SINGAPORE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A chest binder, packaging from used hormone injections and a preserved penis donated after a sex-change operation – all part of an exhibition designed to showcase Singapore’s rich transgender history.
The display is an attempt by one of Singapore’s best known transgender citizens to raise awareness and preserve the surprisingly vibrant history of LGBT+ culture in the famously conservative country.
Affluent Singapore is modern in many ways, yet social attitudes are often highly conservative, with sex between men banned. Same-sex marriage is illegal.
But it has not always been this way. Back in the 1950s, transgender people were an ever-present part of the lively clubs and bars of Bugis Street, Singapore’s former red light district.
“I don’t want our history to be forgotten,” said June Chua, who opened the exhibition in December and also runs Singapore’s only shelter for transgender people.
“I want the public to understand us. If you understand us, where we came from, who are we … you will then see us as no different,” said Ms Chua, who said she realised she was a girl trapped in a boy’s body when she was just 12.
The project was inspired by a visit to Stonewall Inn, the bar considered the birthplace of the US gay rights movement that now has national monument status.
Singapore is among a handful of Asian nations that recognises transgender people, and sex reassignment surgery has been legal in the city-state since 1973.
Those who have undergone the procedure can change their gender on their identification cards.
“Transgender persons have a place in Singapore society, and are entitled to their own private lives,” a spokeswoman from the Ministry of Social and Family Development told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.
They have access to employment, education and healthcare as other Singaporeans and should “not be subject to prejudice and discrimination”, she added.
Yet campaigners say transgender people face a great deal of social stigma, from difficulty in finding jobs, to bullying in school and rejection by their families.
“Very often we are invisible yet visible at the same time,” said Ms Chua, 45, who set up the shelter in 2014 and has housed more than two dozen people who were kicked out by their families or were unable to find work.
Sherry, a transgender woman, lost her job in a restaurant when she started wearing make-up and women’s clothes about eight years ago, and now earns a living as a sex worker.
“Sex work gives me financial independence, but we know deep down in our heart that no one wants to do this for their whole life,” said the 28-year-old as she lit a cigarette.
Ms Sherry, who asked to be identified by just one name, hopes one day to find work in hotel management – but she is not optimistic.
“If given opportunities I would want to do something else,” she said as she sat outside a brothel in Singapore’s red light district Geylang late one night. “But opportunities don’t come easily for us.”
There is no official estimate for the number of transgender people among Singapore’s population of 5.6 million, and campaigners say a lack of data on the community makes it impossible to tackle the problems they face.
Jean Chong, founder of Singapore-based Sayoni which campaigns for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, said the group’s research showed about one in four LGBT+ women in the country had faced violence.
“It’s very hard to talk about it because there is no statistic,” said Ms Chong.
“Documentation would be the first step to show that this happens regularly, but it’s so invisible,” she said.
“The reporting behaviour of LGBT+ people is that they will never go to the police.”
Tackling HIV is another issue – Ms Chua said Singapore’s transgender community was labelled as a key affected population, but no transgender-specific programmes were in place due in part to a lack of research and data.
Her museum project is part of the effort to tackle what she sees as the invisibility of Singapore’s transgender people.
She hopes eventually to expand the small collection of exhibits – which can currently only be viewed by appointment due to funding and staffing constraints – into a fully fledged museum and move to a bigger venue.
It aims to showcase the culturally diverse stories of transgender community in Singapore’s multi-ethnic society that she says is so different from the West.
The preserved penis was given by a Muslim transgender woman who plans to bury it together with her body after she dies, in line with Islamic traditions.
The chest binder is framed with stickers written in Chinese and English that include one that says “Be yourself forever” and another, “Don’t let anyone make you feel invalid”.
Also among the items on display are a Hollywood movie poster from the 1970s that features a Singaporean transgender woman – evidence, said Ms Chua, that the transgender community has a long history here.
“We don’t want our history to be forgotten and whitewashed away,” she said.
“We do have a transgender history, we do have the pioneer generation. Before they die, I want to collect their stories.”