I’m transgender and I’m building a safe space for transgenders

By Hoe I Yune, Mar 07, 2019

June Chua first set up The T Project, a non-governmental organisation, with a focus on providing shelter for the homeless transgender community. She wants to create a safe space where - without worrying about food or rent - transgenders could focus on looking after their mental wellbeing and integrating back into society.

Today, she’s also the founder of the Alicia Community Centre, a resource centre which offers peer counselling, workshops, and support to help transgender and queer youth, and also enable members of the public to learn more about the transgender community. 

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My name is June Chua. I’m 46 years old and I’m transgender. I was born biologically a male and named Chua Khoon Seng (my mum still calls me Ah Seng), but growing up, I always felt that I was different from other boys.

From left: June and her sister Alicia

From left: June and her sister Alicia

I went to Bartley Boys Secondary School and first became aware that I am transgender when I was 12. I was in school one day when someone called me a bapok (it means transvestite in Malay). I realised that the label did in fact describe who I am. I am a woman.

I started to behave more girly like a girl and when people asked why, my father would say that army would “cure” “it”. Of course it didn’t.

I never actually came out to my parents verbally. I wore a dress, put on makeup and my mother knew. She was just like, “omg you’re wearing a dress.” And I said “yes”. That was my version of “coming out”.

When I was 17 years old, I underwent a sex re-affirmative surgery (SRS) in Thailand because if I were to have done it in Singapore, I would’ve needed to fulfill my NS obligation first. I didn’t want to wait or tell my mum and dad. Then letters began to arrive for a different name - June Chua - but they didn’t pry.

We’re a conservative Chinese family so I guess I’m lucky to have such marvellous parents who accept me for who I am. At the end of the day, my parents don’t care that I’m transgender. They still treat me as their child. They might not have completely understood my decision at first, but they’ve never once stopped me from being a transgender individual or threatened to hit me.

From left: Alicia and June

From left: Alicia and June

My late sister Alicia too was born biologically a male but identified as female. Yet our parents loved us and our brother equally. Our brother on the other hand shows his love for us by breeding children like a rabbit. I asked him why he has so many children (he has four and 1.2 is the national average) and he explained that it’s because my sister and I can’t give birth so he’s helping us contribute to the lineage and fulfill our filial piety duty to our parents (haha).

Last year, I brought my father and mother for health check-ups at the polyclinic. We bumped into an old neighbour who spoke with my father and pointed to me, asking if I was his daughter. It only took one second for my father to say “yes.”

I was sweating during that brief pause, because all our old neighbours know that my father had three sons. But he said, “yes, this is my daughter”. I felt moved by his reaffirmation. My father is now guaranteed a caregiver for life - me.

Back to my SRS in Thailand. I was 17 then. Personally, I feel that the only thing the surgery really changed for me was the gender marker on my identity card in the eyes of the law, since I have always felt like a woman since young. After the surgery, I am legally a female.

After SRS, I found work as a volunteer coordinator in the healthcare sector. That aside, I also worked as a sex worker from the age of 21 to 38 and didn’t attend university. In the ‘90s, it was the norm for transwomen to enter the sex industry as it’s the only industry that reaffirmed our gender identity. Back then people did not see having transgenders as an asset so we found it difficult to get a job due to zero opportunities and discrimination. It was about survival!

People tend to only see the negative side or think of the negative connotations related to sex work. But this part of my life is an important one. I must stress that I had a marvellous time as a sex worker. What I always say is ‘no mud, no lotus.’ That’s because lotus grows out from the dirtiest mud.

Sex work gave me financial freedom and taught me prudence, which is why I can now be a filial daughter to my parents, founder of an NGO, and won two awards (the AWARE Champion for Gender Equality and Justice award and the Promising Advocate of the Year by the Working Community 3). It basically made me the independent woman that I am today.

My time as a sex worker gave me amazing memories and I met funny clients. In a way, being a sex worker taught me to compartmentalise pretty well. The T Project is both my work and my passion. But there are times when it can get very emotional because I’m dealing with a marginalised group. So I do take care to compartmentalise and not neglect self-care. Self-care can be as simple as treating myself to a slice of cake or a cup of earl grey tea.

Alicia and I started The T Project in 2014. She passed on a year later. She held the belief that we were very blessed to have grown up in the environment that we did and that’s why we have to share our blessings with our community.

While working in healthcare, I realised that while there were many workshops and focus groups out there, they lacked an emphasis on the issues transgender people face. The transgender community is visible yet invisible at the same time - our presence is known but not much support is given to us. The priority lay in LGB. It was like they forgot about the T. That’s where The T Project comes in.

The T Project’s first shelter is dedicated to housing the homeless transgender community in Singapore. The main aim is to provide a safe space for people who had been kicked out of homes and lacked family support. But beyond being a physical safe space, it grants them the stability in their lives to help them take care of their mental wellbeing before moving on. Some might be battling addiction or have attempted suicide in the past, and there are also those living with HIV and unemployed.

Over the years, we’ve housed over a dozen individuals. We also connected transgender individuals with social workers so that they could get access to financial aid, advice on housing, and medical subsidies.

In the back of my mind, I knew that I wanted to do more. Growing up, I was very blessed to have had supportive parents - and I can’t thank them enough - but I’ve heard enough stories from other people to recognise the need for more safe spaces.

Addressing homelessness among transgenders is just one part of the solution. I noticed a need for places where transgenders can learn more about sex reassignment surgery or for the public to gain a better understanding on what it means to be transgender. That’s how the idea to build a transgender resource centre was born.

This idea evolved into the Alicia Community Club (ACC) - named in honour of Alicia. (It’s also because we realised that if we named it Transgender Community Centre, people may not be comfortable visiting the centre).

Set up mainly for transgender and queer youths in their 20s or anyone older, I hope for the ACC to be a safe space and a bridge between the transgender community and the rest of society. Right now we’re running programmes focusing on mental wellness and self-care.

We’ve already kicked off with a transgender-friendly pilates class. Gays, lesbians, and cisgender men and women are welcomed too, and you’ll be with like-minded individuals. You don’t need to worry that there’ll be anyone laughing or gossiping about you behind your back.

We’ve been invited by Action for Aids and James Cook University psychology students to give talks based on The T Project. We’ve also come up with a transgender sensitivity module, which we’re selling to corporates, institutions and organisations. For example, a corporation can invite us to host a workshop to teach their HR department, managers or general employees the do’s and don’ts when interacting with transgender staff, how to support them and what pronouns to use.

Right now The T Project and the ACC are funded by the generosity of the public.

That’s why when I give talks and attend conferences, I bring my donation box along. I quit my job in healthcare in 2017 to focus on The T Project full time and I’m incredibly thankful for all the support that we’ve been given. Daryl, a staff member at the ACC, helps me out with the digital aspect of things. This includes Instagram (@/thetprojectsg), online newsletters and our website. He also helps me out with email replies because I’m told that I tend to reply very emotionlessly!

Daryl is actually seconded by a company to work here. This means that he isn’t paid by The T Project. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for there to be such a thing! The head of this company supports what we’re doing, so when he received Daryl’s job application and noticed that Daryl had previously volunteered with The T Project, he decided to assign Daryl to help us out on a regular basis.

We also run counselling sessions. Our counselling is unique in that our counsellor is transgender and helping us out pro-bono.

As I tell people, certain questions can only be answered by a transgender. I say it’s for transgenders but really anyone can make an appointment online and come by on a Tuesday or a Saturday. That includes cisgender individuals who want to learn more about the transgender community, or individuals who identify as transgender and wish to find out more about where to get hormones and learn what it’s like to undergo the transition process.

Every transgender leads a different journey - it’s all so diverse. Just because I’m transgender myself doesn’t mean that I understand every journey. For instance, I haven’t lived as a transgender who shares a child with a woman. At the end of the day, what we’re here to do is provide support. 

I don’t necessarily want the public to accept transgender community unilaterally but for people to understand us. Because when people understand, they’re more likely to be accepting. We’re not that scary.

Once you understand me, you won’t see me as transgender anymore, but as a person.

There’s no transgender-friendly park, restaurant or sauna here in Singapore. The only platform that you can visit is online but that means losing out on human interaction. 

The transgender community can wind up feeling very lonely and isolated. So I want to create a safe space for them, in my own small way.

People who come by are mostly in their 20s and 30s. Whenever we receive phone calls, we’d ask if the caller is 18 or above. If they’re under the age of 18, they need to provide a letter stipulating their parents’ consent, or one from the school if they say they’re working on a school project. We’ve received a few emails from minors but so far, no one has followed up once we ask for the letters.

Being a transgender person myself, I strongly believe that you need to support children to be themselves as early as possible. 

Let’s say you’re with children and a boy cuddles a girl, you’d say, “awww that’s so sweet”. You’d never say, “it’s wrong! Wait until you’re 18 before cuddling.” If a neighbour’s little boy likes a little girl, you’d say it’s so cute. You wouldn’t say, “it’s wrong. You don’t know your sexuality yet cause you’re still young.” You’d never say it because you think it’s the norm.

As I mentioned earlier, I underwent SRS when I was 17. Personally, I don’t think any age is too young for it. If an individual feels like their body is a defect and wants to correct the defect ASAP, you wouldn’t ask the child to wait until age 18. Take for instance a child with a cleft palate. You wouldn’t ask the child to wait because you know that with the cleft palate fixed, your child would stand a better chance at leading a better life.

Similarly, for someone who identifies as transgender, giving them the right body and anatomy is akin to giving them less challenges in life later on. It’s to let them live the life that they hoped for.

I’m waiting for a time when transgenderism is woven into the fabric of society, and that children who identify as transgenders are given the support as early as possible. There’s no one telling them “you’re just confused.”

I’m waiting for society to evolve to the point that when a child says that they’re transgender, parents support them as early as possible. Because you always want your children to be themselves. And I really believe that children nowadays are so precocious. They actually know who they are. It’s innate and wired inside our brains already. You don’t just suddenly want to become a boy or girl.

Having said all that, if you’re wondering if it’s easier for youths now, I’d say yes. Because parents are better educated these days, I no longer hear of cases of parents abandoning their young children. On the flipside, the phenomenon seems to be that there are very affirming parents bringing their children for hormone therapy and treatment. But the issue that remains is that there’s nowhere to go afterwards. There’s no safe space. That’s the gap that I hope the ACC will help bridge.

My big dream is to have an ACC in every constituency. We’re not even centrally located right now (the address is: 183 Jalan Pelikat, #01-106, Singapore 537643). What I’m picturing is one in Jurong, one in Ang Mo Kio, and one in Chinatown. Maybe once I have enough funding and manpower, that dream will become a reality. Fingers crossed that it happens in my lifetime!

Writer's Note:

If you’re keen donate your time and money, or just want to find out more about The T Project and the Alicia Community Centre, visit the website here: https://www.thetprojectsg.org/support.

Photos provided by June Chua.

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