Mum, am I a boy or a girl? Singaporean transgender individuals open up about struggles
On Tuesday, we reported on a woman who lived as a man and married two women. Her case came to light after she was found guilty of sexually assaulting an underage girl. SEOW YUN RONG (firstname.lastname@example.org) gets an insight into the struggles of transgender individuals here
She came home flustered one day and asked her mum: "Am I a boy or a girl?"
Transgender woman Kelly Kimberly Cheong was only six years old when she first felt she was a girl in a boy's body.
The 21-year-old part-time waitress and voice actor says she never thought anything was wrong until she was bullied in primary school.
She says: "I always thought I was a girl because I didn't know about the different body parts then.
"Until people started calling me 'girly' and 'sissy', telling me to behave like a boy, then I decided to ask my mother whether I was a boy."
Her father left when she was only two, so she also did not know that having both parents was "normal" in a family.
Over the years, she has met her fair share of bullies.
She has been called "gay" and a "faggot", had her things thrown out of the window and classmates would hit her with badminton rackets.
Miss Cheong had few friends then but "they were never there for me".
She says: "They said they were my 'friends', but when trouble came, they all ran away."
Despite the bullying, she held her ground and stayed true to herself by growing her hair out and dressing like a woman.
As an ITE student, Miss Cheong struggled with depression - not caused by the bullying - but struggling to live up to her dying mother's expectations of her as a boy.
Her mother had Stage 4 lung cancer.
Miss Cheong says: "I tried to become a boy for my mother because she was going to die. It just didn't feel right for me to be a guy in jeans and short hair. It was horrible."
After two years of Miss Cheong pretending to be a man, her mother died.
She was 18 and felt alone.
"I tried to kill myself many times. I tried to poison myself with air fresheners, tried to sniff glue and even cut myself," she says.
But after harming herself for two years, she reflected on her struggles and told herself she had to live on.
In 2013, Miss Cheong threw on a wig and came out on Facebook despite knowing that there would be haters.
Some people posted nasty comments on her Facebook page but she had more than 5,000 fans within a year of coming out.
She says: "Some of my fans would even give me food and take me shopping."
While many may think that all transgender women are attracted only to men, Miss Cheong identifies herself as pan-sexual.
"Gender or sex doesn't affect who I am attracted to," she says. "If I feel that someone is worth loving, I will love that person."
Her partner of over a year was glad to see Miss Cheong through her transition.
The partner says: "When she first took hormones last year, her 'post-menstrual syndrome' was worse than what normal girls would have, but I was glad that I could console her and be there for her."
Miss Cheong says she is happy with how she has slimmed down and developed breasts after taking hormones.
She also has a wide vocal range, so she makes use of her talent to become a voice actor which pays her over $2,000 a month.
She has no plans on having sex reassignment surgery because she feels that "your genitals don't define you".
Miss Cheong is now confident of who she is and says: "I'd rather be hated for who I am than be loved for who I'm not."
She encourages people who are afraid of transitioning or thinking of coming out to go for it because "you live for yourself and not for others".
'We are no different'
ST FILE PHOTO
Christopher Khor, a 24-year-old transgender man, can identify with the struggles.
He was born with female genitalia but identified himself as a male since he was five years old.
Mr Khor was in kindergarten when he saw the distinction between the sexes and found himself relating more to the boys.
At 16, he learnt the term "transgender" and soon after, his life became more complicated.
To legally change his sex marker on his identity card, he needed to surgically remove his breasts, ovaries and womb.
Last December, he had his breasts removed in Bangkok for $4,400. Mr Khor took 14 days of annual leave for the surgery and recovery.
It took another two months before he could return to more strenuous activities as well as show off his new upper body when he finally got to swim topless.
But it took much longer to convince his family. His mother, a nurse, and father, a physics teacher, are "still coping with it" since he came out to them at the age of 17.
The hardest part for him was "finding acceptance within myself".
"You know exactly who you are, but with the negative and hurtful messages that society feeds you, it is sometimes hard to believe that someone like you can lead a happy and fulfilling life. It was a process of self-discovery and acceptance over time," he says.
Mr Khor has postponed plans to remove his ovaries and womb, citing personal reasons. Maybe in the future, he says.
While the journey was tough, it was fulfilling.
He raised about $12,000 through crowdfunding last year to do a film project to document his reconstruction, with the money going towards equipment and travel costs for a crew of four, including himself.
His documentary, likely to be the first on transgender men in Singapore, is a bid to erase the stigma surrounding transgender individuals: "In the end, transgender people do the same things that you do: wake up, go to work, get on the train, go home to our families, fall in love. We are no different from anyone else."
While coming out to his family members was one of the hardest things to do, the television producer says he would never lie to them.
He says: "Having to lie even at home to someone I love would be very difficult for me because keeping secrets gives me headaches."
Sex change surgery worth the pain
WEDDING PLANS: Ms Ava Gia Munaji Salamat and her boyfriend of four years, Mr Taufiq. Photo COURTESY OF AVA GIA MUNAJI SALAMAT
She is all about empowering the transgender community, and she plays her part by representing Singapore on multiple platforms.
Tour guide and entertainer Ava Gia Munaji Salamat, 34, takes part in beauty contests.
She was third runner-up at Miss Singapore Tiffany and was a contestant at Miss International Queen in Thailand in 2004.
She will also be performing in the musical Raden Mas Bangsawan at Esplanade Theatre next January.
Ms Gia says: "I can't believe I am representing Singapore one way or another. I think that is a great step for an LGBT."
LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
Ms Gia is no stranger in the entertainment industry. In the 1980s, before her transition, she was in TV shows such as Aksi Mat Yoyo and Hippo And Friends - as a boy.
She has always loved dressing up, putting on make-up and being in the spotlight. Her family thought of her as "colourful" and "flamboyant".
When she was in secondary school, she told her sister how she truly felt.
In 1998, Ms Gia met a friend who encouraged her to step into the LGBT community.
So at the age of 20, Ms Gia started on hormone treatment to make her more feminine, and she underwent breast augmentation surgery in Thailand.
She also had trachea shave surgery (Adam's apple reduction).
When she turned 27, she took the big step of undergoing sex reassignment surgery.
"The recovery was tedious. I walked like Liang Po Po (Jack Neo's character in Liang Po Po: The Movie in 1999) for more than a month," she says with a chuckle.
"The pain was like losing someone, losing what was with me all the while and not knowing what to do."
But she says the pain was all worthwhile because it was like "a new beginning".
Today, Ms Gia and her boyfriend of four years, Mr Taufiq, are making wedding plans.
Transgender men, women face acceptance problems
Psychiatrists say transgender men tend to be more accepted in society than transgender women.
Psychiatrist Lim Boon Leng of Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness says: "When women act in a masculine way, it is more socially accepted than if a man were to act in a feminine way.
"I think it is because of the chauvinistic social culture that created this stigma."
He adds that most transgender women do not get approval from their parents due to the "shame" factor, but transgender men face problems with acceptance as well.
Since the 1970s, psychiatrist Tsoi Wing Foo of Tsoi Clinic has seen about 2,000 transgender patients. He sees about 20 female-to-male and 10 male-to-female transgender patients a year.
About 20 per cent of them proceed with sex reassignment surgery.
Dr Tsoi says not only is transiting from male to female harder socially but it is also physically challenging.
"Usually the deep voice and bigger frame would be very hard to change (even with hormones) as these features cannot fully resemble a typical female's," he explains.
Dr Lim says it is equally challenging for transgender men to transition fully appearance-wise.
Gleneagles Hospital's consultant urologist Ho Siew Hong, 47, sees about four transgender patients a year.
After his patients have seen a psychiatrist and been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, he would then prescribe hormones to them.
Dr Ho says: "About 30 years ago, many public hospitals had hundreds of sex change cases every year, but such operations in public hospitals have ceased about two years ago."
Dr Ho adds that it could be due to the spread of HIV that caused public hospitals to stop providing sex change surgery.
"Surgeons have to seek permission from the Ministry of Health to conduct sex reassignment surgery on a case by case basis," he says.
Both Dr Tsoi and Dr Ho say most of their patients go for sex reassignment surgery in Thailand where a full sex change procedure costs about $20,000.
Gender identity and sexual orientation are two separate matters, psychiatrists say.
Many may find it strange for a transgender woman to be attracted to another woman, but Dr Lim says it is possible.
He explains: "Gender identity and sexual orientation are totally different. The sexual orientation of a person is independent of the gender identity, so it is not wrong if a transgender woman falls for another woman."
Dr Tsoi says it is "very uncommon but it depends on each individual".