This article was first published in our April 2015 issue. With Sherry Sherqueshaa’s interview on our national broadsheet recently becoming viral, we thought it was apt to revisit the issue. Enjoy the story.
Photos by Glenn Lim
Like all good stories, this one began at the top, literally. Specifically, a rooftop. That was where Christopher Khor, or at least his past iteration, found himself on one day many years ago. The demons, gender unknown, were plaguing his adolescent 20-year-old mind and the concrete ground tens of storeys below seemed like the best way to permanently silence them. “I was constantly told my whole life that there was something wrong with me. Couple that lifelong negativity with that period in my life – going through a break-up and stuck in a dead-end internship – mentally pushed me over the edge,” Christopher shared.
Christopher was not born Christopher. He was born female. When I pressed Christopher for his birth name, a momentary look of annoyance crossed his face but he quickly composed himself. I had undoubtedly upset him and I was not sure what I had done to raise his hackles. It was time for lesson number one. “When you talk to transgender persons, do not ask for their birth names. It is an extremely personal space that you are intruding into,” said Christopher.
Many of us don’t think about our names much. They were bestowed upon us by our parents before we could understood their significance. We grow up and our names come along for the journey, slowly becoming part of our identity. For transgender people like Christopher, birth names are a figurative ball and chain tying them down to a gender that they physically occupy but mentally rebel against. Their bodies might be female but they feel male, or vice-versa.
The issue becomes even more complicated when religion gets into the picture. Christopher’s parents subscribe to Christianity. That meant a diet of church services, Sunday school, and other God-approved activities. Christopher would obediently follow his parents to the small Baptist church every weekend in his teen years. In between listening to sermons and seating in the box pews, he discovered his passion for music. And good Lord, he was great at making it. He regularly performed for the congregation and as a result, rose rapidly through the ranks of the youth group.
But, Christopher knew he didn’t belong. Christianity demands its members to adhere to clearly defined gender boundaries and Christopher was crossing them.
Even when he was five, Christopher already felt like he was born in the wrong body. He preferred the rough and tumble over the sweet and saccharine and was attracted to girls. He remembered asking his mother: “Is it ok if I love my friend who is a girl?” His mother, eyes heavy with sleep, answered that it was before returning to the embrace of the Sandman.
Christopher stayed awake.
Entering the Mainstream
For a long time, transgender people hovered on the periphery of society. They were curious novelties of nature; seen but not heard, acknowledged but not recognised. Things began to change slowly, but gaining acceleration over the past few decades as more and more transgender people began finding their voices.
There is Caroline Cossey, a glamour model who appeared in publications such as Playboy and Harper’s Bazaar in the ’70s and who made a cameo appearance as a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only. Then, there’s actress Laverne Cox, best known for her role of Sophia Burset in the television series Orange Is the New Black. Closer to home, there is Singaporean comedienne Abigail Chay, famous for playing the role of Aunty Abigail in the local sitcom Under One Roof.
The transgender community in Singapore also got a publicity shot in the arm when Minister for Law K Shanmugam publicly announced on Facebook that he sat down with Bryan Choong and Leow Yangfa, both of whom work for non-profit Oogachaga Counselling and Support, to discuss discrimination “against persons from the LGBT community, and in particular transgender people”. It was a bold announcement from the politician, especially in conservative Singapore.
Curiously enough, Singapore was not always this uptight. Back in the Swinging Sixties and Super Seventies, the country was well-known internationally for Bugis Street and Johore Road. These two places attracted droves of tourists who were drawn by the bright night lights, the notoriously cheap alcohol and the opportunity to interact with transgender women. You could get a transgender female to sit on your lap, take a picture for your photo album and bring home an unforgettable story to share over dinner.
Ginger June, founder of The T Project, an initiative dedicated to empowering the transgender community in Singapore, fondly remembers a time of yellow cards and experimental genital reassignment surgeries. “[The authorities] gave you a pass, which we affectionately called a yellow card, if you were a sex worker and encouraged you to go for regular medical check-ups. People from all over the world, especially sailors, would come to Bugis Street and enjoy themselves. Back then, Singapore was an incredibly liberal place,” Ginger reminisced.
This liberal attitude was prevalent even in Singapore’s burgeoning medical field. With the blessings of the authorities, the late Professor S Shan Ratnam started the Gender Identity Clinic and specialised in sex reassignment surgeries. Word spread and soon, people unhappy with their assigned genitalia at birth travelled to the Little Red Dot to go under the knife. Ginger chose to travel overseas – Thailand – for her own surgery. “It was cheaper and I didn’t have to go through a psychiatric evaluation or consume oestrogen for two years. All I needed was to show them the money,” said Ginger.
There was also the matter of aesthetics.
“I’ve heard stories of scary, ugly and unnatural looking genitalia and of faeces coming out of made-in-Singapore vaginas,” Ginger confided in me. “In all these decades, I have never seen a vagina that was made here. No one would show it to me.”
Dissecting the Issue
I apologise if the paragraphs about genitalia are making you uncomfortable. But, your genitals play an important role in determining your behaviour and how society perceives you. For people like you and I, the simplest decisions in life – choosing between the male and female washrooms, ticking off the gender boxes on a form, etc – are predetermined by whether we are born with a penis or a vagina. However, for transgender people, making choices like these on a daily basis are a stark reminder that the world does not care about how they truly feel, just what they possess in between their legs.
For many of them, going through a sex reassignment surgery does not just physically transform them. It sets them free.
Freedom, though, comes with a hefty price tag. In Singapore, according to plastic surgeon Dr Colin Song from CAPE Plastic Surgery, turning a vagina into a penis, inclusive of the extensive psychiatric evaluations, multiple operations and medicine, costs “in the region of $70,000 and $100,000”.
Crafting a penis requires mathematical precision and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the human body. First, you need to find a piece of tissue from your own body.
Dr Song usually cuts a piece of skin measuring 10 to 12 centimetres from the inner wall of the abdomen. He does this alongside the gynaecologist, who is penetrating the stomach to remove the parts – womb, fallopian tubes, etc – that make a female, well, female. It is a bloody operation and while there has been medical chatter about penis transplants, the money to fund such research is not pouring in.
This skin, which will be transformed into a working phallus over the course of a few months, is rolled into a tube and implanted into the forearm so that the body can regenerate the nerves and blood vessels needed to make it function. Once the body has done its work, Dr Song takes the tube out. The missing bit on the forearm is then replaced with a skin graft from the thigh.
There is still the matter of a gaping hole on the forearm. Some patients choose to wear long sleeves their whole lives when they are out in public. A few opt for something Dr Song loosely terms as tissue expansion. A deflated silicone balloon is inserted and slowly inflated over a period of a couple of months, stretching the skin until the forearm finally looks physically normal.
The Role of Patriarchy
Christopher did finally exit the rooftop using the stairs instead of letting gravity do its work. “It was at that point that I finally decided my life was going to finally start instead of end. It was time for me to take control of my life. I would either live as a man or die, and I chose the former,” Christopher affirmed.
Christopher was experiencing gender dysphoria. In layman’s terms, that means a perpetual state of discontentment that people feel when they are unhappy with their birth gender.
Dr Tsoi Wing Foo, a psychiatrist who was involved with the Gender Identity Clinic and who regularly counsels people unhappy with their gender, strongly believes that gender dysphoria is caused by biological reasons rather than environmental pressures. “I conducted a study regarding the role of the environment in determining gender identity and found no difference between transgender and cisgender (those who identify with the gender that they’ve been assigned to at birth) people,” he said.
Notably, the doctor noticed an interesting trend. “In the past, there were more cases of males wanting to turn female, an estimated ratio of 2:1. Today, I see many more women who want to be men. The ratio has flipped.”
Dr Tsoi’s observation brings up an interesting question: in our undeniably patriarchal society, do transgender males get treated differently from transgender females?
Male versus Female
The short answer: yes.
Dr Tsoi’s office has seen parents sitting down beside their child and holding her hands while the child lets out her innermost thoughts and feelings. Then, there are the children who come in alone, carrying the heavy burden of their parents’ rejection on their slight shoulders. They are usually boys, unhappy with the gender that the genetic lottery has dealt them.
“Rejections are more commonly found in male-to-female cases. The parents of female-to-male cases are more accepting of their child’s wish for transformation. In fact, these parents are usually the ones who bring the children in to see me,” said Dr Tsoi.
Perhaps society’s perception of male and female roles explains Christopher’s parents’ reactions. They discussed the issue with Christopher civilly instead of throwing him out of the house.
Before starting on a prescribed course of hormones in preparation for sex reassignment surgery, Christopher went to see Dr Tsoi. A note: licensed psychiatrists such as Dr Tsoi are only legally allowed to prescribe hormones to someone below the age of 21 with the consent of his or her parents.
“My mum only found out that I was taking hormones a year after I started on them. Instead of getting mad, she asked me a lot of questions such as where I got them from, whether they were safe, etc,” Christopher said.
Being a transgender person, Christopher understands and appreciates the privilege that transgender males enjoy compared to transgender women. The latter group is regularly thrown insults and made fun of while transgender males such as Christopher have the option of blending into the background. “Testosterone is a powerful hormone. Your body hardens, your vocal chords lengthen and your fat composition changes. You are almost indistinguishable from a cisgender male,” said Christopher. His colleagues were not even aware that he was a transgender male until Christopher disclosed the information.
Transgender females tend to lean towards activism while transgender males prefer remaining in the woodwork since they are more readily accepted by society. A few transgender males quietly approached Christopher about their reservations when word of Christopher’s upcoming documentary regarding his transformation, Some Reassembly Required, spread. Christopher dismissed their concerns.
Rose, a transgender female behind SG Butterfly, a community portal for the transgender folks of Singapore, feels that society sees a male-to-female transformation as a “downgrade” while the female-to-male equivalent is viewed as an “upgrade”. According to her, it is especially prevalent in traditional families. She has witnessed multiple cases and was also once a victim of such a mindset. The situation only got better when she started contributing monetarily to the household.
Christopher might have talked himself out from becoming a statistic but there are others who do not possess the same indomitable sense of will. Almost one out of every two transgender people around the world has attempted suicide, pressured into a corner in which the only way out was down. It’s not easy to be victims of bullying, objects of disdain, targets of hate.
Seventy years ago, women in Singapore were not allowed to vote. The authorities only gave them universal suffrage in 1947 and while the concept of women at the polling stations is ubiquitous now, it was not too long ago that the idea seemed foreign. The thought of society accepting transgender people might seem impossible in this current climate. But, many people said the same thing about women voting many decades ago and look where we are now.