Here's My Story #2: A millennial trans woman comes to terms with her life
Here I am
Pink Dot is happening this weekend but unlike its 10 previous editions, the lead-up to this year's has been marred with controversy and polarisation. Instead of debating the pros and cons of having straight allies as ambassadors or even questioning the relevance of Singapore's only mass LGBTQI+ event, it's important for us remind ourselves that these dramatic debates — whether it's timely or deserved — have little positive impact on the everyday lives of LGBTQI+ people.
Truth be told, while the needle of progress has shifted considerably around the region (congrats to HK!), little has changed in Singapore. In fact, LGBT women continue to face psychological, physical and sexual violence, as well as unstable employment and housing in Singapore, all while trying to negotiate their own mental struggles, accoding to LGBT rights group Sayoni's landmark study that was released in May.
It might be hard for anyone outside of this particular experience to truly empathise, so I sat down with a millennial trans woman — who wished to remain anonymous — to hear first-hand what's it like to live a life not only of fear and abuse, but also, of self-acceptance and kindness.
Growing up, my earliest memory or encounter of my own sexuality and gender was when...I saw Stephen Colbert on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I remember being 13. He was very attractive. When it came to realising who I was, I arrived very late to the party. It crystallised at 16 or 17. Before that, I'd existed in this androgynous zone, but once I'd had that epiphany, there was no going back.
With regards to my gender identity, my family has been...Accepting, slowly but steadily. In the early days, we could barely talk to each other. My family has always been aware and accepting of transgender people, but it's different when it involves a close family member, because you've inadvertently formed so many preconceived notions about them. When those assumptions have been in place for years, they're hard to let go of.
Coming out has been and continues to be...A challenge. The funny thing no one tells you is that on occasion, the disclosure is so shocking to people that you have to come out to them multiple times before it really sinks in. The result is that friends and family members are at different levels of understanding when it comes to my gender identity. It sucks, but it's something you have to consciously make peace with everyday.
At school, people would viewed me as...Frivolous or shallow, which I later learned was because that's how femininity is viewed in a patriarchal society — as surface and artifice. Forming male friendships was hard, as every boy assumed I was in love with him. They thought the only 'purpose' of trans women was to fall in love and 'trick' men. I felt disadvantaged because I was never seen as an equal, which was all I'd ever wanted.
I would describe my mental and emotional health then as...Non-existent. I had been sexually abused by various people from the age of nine to my late teens. And because I was gender non-conforming, most people weren't ready to speak openly with me. Since I sensed how little they wanted to know about what I was going through — because it made them uncomfortable — I resigned myself and kept everything inside. I would use alcohol and other substances to black out in the privacy of my bedroom because it was too much to bear. That was basically how I functioned until I found recovery in my mid-20s by attending a fellowship, and counselling for abuse survivors.
I began my medical transition when I was...25. There's a reason you have to attend counselling for close to two years before you're prescribed, for example, hormone replacement therapy. You need to make sure that you're emotionally and financially secure enough, as the physical and psychological side effects can be pretty destabilising.
The misconceptions of the medical transition are...That it's end goal of being transgender. Any transition-related treatment exists to make living as a transgender person easier, for those who choose it. Some transgender people may opt out of any medical intervention, and that doesn't make them any less trans. The public tends to focus solely on the physical side of transition, and while that is a huge part of it, the spiritual and psychological experience is equally powerful. People's obsession with the physical aspect of transition has given them a sense of entitlement over our bodies, where complete strangers are comfortable asking us things like what's in our underwear. They think they have the right to know, but they're wrong.
The Internet has been...a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it has helped me find community. Statistically, trans folk are rare, and when I was a child, there wasn't much information on the subject that was available to me. I've often wondered if my slowness in realising I was transgender boiled down to the fact that most depictions of trans people in culture and medical literature were misrepresentative. I'm glad that, thanks to the exchange of information on the Internet, young children and even older people who are struggling with their gender identity have better knowledge and support now.
Fashion, TV and films have...A very cynical view of tokenism. On some occasions, they have conflated drag with the transgender experience and that's been particularly problematic for me. However, we're beginning to move on from tokenism, starting with Gen Z. Janet Mock's recent Netflix deal is monumental proof that things are changing, too.
A particular work of art that had an impact on me was...The comic series Promethea by Alan Moore, and the manifesto Whipping Girl by the transgender writer-activist Julia Serano. They helped me to understand my place in the world, or more importantly the place of women in the world.
My life changed when..I moved to London in 2012 to attend university. It was liberating not because it's London, but because for the first time I was genuinely on my own; I wasn't defined — even partially — by my association with a family member or a friend. I was allowed to figure out who I was without the burden of preconceived ideas. In London, I learned that I deserve to exist, and that my internal life has value to the world around me.
Men have regarded me with...Misogyny. I have serious trust issues when it comes to men as a result. I was first sexually assaulted when I was nine, and it continued throughout my adolescence because no one was looking out for me. I was left to fend for myself.
The kindest encounter that I've had with a guy was when...The first boy I ever cared about taught me how to throw a good punch, and told me to use it to defend myself. It was a revelation, because nobody had ever told me that I had the right to do so. It remains one of the kindest things that anyone has ever done for me. At my most vulnerable and unprotected as a child, few others stepped up for me like that.
To family members or friends of a trans person, I would say...If you can find it within yourself, affirm that person, even if you're not at a stage of your development where you can understand who they are. If you can't offer comprehension, then at least offer your respect; it's the bare minimum that you can do. To quote the (cisgender) writer Jennifer Ashley Wright: "It costs cisgendered people nothing to acknowledge another person's gender identity. Literally nothing. It doesn't lessen your rights in any way. It doesn't hurt you. It doesn't even lessen your own identity as male or female. It costs you zero dollars to be nice."
A key piece of advice that I have learnt the hard way that I would like to share with my community is...That the abused becomes the abuser. I've experienced a lot of violence and hatred in my life, especially in my childhood. But at the same time, my self-loathing and bitterness made me toxic to be around in my teens and early 20s. With proper help, I learned that no matter how much you may feel victimised, you have to look honestly at yourself if you're ever to become the best person you can be.
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