I am June
Singapore is renowned for order, cleanliness and multiculturalism. With one of the lowest crime rates in the world coupled with the highest rate of health, Singaporeans enjoy a lifestyle of rigid government stability and wealth. Under conservative rule, national service is mandatory, laws around public order are strictly enforced and attitudes to sex and sexuality are deeply conservative. In a country of contrasts, sex outside of wedlock is frowned upon however prostitution is a legal profession for Singaporean female nationals. Operating out of legal brothels, the industry is heavily policed and regulated with monthly health checks. Solicitation on the street is illegal as is homosexuality between men in all circumstances under section 3777A.
Singapore has historically had an inclusive approach to its small but vibrant Transgender community. In the 1950’s the flamboyant “Asian Queens” would give impromptu performances for tourists on Bugis street, with the colour and fun a tourist drawcard. Asia’s first gender reassignment surgery took place in Singapore in 1971 with 500+ surgeries in the following 20 years until the fear of AIDS in the 90’s lead to government pressure to restrict the surgeries, resulting in countries like Thailand offering cheaper operations with less societal judgement.
While attitudes to sex and sexuality remain conventional, prostitution is not hard to find. The red light area, known as Geylang, has the same sanitised, civilised atmosphere Singapore is famous for. Neat buildings with pretty lights and numbers house the legal brothels, whilst unregulated sex work takes place discreetly in the laneways behind. For Transgender Singaporean women working the streets becomes a fast way to make cash without facing discrimination from the mainstream society of Singapore.
43-year-old June Chua has become a reluctant ambassador for her community. Transitioning at age 17 with the full support of her family, June admits she is in a different position to many trans women living in Singapore. “I became aware I am a transgender during my secondary school days when a group of students called me a “bapok" derogatory term for trans in Malay and I felt relieved realising that was who I am and I finally had a name for it.
I have a very supportive family who not only embraced me as a transgender woman and loved me as their child regardless of my gender identity.”
June rejects the stereotypes that surround the trans community. “Everyone have their ups and downs in life, and as a transwoman, I have my fair share. But my challenges will not be more than the general public’s, just different. I always have embraced myself and love myself too much to let anything gets to me for more than a day.” Her apartment is filled with modern Asian art and she describes herself as a homebody. Working at a women’s healthcare centre, her pragmatic attitude extends to the industry so many women in her community find themselves in. “Sex work is work. It's the only industry that doesn't question our gender identity and we do sex work to survive not to affirm our gender identity.”
Not all transgender women in Singapore have the relatively easy transition June had, with family breakdown for those who transition early leading to the disruption of education. Trans women in Singapore often turn to sex work as an easy way to make money, but now the women who transitioned in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s are facing an uncertain future as older sex workers. In 2014, seeing a gap for housing support within the community, June and her late sister (who was also transgender) opened Singapore’s first shelter for trans women.“My late sister always told me that we are so blessed so that we have to give or do more for others and that have inspired me and her to start T Project shelter for homeless transgender people.” Initially opening in a shop attic and housing three women, a new shelter opened in October 2016 with larger facilities and the capacity to sleep twelve people. This shelter has been entirely funded by donations, with the Singaporean public donating money, whitegoods, and food through an online fundraising campaign that exceeded a target of $45,000 by raising $137,000. The money will be spent on sustaining the shelter for 2 years allowing it to offer food and shelter to with residents encouraged to apply for work during their stay and three monthly reviews of their situation. The generosity of Singaporean people serves as a reminder of what a country of contrast June lives in, and gives her hope that for the younger generation “…the shelter will become redundant. There will come a time when nobody will need a transgender shelter anymore because they all are in charge of their lives.” Open to all transgender homeless people, June hopes to employ women from the community to oversee the daily running of the shelter in the near future.
June has a progressive view of sex work seeing the value in the right to choose. “Sex work has empowered my community to be able to live a life that they choose and not have to conform to what society dictates, what we should do, or how we should change. The transgender community do see sex work as a normative choice of work but nowadays there are more employment options for the younger transgender community.”
June has never wanted anything more than to be who she is and is open about the joyous way in which she embraced her true self. “The greatest gift you can give yourself is to be able to be the true, authentic you. I have been able to wake up every day as ME and fall in love with myself every day. This feeling is simply magical and despite the discriminations and unfair treatment I received as a transwoman, I am still counting my various blessings I have in life. If you see my gender identity, you will only see limitations, but if you see me as a person first, you will see endless possibilities and capabilities”