been making headlines in Singapore with his upcoming documentary “Some Reassembly Required”. The film will document his reconstruction and is the first film on transgender men in Singapore. His team raised over $14,000 through crowdfunding earlier in the year for the documentary. We talk to Chris about his thoughts on transgender visibility in Singapore, and globally, gender diversity and what we can expect from the film.

Sing Rue: Can you tell me more about some of the misconceptions you intend to address in this documentary? What are some of the important things people need to understand?

Chris Khor: I think the biggest misconception about transgender people is that people can’t be transgender and gay/lesbian. I get that it’s confusing – I’ve had trouble explaining it to my family members myself. But it’s important to know that being transgender relates to your gender identity, and gay to your sexual orientation, so they’re very separate things. As for me, I identify as a straight transgender man.

SR: Recently, transgender women such as Laverne Cox are gaining visibility, but not so much for transgender men. Why do you think this is so? How do we bring about greater visibility for transgender men?

CK: I think the reality is that transgender men often can fade into the shadows. A lot of transmen that I know do not want to seen. Transmen are men, but there is still a lot of workplace discrimination, and there’s always that fear that someone will view you differently. I think the best way to bring about visibility is to create a safe environment in which they are willing to not be stealth, without having to fear jaundiced eyes and discrimination. Of course, then it’s up to them.

SR: As a gender non-conforming person myself, I am incredibly grateful to you for coming out in such a public way to share your story. What prompted your decision to do so? How is the response so far and how do you feel?

CK: We decided to make this documentary after a chance encounter with a transgender man in San Francisco. Geraldine tells this story better, but in essence, he was the first transgender man I’d met in person. And he’d just gotten married, and his wife is lovely. I think it gave me the first semblance of the life I could live, and that was encouraging to me on a personal level.

After that, Geraldine and I began talking a lot more about what being transgender meant to me, and we realised we had a great story. Still, it took me months after that to agree to being the subject of my own film!

It’s a privilege to be in this position, to educate and bring hope. The response has been overwhelming. I’m incredibly thankful for everyone’s support. But the best part has been getting messages from other transguys, looking for advice and sharing their experiences. It’s so important that we start to build a community that isn’t afraid to reach out to one another, especially since it’s so much easier to just “be stealth”.

SR: You seem to be very comfortable with your gender identity and who you are as a person. Is there anything you would recommend to people who are currently struggling with their gender identity and are not in such a good place as you are?

CK: Oh, it helps that I’ve always known I was a boy. There was never any doubt in that regard. I struggled a lot with not being able to accept the body that I have, even after surgery. The best advice I have, in this regard, is that you are bigger than your body. That your soul is more valuable that anything that people see. And you deserve to be loved. That’s going to sound cheesy, but it’s true. Sometimes, that self-love is the only thing we’ve got.

SR: There are some who have come to a place of self-acceptance with regards to their gender identity, but still face opposition from society. Do you have any advice for them? What were some support systems you had that helped you?

CK: I was very fortunate to have the support of my lecturers when I came out in university, and when I worked at a cafe when I was younger. I’ve found that support tends to spill down from the top. A lot of it, I think, is knowing your own worth, and realising that you can walk away from people that don’t treat you with respect. I’ve found that some of these relationships can be unhealthy, like tumours, and you should get rid of them, like…tumors.

SR: What steps do you think we need to take as a community to continue an open dialogue about gender identity, diversity and acceptance? What are some actions we can take as individuals for positive change?

CK: I think we need to talk to each other, instead of talking at each other. Dialogue can only be had if people are listening, and respectful. This applies for communities and individuals. Be kind. Give more love. Be slow to respond in anger. Be willing to talk, to understand different perspectives, and do not fear being wrong. This all sounds extremely airy fairy but it’s true. When we see each other as humans, rather than labels, then the world will be a happier place.

So, to put those things into practice: be respectful when talking to others. Make no assumptions because of people’s labels. Understand that everyone is different, and that’s okay. These are not battles to be won – these are people to be loved.

SR: I can’t wait for your film to be completed! In the meantime, do you have an exclusive teaser to share with those of us who just can’t bear the wait?

CK: We’re in the early stages of production, so we’ve just started lining up interviews. Look forward to our web content though! It’s mad season at work, but we’ll have a video going up pretty soon!


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