Transgender women in Singapore launch campaign to end discrimination

– By Sylvia Tan –

After being verbally abused and asked to leave a club for a second time in months, a transgender performance artist and two other transgender women have taken a stand and launched a campaign to end discrimination against their community.

Marla Bendini Junior Ong, a 24-year-old first-year Art, Design & Media student was thrown out of a popular nightspot on Clarke Quay last Wednesday. And for what reason? She’s a transgender woman, and there appears to be a “no transgenders” policy at the club called China One and at several other clubs in the Clarke Quay area, a popular entertainment district along Singapore River.

Prominent transgender activist Leona Lo was similarly asked to leave The Pump Room, a club located in the same area one night in November 2007. She told Fridae at the time that she was called a ‘lady boy’ by a bouncer and had refused to show him her ID although it states her gender as female. Not one to back down easily, Lo who runs her own public relations consultancy and author of From Leonard to Leona – the first transsexual autobiography to be published in Singapore, went to the press with her offer to conduct a workshop on gender diversity for the bouncers and managers of the establishment. Unsurprisingly, the club did not take her up on her offer. Ever since the incident which was reported by Fridae and local mainstream media outlets, Lo said she has received numerous emails from transgender women in Singapore about their experiences from being thrown out of clubs to discrimination in the workplace and other areas of life.

Tricia Leong, a transgender woman in her fifties, was fired from her a graphic designer job in an advertising firm 12 years ago when she began transitioning (presenting herself as female). She hasn’t been able to find permanent employment since then and has to support herself with her savings.

The three women on Wednesday launched Sisters in Solidarity, the first-ever campaign in Singapore to end discrimination against transgender women, at a media event held at Food #03.

Last Wednesday, Marla who was with her pole dancing group – some of whom were hired to perform at ChinaOne but was herself not scheduled to perform that night – was escorted out of the club by a bouncer who told her that the club’s manager wanted to speak to her outside. As the manager did not show up, she reentered the club although she was stopped by the bouncer. Despite her studio director’s intervention and explanation that she’s part of the group, the bouncers were adamant that she left the club. That was the second occasion she was asked to leave; a similar incident involving the same club occurred in September last year.

Upon her exit, she found the club managers in a heated argument. The club’s senior manager who was identified by Marla as Lawrence started to yell at her and said that she should not step into ChinaOne again. (Read Marla’s account here.)

Although Lawrence of ChinaOne did not respond to Lo’s invitation to share his side of the story at the press conference, he responded to her email yesterday saying that it is one of his club’s policies that it does not allow “transgenders especially on our ladies night, provided that their change is reflected in their photo ID card” which means to say that pre-operative transgender women are barred from his club. In Singapore, only post-operative transgenders can have their ‘new’ gender reflected in their identity cards (but not their birth certificates) and passports.

“What is alarming is the club operators are targeting transgender women at random and verbally abusing, publicly humiliating and throwing out those they perceive as transgender, based on physical attributes such as large hands, angular jaw lines, low voices and other such stereotypical assumptions. When in doubt, they then use the gender status on the identity card as a crude measure of ‘acceptability’ and as a passport to entry.” Lo, a Founding Working Group member of the Asia-Pacific Transgender Network, said in a statement.

Should the clubs decide to continue to bar pre-operative transgender women and require transgender women to show their IDs to prove their ‘status’, Lo demands that they publicise their door policy so that patrons (both transgender and non) can make informed decisions about the establishments they patronise.

“If you choose to discriminate against transgender women, be brave enough to post a sign, publish it prominently on your door, so people can choose whether they want to support your club,” she told the roomful of reporters.

Lo has since also written to the CapitaLand, which owns and manages Clarke Quay, to ask that they investigate the incidents and to end the discriminatory practices.

ChinaOne and CapitaLand did not respond to emails from Fridae by the time of publication.


Social enterprise initiative

Organisers also announced the launch of a social enterprise project where companies can log on to to view a listing of professional services by transgender women. Lo says she hopes for the project serves as a “platform for supportive employers to engage the services of and even recruit transgender women who may otherwise find it difficult to find employment by virtue of their gender identity.”

Sisters in Solidarity activities 2010

SIS petition

Organisers aim to collect 1,000 signatures for their petition that calls for an end to all forms of discrimination against transgender women in Singapore. The petition and a cover letter will be sent to any organisation/institution reported to have discriminated against transgender women here.

Date: Sat, May 8, 2010
Time: 2 to 6pm
Venue: Food #03, 107+109 Rowell Road


As the campaign is currently funded by the organisers, 1,000 Sisters in Solidarity badges designed by Marla will be available for sale at Food #03, Rowell Road at $2 each. All proceeds after production costs will fund future SIS activities. Part of the proceeds will be donated to Post-Museum (which operates Food #03).

Exhibition: Conversations between father and son by Marla Bendini

Conversations is a multimedia installation performance with paintings, paying tribute to the artist’s late father.
At the opening on May 13, the host will deliver the address followed by a performance by Marla Bendini after the reception. There will be a sale of SIS collaterals. Action for AIDS will also support with collaterals for HIV and AIDS awareness.

Opening Reception
Date: May 13, 2010
Time: 6.30pm til late, performance by Marla Bendini 7.30pm
Venue: The Substation Gallery

Exhibition runs from 13-22 May 12pm-9pm daily

SISter Carnival/Flea-market

Details to be confirmed/announced soon.


Sylvia Tan is the editor of, Asia’s largest gay and
lesbian website.

The article is republished with permission.

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