By Tiffany Gwee
I met Danielle last week over a burger and away from the crowds in the western side of of Singapore.
What struck me first was her sheer confidence and firm handshake, coupled with a wide grin on her face. One would not think that she has been living in Changi Airport Terminal 1 just days before our interview.
Terminal 1 was her home for two whole weeks since her family kicked her out, after she confessed to them that she was going to have a sex change operation once she has saved up enough money.
Knowing she was different
Danielle knew she was different from a very young age and constantly questioned her mother on why she “could not play with Barbie dolls as a boy” and why she had to follow certain gender norms even as a child. Her mum would aggressively dismiss her doubts and told her that she should just “act as a boy”. Even though she was just a child, Danielle already knew she was different inside – she believed that her “mind and gender were always in conflict” and that she could not understand why.
As she grew older, Danielle entered adolescence with much confusion and had to withstand mistreatment from her family. Around the age of 17, she confessed that she had a boyfriend and this made her father furious. He was so upset that he immediately kicked her out of the house, telling her that she was never allowed back home.
Homeless at 17
How did she manage to survive for so long without family support?
“I worked part-time to help me pay for my daily expenses and also pay for my school fees because I was still studying in Poly(technic) at that time,” she explained. “I travelled around to different community centres and shopping malls to sleep at night. Sometimes, I just sleep in MacDonald’s because they open 24/7.”
Five years later when she was almost 21, the police caught her and brought her home. Her father took her in again, but things did not get better between them.
Homeless again at 29
Danielle lived under the wrath of her abusive family for the following years. As her parents were completely against her being a transsexual, they often got angry with her and started to be violent towards her. Her family abused her both verbally and physically whilst she stayed at home and she was thoroughly unhappy there.
When Danielle confessed about her future plans to go for a sex change operation, her parents immediately kicked her out of her home once again, leaving her no choice but to stay at the airport.
“I remember the last words from my dad were that I am no longer a part of him anymore. So basically, my own father disowned me. My mum was receiving treatment for her cancer during that time so I would take time off to accompany her for her chemotherapy sessions. But when I told her about my operation, she quickly told me to ‘go to hell and go die’.”
Two weeks in the airport
While putting up at the airport, she was shocked but relieved to find that there were other homeless people that stayed there as well.
“They talked to me and were very curious because I looked younger than them,” she said. Playfully mimicking the men in the airport, “They were like, ‘Girl ah! So young you shouldn't even be here!’” She laughed as she added, “But they helped me quite a lot so I was quite thankful.”
Danielle survived the stay in the airport by occasionally travelling to Pasir Ris to do her laundry and to shower using free facilities along Pasir Ris beach. She also paid to keep her luggage in the airport so that it would be easier for her to move around. She kept herself busy by making use of the free Wi-Fi to read up on the current news and talk to her friends.
There were also kind-hearted people that gave her money to help her along, whom she felt grateful towards. “I am so grateful for all the help I have received. Some of them even helped me to cover a quarter of the price of my current new flat.”
Discrimination against transsexuals in Singapore
The corporate world, however, was less kind to her. Danielle shared her past experiences of discrimination in workplaces and job interviews.
“I have been judged so many times in interviews,” she related with frustration. “There were even a few interviewers who forced me to cut my hair and ‘look like a guy’ before they could accept me for the job.”
Danielle believes that in a conservative society like Singapore, discrimination against the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) community is still very real and apparent. She was called ‘faggot’ and ‘tranny’ by many of her co-workers in the past.
“I had colleagues warning people to be careful of me because I ‘might molest them’ and I have been bullied by my manager before too. There was once my manager made me carry 30kg worth of items even though he knew that I was on hormonal medication and did not have much strength to carry them.”
Hurt and suicidal
With the transsexual community being small and not that well developed yet, there are little support groups within the community that will provide them with the proper encouragement and help they need. “I have been hurt a lot and wanted to kill myself a couple of times because of it.”
Just two weeks ago in Changi Airport, Danielle tried to kill herself but was stopped by two men. She pointed to the skin on the underside of her elbow, “I started cutting here and wanted to kill myself but two men stopped me and persuaded me to put the penknife down.”
“I am sure there are other transsexuals out there in Singapore who are going through exactly what I am going through right now, so I would like to be able to give them the support they need in the future.”
When speaking of the future, Danielle excitedly told me about how after she has saved enough money, she would “migrate to Perth” where her partner lives.
“Hopefully, this will happen in two years time,” she laughs before telling me more about her partner and her plans.
“She is my source of strength. Without her, I would be devastated. Perhaps when I move to Perth, as an alternate source of income, I can cook and sell Singaporean cuisine. Like Char Kway Teow or Chicken Rice since I like to cook a lot!”
However, she hopes to be able to return to Singapore after she settles her career and has accumulated enough savings. She sincerely wants to set up a support group that will be “extremely inclusive”. She admires PinkDot but feels that not enough attention has been given to the transgender community in Singapore. Therefore, she hopes by working with various non-profit organisations and communities, she will be able to create a more all-encompassing LGBT support group.
Inspiration and fighting spirit
Other than her partner, Danielle shared that Nelson Mandela and Gandhi are two people she highly regards because both of them “suffered a lot during their lifetimes and yet came out from it so courageous”. This sense of suffering resonated with her and she is greatly inspired by their strength and bravery.
“Actually, I also think Lady Gaga is super cool!” She chirps excitedly and laughs, “I’m not sure if that is counted, but I really love her!”
To survive independently in this conservative and judgmental society is definitely not easy. For Danielle, it becomes even more difficult with many viewing her as someone “different” from the rest. Nevertheless, she is determined to strive on, mustering as much inner strength and gratitude as the day allows.