Supporting queer youth: a son and student’s perspective
By Clara How and Christopher, Jun 11, 2021
Trigger warning: This story contains mentions of depression and mental illness.
In January 2021, a movement was born in Singapore. Called #fixschoolsnotstudents, it was coined in response to a peaceful protest held outside the Ministry of Education (MOE). A group of five protestors called for the end of discrimination against transgender students, in the wake of an account from a student known as Ashlee. She shared that MOE had prevented her from obtaining a doctor’s referral letter to start hormone therapy. Her claims were denied, with the Ministry saying that such decisions “rest with clinicians and their patients”.
Six months after the #fixschoolsnotstudents hashtag gathered momentum, we want to continue the conversation about the struggles that queer youth face. More importantly, we want to understand their challenges so that we can better support them.
Yesterday, we spoke with John*, a father to his 16-year-old transgender son, Christopher*. John shared about the collaborative efforts he has made with Christopher’s school to support his mental health.
Today, Christopher shares his story about what it means to be a transgender student studying in a Singapore education system. This article has been written by Christopher in his own words, and minimally edited.
*Names have been changed and details omitted to protect the privacy of Christopher and his family. Christopher’s father has consented to the publication of this article.
I came out as transgender when I was 14, on International Coming Out Day, which is 11th October.
I didn’t find coming out very scary at all, as my issue with coming out was never the public’s response, but wanting to make sure that I was accurately representing my thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. That’s what coming out is about, right? To allow yourself to live your truth. I wanted to get the facts right, so I could educate myself and others through my coming out.
I came out publicly through a series of Instagram stories, with a nerd pun about having 83 protons — the element is Bi, or bismuth. I then came out as gender fluid, which was a more comfortable label at the time as I was still struggling to accept that I was transgender. I invited questions through Tellonym, an anonymous messaging app. The link was through my private Instagram profile, so the questions were asked by friends or acquaintances.
There were so many. People wanted clarifications on my plans for transition, the difference between sexuality and gender, and how I would deal with homophobia. I think it is important for LGBTQIA+ folk to remember that people have real questions, so we shouldn’t be quick to label someone as homophobic or transphobic. The whole experience was so insightful and helped me understand more about myself.
It took me a few months to realise and accept that I am a transgender male, and to finally call myself that.
To explain gender dysphoria: every human is born with sex and biological characteristics. We have grouped these characteristics into two genders, male and female. We call this sex. Gender is your own perception of yourself, or your sex. Society imposes stereotypes and expectations from each of these genders. So gender dysphoria is the discomfort and distress experienced by transgender people due to the incongruence between their assigned sex, and their gender.
I was assigned female at birth, and have female sex characteristics. My gender is male, and I experience heavy physical dysphoria, which is the distress due to your brain not matching your body. There is also social dysphoria, which is the distress caused by people not treating you as the gender you identify with. I experience this less, because I don’t pick up social cues as well as others.
Physical dysphoria hurts me the most, because there isn’t much I can do about it. I may visually pass as male because of my hair and clothing, but my voice doesn’t match me at all, and is one of my biggest insecurities. It is partly why I avoid talking as much as possible. Even for a female, my voice is quite high, and just hearing myself talk is so difficult.
I have so much to say, but it feels fake when I hear it coming from a voice that doesn’t feel mine. I long for the day where I can confidently stand in front of a crowd and speak my truth with my own words and in my own voice.
I get a lot of chest dysphoria as well, but I wear a chest binder which really helps. Sometimes I’ll want to remove my shirt at the gym, then remember it’s not acceptable for someone of my sex to do so. I don’t mind the shape of my body, until I put on a shirt that accentuates my waist or chest. Even if I wear clothes from the men’s section, the way clothes tend to fall on my hips make me so uneasy.
One way that I help to manage my dysphoria is going for haircuts. My hair is something I’m more confident about, and feels like the only thing in my control.
Top surgery is a big part of transition, and I want it more than I want testosterone. But getting access to Hormone Replacement Therapy is so difficult. It is a long, taxing process that involves convincing many doctors along the way who ask you questions like: “you’re only a teenager, how can you be sure that you are transgender”. I’m prepared for this to drag on for at least another year.
For those under 21, you need your parents’ consent. I have the privilege of having a supportive parent who tells me not to worry about the cost, but for those who don’t have this, it must be so tough to defend yourself against those who are meant to fight for you.
There are so many sports that I loved but stopped playing, because of dysphoria. I loved swimming and feeling the water against my skin. I loved feeling the pressure and the flow, and being engulfed in the silence of the waves.
Now all I feel is a reminder of how my body will never truly align with my consciousness, and the silence has turned into the screams of my mind longing for an escape from the prison that is my body.
When I’m in school, the most obvious challenges I face are my school uniform, bathroom usage, deadnaming (the use of a transgender person’s birth name, rather than their chosen name) and misgendering. My school does the best that they can, but I understand that there are limits. They usually come up to me instead of calling me by my deadname.
Misgendering still happens, and catches me off guard. Once in a while, when interacting with students who don’t know me well, they refer to me as ‘she’, because I’m in a skirt. There’s not really anything I can say to correct them.
Last year, I introduced myself as my chosen name to my juniors and friends, but the teachers told me that I wasn’t allowed to do so as my juniors might get confused. So this year, I couldn’t tell my new juniors what my name was.
While I’m not allowed to wear the male’s uniform, my teachers are pretty flexible. I wear shorts underneath my skirt, and sometimes if I’m feeling particularly dysphoric I remove my skirt, and they don’t say anything to stop me. I understand that a school is still a school, and even if I could avoid wearing my skirt the entire day, I wouldn’t do that. I have a responsibility to the school as a student to uphold their values and image.
But I’m more afraid of wearing my skirt in public on the way to and back from school than I am wearing it in school, because I don’t know how people might react or judge me.
In Singapore, where wearing a skirt versus trousers is still a distinguishing factor between male and female, I don’t just feel uncomfortable, I feel unsafe.
There is still a lot of homophobia in Singapore, and I’ve had many friends who have been yelled at in public. Presenting as a woman in itself is already scary, considering the amount of sexual assault that happens on public transport, and looking queer at the same time makes it terrifying.
My ideal school environment is one where I can study and grow freely, where I can openly express my thoughts and ideas, and have the space to explore my identity and interests. I believe that schools should, at the very least, provide platforms for transgender and queer students to turn to and seek help. Trans students need to know that they are supported in a place where they are meant to be learning and growing.
Any minority community needs a platform to raise their voices and concerns, and for them to be heard.
There’s a question I like to ask, which is: if you could rebuild the education system from scratch, so that it includes everyone in society, how would you do it?
Transgender students have been lost in the system for so long. In a sea of cisgender students and teachers, we already have a hard time accepting ourselves. If we ever want to become an accepting society, it needs to start from educating the youth, where we are most exposed to learning. We need to be taught that the world is not binary, because if we all grow up thinking that there are only cisgendered people, that further creates space for people to form misconceptions and their own ideology on how trans people should be treated and defined.
When transgender students are put down and pushed aside, told their feelings aren’t real, we grow up with that trauma and lack of self-esteem.
Trans students have to work in an education system and environment that is not made for them. The stress that results from gender dysphoria and erasure on top of normal schoolwork is one obstacle. On top of all this, they may be facing rejection from family and peers. All these stressors pile up, which is why so many trans students drop out of school. So many of my trans friends are so talented, whether in language, music or the arts, and they should be supported to go further, and display themselves as more than just ‘queer’.
There is so much potential and so much that we can do and contribute, but the system’s erasure of us makes us feel unseen and unsafe, and ultimately affects our mental health and ability to do well.
My personal journey with mental health has taught me that really, it’s okay not to be okay. It’s a cheesy line, but what it means to me is that it’s okay to take a break for your mental health.
I have been on antidepressants for two years now, along with weekly therapy sessions. I started seeing a psychologist around four years ago, but I didn’t feel comfortable opening up to her. In 2019 my mental health became very bad. I was forced to take a break from school and was admitted to a psychiatric ward for observation. My parents and I went back to my psychiatrist and switched psychologists to the one I am seeing today, and who has helped me tremendously.
Treatment is very personal, and it might take a long time to find the right combination of therapy and medication. If anyone is struggling with their mental health, talk to a counsellor. You don’t have to be diagnosed with a mental illness to get counselling, and it can help you understand yourself more.
Because recovery in mental health is never a linear process but a rollercoaster, therapy has helped me become more resilient.
Compared to a few years ago, I’m stronger, and can bounce back quicker than before. It’s okay to fall down, but what is important is trying your best to get back up again.
My friends and family have played a very big role in my life throughout my ongoing transition. Other than using my name and pronouns, they don’t hold back in asking questions. I’m happy to clarify doubts and answer them, because it helps me feel understood, and I know that I can always go to my friends and family for support.
The day before I came out publicly, I asked my dad about LGBTQIA+ issues to test the waters. I don’t remember the questions, but I remember being very nervous and only asking him at the end of our car ride, so we didn’t have to sit in silence. He just rolled with the questions, and if it hadn’t gone well, I probably wouldn’t have come out. After I came out he was more reserved and quiet, and I got the feeling that he was processing the change, but it was all positive.
My parents are no longer together, and my mother still hangs photos of me from when I presented as female on the wall. There aren’t any photographs of me after I came out. I don’t pick a fight about it, but the photos do make me feel betrayed. My past is a part of my present, but I’m upset that out of all the photos she has, she chose to hang the ones from my past.
I don’t think my mother is transphobic. I think she has an issue with clinging on to the image of her ideal child, or a child who she wishes I was.
As for my queer friends, I always make an effort to connect with and hear about their experiences. If I’m not sure if someone is gender queer or not, I don’t hesitate to ask for their pronouns. I treat everyone as equals, and I respect their name, pronouns, and identity.
I’m not much of a people person and don’t like talking much. But after Ashlee’s incident earlier this year, I decided to support the queer community by speaking up about related issues. Not just for my friends, but more so for the queer youth who will come after me.
I didn’t expect Ashlee’s story to go viral, and the #fixschoolsnotstudents movement feels quite remarkable. I’m so grateful for it and the influence it has had on our society. The hashtag captures how much of a systemic issue we face.
Since the movement started, I’ve seen schoolmates become more vocally supportive for trans students. They have shared the hashtag, using it to raise trans voices and spread information. It sparks so much joy in me. I’ve always been able to talk about LGBTQIA+ issues with my friends, but the #fixschoolsnotstudents movement has allowed me to engage in so many interesting conversations.
Seeing the effort people put in to learn and understand each other is a great show of support, because we are all learning, all the time. I might not know the best ways that allies and the public can show support, but if we educate people about the matter, perhaps those who would have had no relation to the topic could come up with innovative ways of helping.
To a certain degree, we all have internalised prejudice, such as transphobia, homophobia, misogyny. I have misgendered myself before, and accidentally said some silly transphobic things against myself. But we have to recognise that none of us can be perfect. Internalised transphobia doesn’t make you transphobic; it’s when you actively disrespect transgender people, and close yourself off to any possibility of reasoning that makes you transphobic.
Treat us like you would any other human being. Politely correct others if they use the wrong pronouns or name. Challenge jokes that target transgender people. Help raise the voices of transgender people in today’s world.
It takes a lot of courage to share our stories, and when we do, we hope that it will reach a wide audience so it gives hope to some of us who are trapped in unaccepting households, or are bullied in school. It’s scary to speak out, but visible support for transgender people help us feel seen and accepted, and encourage others to speak out. Only when we are united can we truly make a change.
The most powerful piece of advice given to me was by someone who is a mentor and a friend. When CCA was suspended due to the pandemic and I was going through a rough time, he told me: “The sun will rise again.” The night only lasts so long before the sun will rise and the day will be bright again.
The Dayre team reached out to the Ministry of Education for comment on the following issues: what support is provided for queer students who face discrimination or experience gender dysphoria, and whether it is true that staff can only refer to students by their statutory names and assigned gender.
The Ministry has clarified their stance with the following Parliamentary replies made by former education Minister Lawrence Wong:
We thank the Ministry for their response.
A non-exhaustive list of several organisations and communities that support the queer communities in Singapore include:
My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my account, I share about my mental health struggles, and my journey in therapy. The kindness of people and their inspiring stories move me.
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