After I first wrote about the transgender woman who was denied asylum in the United Kingdom, I had the privilege of meeting "Vanessa" (not her real name) to hear her views on The Straits Times article that painted a rather one sided picture of her story.
More importantly, I wanted to understand Vanessa's thoughts and feelings – not as a person that society needs to force under a label, but as an individual.
From what I could see, Vanessa had a fairly happy and uneventful childhood. She enjoyed the activities that were traditionally associated with boyhood pursuits such as playing with cars and soldiers.
As she grew into adolescence, she also fancied girls. Outwardly, society perceived her to be a "normal" heterosexual male. Deep down, Vanessa did not quite feel as confident about her "maleness", but because she displayed all the traits that society would generally regard as male, she had no reason to question her sexuality even though something "did not feel quite right".
She began to envy the relationships her lesbian friends had with their girlfriends. She wanted to relate to her girlfriends as a female as opposed to as male. It was a confusing time because she did not understand those feelings. Nor did she ask to feel this way. It was an instinct. There was no easy access to information that may have helped shed light on why she was feeling those feelings. Society perceived her as male and based on a traditional understanding of what constitutes maleness, she considered herself male too.
All she had to go on were intense feelings of confusion because deep down, she did not feel male. She was transgender lesbian although at that time, she did not understand it.
While she felt female, she was comfortable with her body and did not see the need to undergo a sex change. This in turn leads to larger questions on what determines our gender. Is it just our genitalia or our psychological make up?
What Vanessa went through is very similar to what many individuals who do not quite fit the box go through: Isolation, frustration and even self loathing which can lead to depression.
The world has now entered the 21st century and Singapore prides itself as an international city as we embrace our 5th decade as an independent country. There is hope that our society will become more progressive, more enlightened and above all, more open and aware. Not understanding the issues that individuals like Vanessa face does not mean that we wilfully choose to ignore that society can’t be compressed into the neat boxes that we want.
Organisations and people who are in a position to create awareness should take those roles seriously and not perpetuate ignorant views. The rather ill-informed nature of the article by The Straits Times on Vanessa should concern us. This is particularly so since the article is inconsistent with earlier reports about another transgender.
In this case, Christopher Khor was referred to as "he" throughout. This is in sharp contrast to the treatment of Vanessa, who was referred to as "he" despite the English courts recognising her as female.
I understand that some readers wrote in to The Straits Times to query the paper’s refusal to recognise the rights of transgender individuals, and were told that it was the newspaper's policy to refer to a subject's birth sex unless they go through a sex change. As I read Christopher Khor's story, it is pretty clear that while he intended to go through a sex change, he had not as at the time of that article undergone the surgery. Why then is Vanessa treated differently?
It was no surprise that Vanessa thought the write up on herself discriminatory, patronising and dismissive. She especially took offense to the description of herself as a cross dresser.
As she very eloquently expressed, "How can I be a cross dresser if I am dressing for the right sex for me?" She considers herself as female and the English courts recognise her as such – how can a woman dressing up as a woman be considered a cross dresser?
In the UK, a sex change is not necessary for a transgender to live as the sex they feel comfortable with. As long as (i) a psychiatrist certifies that the individual is transgender; (ii) the individual in question signs a written declaration stating that he or she wants to live as that particular sex; and (iii) can prove that he or she has presented and lived as that particular sex, the United Kingdom will recognise that individual's right to live as the sex they identify with.
This is of course different from Singapore's position whereby a sex change is necessary. While the rightness or wrongness of this law is the subject of another article, it is important to think about whether a sex change is really necessary. Are we attaching too much importance on our genitalia? Isn't gender also a mental and psychological issue?
While there are no straightforward answers, The Straits Times has misrepresented Vanessa's situation and in so doing has perpetuated ignorance. For any meaningful discussion, accurate information is very important and The Straits Times has failed in this regard for this issue.
While the English courts recognise Vanessa as transgender, they have denied her application to remain in the UK on the basis that although she cannot live as a transgender without a sex change in Singapore, there are enough laws to protect her from harassment.
Again, the rightness or the wrongness of that decision is the subject for another article. Clearly Vanessa disagrees because she has faced a great deal of discrimination in Singapore and is therefore appealing the decision. Her lawyers in the UK have taken issue with the misleading portrayal of Vanessa's story by The Straits Times but have not yet received a reply.
Vanessa's ongoing journey has certainly not been easy thus far. That said, she is at peace because she is finally herself and is no longer trying to fit herself into the traditional male or female boxes. After many years of searching, she is who she is – a transgender lesbian.