Not just a phase: A Singaporean opens up about being a transgender

A 33-year-old Singaporean tells a story about his transgender journey. (Photo: The Cut)

YOUR LIFE: Every human being has a story to tell. In this series, Your Life features personal accounts by Singaporeans detailing their respective trials in life and their courage to face them. For this story, we have 33-year-old Joe Wong opening up about being a transgender in the country.

I was raised in a Catholic family, and attended an all-girls, convent primary school where strict grooming regulations were in place. I couldn’t stand having long hair, but a certain length was required for school.

Every day I’d snip away an insignificant amount of hair in the hopes that the ever-shortening length would go unnoticed, until one day I just went ahead and chopped it all off.

Unsurprisingly, I got scolded, but that didn’t do much to stop me. In secondary school I went to class in my blouse and PE shorts to avoid putting on a pinafore, and got suspended.

My mother was a conservative Chinese who couldn’t understand how a child could stray from certain expectations, and didn’t like that I wasn’t presenting as a female.

Identifying myself as male did not come immediately. In fact, for the longest time I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. Having my period and developing as a girl were things that felt strange to me. I was a lesbian then, but even that didn’t feel right.

After secondary school I entered my rebellious phase where I decided I wouldn’t let my family dictate my life, and so communications between us broke down.

I was 19 when I found out my dad had only six months left to live.

“Make your choices and be happy about it,” he said to me before he died. “No one is responsible for your future, your life, and how you choose to live it.”

His last words were enough to push me to embark on what I had wanted to do my entire life – to become a man.

Finding and discovering my identity ended up being the most difficult part of my journey. There isn’t a guidebook, or any instructions on where to go to talk to people about these things. But when I came to terms with my identity and knew what to do, everything seemed to click.

Shortly after my father’s funeral, I left home and started hormone replacement therapy.

At the time, positive media reports on successful transgender people were nearly non-existent. Most focused on transgender sex workers, and painted them in a negative light that was all but impossible for society to accept. Because of this, the initial phase of my transitioning period involved huge amounts of self-determination, and being assertive of the choice I had made.

Day by day, I was swallowed by the anxiety that came with stepping outside the house. While I had developed male features, I was still legally a female. Nurses would openly discuss what they felt were my “wrong” life choices in a room full of patients, when all I wanted was some medicine for my flu.

“It’s just a phase,” said some of the friends I came out to.

“We wouldn’t even have considered you for the position if we had known,” said a cosmetics company I was applying to work for.

I found comfort in the form of a support group on an online forum, which eventually extended to physical meet-ups. We helped each other through job interviews, questions about NS, and how to field society in general.

After I went through surgery and legally changed my gender marker, the pressure from society died down. It was much easier for me to integrate into society and get a job, and that integration disgusted me; was it only because I was physically deemed “passable”? It erased my identity as a transgender man, and my experience living as one.

Finally fitting into society made me realise that I wanted to do more than just offer my support to the transgender community in Singapore. I wanted to travel to countries where no laws exist to protect transgender people, in order to learn of ways to take better care of the community back at home.

What moved me forward were not only my determination, but also the support group I have been a part of for the past 12 years. We’ve grown and helped each other through every struggle and uncertainty, but what we didn’t expect was for our informal group to have such a catalytic effect, and for many more transgender support groups to come out of it. 

Now, as a programme manager at the Asia Pacific Transgender Network, I work to fund and support transgender organisations and initiatives, and document human rights for transgender people in the region.

I believe society at large is a work in progress, and a respectful awareness of transgender people and their right to define who they are is something I’ll always continue to work towards.

Interview conducted by Rachel Oh.

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