June Chua is the co-founder of the T Project, a community-based organisation and the first homeless shelter for transgender women in Singapore. Given the institutionalised discrimination faced by trans people in Singapore, further exacerbated by the severe lack of transgender specific social service support, June founded this project with her late sister in order to provide trans women with a safe space and to empower them.
June started out as a sex worker and is now an ardent advocate for the trans community in Singapore. She spoke to Reetaza about the challenges faced by the trans community, her personal struggle with depression, and the need for transgender specific social service support in Singapore. Her personal motto is, “the greatest gift you can give yourself is to be yourself”.
Illustration by Sneha. (Instagram: @s.nha)
Reetaza: The T Project recently did a survey of the trans women community in Singapore and mental health was one of aspects of the survey. Could you share a bit more about the results of the survey, some of the key issues that cropped up?
June: One of the main things I’ve realised is, whether it’s mental health, sexual health or physical health issues, transgender people tend to take it as part and parcel of being transgender. They tend to think that because they’re transgender, it’s natural to experience such things. “I’m trans therefore I sure will feel depressed one.”
That’s not to say that being trans is the reason for these issues, it’s because of the things trans people have to face that makes them more prone to these issues. Transgender people have a greater likelihood of having mental health issues because of the lack of support.
Life as a trans person can be hard. There are many things you struggle with inside, like not being happy with your male body if you’re a trans woman. And on the outside, you face so much discrimination. Many tend to self medicate or have other coping mechanisms to numb the pain. A lot of us may take drugs, like over-the-counter drugs or prescription pills. Or even diet pills because some people are unhappy with their bodies. But not all trans people dislike their bodies lah, like I love my body and I have always loved my body!
What do you think is the impact of self-medication on mental health?
From what I see, [self-medication] makes it worse. Self medication might help you to a certain point, to cope, but then you reach a point where you need professional help. Because a lot of trans people are used to self medicating, they need bigger doses overtime to feel better. This may be one of the reasons why people overdose.
Trans people seldom seek professional help. When we do seek professional help, most clinics do not allow us to use our preferred names, do not call us by our preferred gender pronouns. So we tend to seek help and support in the community.
And is the community very tight-knit?
Yes, yes! Our community is very tight-knit. We haven’t had any social service support for the last 50 years, we don’t have any transgender-specific healthcare clinics or materials. So we tend to go to our peers. Over the years, we have built our own network.
In the past, it used to be very word-of-mouth. Last time no Google, no Smartphones what! Now we also connect and share over social media. It’s all passed down by the older trans people to us and we pass down our resources to the younger generation.
What are the channels in which the trans community comes together? So there’s the T Project...
The T Project is very recent. Before the T Project, can you list out any transgender specific organisations? Don’t have. All LGB specific. That’s what inspired me to start T Project. I always tell people the T Project is transgender specific social service support in Singapore.
When I first started the T Project, I got a lot of help from the gay community. I got a lot of help from Oogachaga which I’m very grateful for. We’re all an LGBTQ family!
How does the environment in Singapore - people’s attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people, the kind of discrimination that trans people face, the systematic exclusion of trans people from employment - how does this affect mental health?
The biggest thing is that there is no support. We are constantly discriminated against. When we go out, we are constantly belittled, treated unfairly, people laugh at us. So it drives us underground.
Gender identity is very upfront, it’s not something I can hide. So once I out myself as a transgender person, that means that there’ll be a 360 degree change in my appearance. 30 years ago (I think this happens now too but maybe less so), once you come out as trans, you’re chased out of the family. So we cannot pay school fees, have no place to stay. We have to worry about putting food on the table, forget about school. So most likely, at that time, with no education, no cert, we can only go for low wage jobs like being a receptionist, or working at McDonald's.
But low wage jobs cannot sustain us. With a low wage job, it’s very hard to pay for basic things like housing, wifi, even phone bill also cannot pay. So most people choose the sex industry. And the sex industry affirms our identity. You want to work, can work already. That’s the only industry that welcomes us. So many of us are forced to work as sex workers for survival.
Then you see, transgender already discriminated against. Then sex worker, even more discrimination. It really plays with our minds. Gender identity, discrimination, low self esteem, low self worth - all of this contributes to our mental wellbeing. Every day, you’re belittled and you don’t dare to tell people what you’re working as.
How about the threat of violence?
The threat of violence comes from everywhere - the customer, the public, the police if you’re in the red light district. On top of that, you don’t have love from your family, no support from your friends. Will go mad easily you know! So that’s why so many of us may have mental health issues, which we ourselves might often not be aware of.
Addiction, substance abuse, lack of family love, difficult to find boyfriend if you’re a trans woman, either too difficult or too easy, but that’s another issue altogether. Zero social service support. Where should we go to find support if we need it? But we’ve been surviving for years. To survive is a big thing.
Our gender identity is our identity. And one person’s identity is very very important. If I go to the clinic and they call me Mr Chua, it’s like totally wiping out my existence. I don’t want to compromise! It’s such a fundamental part of who I am that it’s something I cannot compromise. Giving it up is too much to ask. You know, I picked all the discrimination, all the hardships, just to be me. I cannot compromise on that. It’s my identity, it’s who I am!
But now, it’s much better. Because everyone looks at their handphones, no one looks at us and laughs at us. (chuckles) The younger generation is much better.
Nowadays youngsters don’t use derogatory slurs like “ah gua”. It’s been ages since someone called me an “ah gua”. And they use proper terms like “trans woman” instead of “tranny”. I feel so happy when I hear them use the right words! Society is changing! Mindsets are changing but I still want transgender specific healthcare services.
When you say transgender specific healthcare services, what would you like to see?
Healthcare professionals need to be trained in transgender health. When a doctor comes across a transgender patient, they need to ask the patient if they’re pre-op or post-op. Or if they’re undergoing hormone therapy.
I want the doctor to know that I’m a trans woman so they won’t ask me if I need a pap smear. So they won’t ask me when my menstruation cycle is. So they will ask me what hormones I’m taking now before prescribing me any medication. They need to know that as a trans woman post op, I have a neo-vagina - it’s a reconstructed vagina. I can still get STIs. This is the basic knowledge and training they need to have.
I don’t want to go and see a doctor for rashes on my hand and the doctor, seeing me as a trans woman, immediately jumps to the conclusion that I have syphilis. I don’t want to go see doctor for a fever and they see I’m a trans woman so they immediately think I’m HIV positive. A lot of doctors carry their personal prejudices into their examination room.
I’ve had doctors who I went to see because I had a fever and they asked me when I had my sex change operation done, where I got my breasts done. Is it relevant? I’m coming to see you for my fever, what has it got to do with my sex change surgery? So the doctor also needs to be trained in sensitivity, asking the right questions. I understand that they are very curious but know which question to ask lah!
What role do cisgendered people (note: cisgender refers to people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth) play in perpetuating these problems? And what can cis people do to be allies to the trans community?
A lot of cis people think, “oh, these are marginalised groups, disenfranchised. We must accept them and treat them with empathy!” I don’t want that. You don’t have to accept me because I am disenfranchised.
I want you to understand me first. What the cisgender community can do is try to understand transgender people first - our journeys, why we “choose” to be transgender. And when you understand me, you’ll see beyond my gender identity, you’ll see me as a person first. I want them to see me as a person first.
When people see a transgender person, people will think whether they got sex change or not, what did your parents say, when did you have the sex change op - it’s always about the procedure or the organs or the family. It’s never about, what’s your hobby? What do you like to do in your free time? It’s never about me as a person. It’s always about me as transgender.
I know cis people are dying to know about my experience, my journey. And I’m very happy to share. But they need to know how to ask questions sensitively as well. When they keep asking about my genitals, my organs, when I got my surgery, I tell them that it’s none of their business. I want to share but know how to ask also lah! Don’t just be nosy. Phrase the question like, “oh do you mind sharing your transition journey with me?” or “do you mind sharing more about how your family reacted to you coming out as transgender?”
Then they make comments about how I look. No one tells a cisgender man, “wah you look so manly! Wah you dress like a man!” Then why do people say such things to trans men? It’s so rude.
I love being a trans woman. I loved being a sex worker. But I’m more than a trans woman. I’m more than a sex worker. I’m a person.
Would you mind sharing some of your personal experiences with mental health with me?
I love being a trans woman! A lot of young trans people go through a lot of internal turmoil, gender dysphoria, they get bullied in school, but thankfully, I never had any of that. I always knew I was a girl. Since primary school. And I owned it from the start. In primary school, I called myself Ginger Chua. Everyone called me that, even the teachers called me that. I was the only girl in Bartley Boys’ Primary School - everyone knew that, I had an aura that people knew they could not break. I had a very happy childhood.
I started as a sex worker when I was 21. I was good at it, I had a lot of customers. The depression started when I’d worked in the industry for 10 years. I thought I’d have left the industry by then. I started thinking to myself, “will I be a sex worker for the rest of my life?”
I don’t remember what happened for most of the year that I was depressed. I remember I’d roll on the floor and cry a lot. And I remember going to the fridge to eat chocolate. The rest of it is a fog, my memory is blank. Every day, I’d take a taxi to my sister’s house, ask her if she loved me and sit outside her house for hours. And then take a taxi back. I don’t know why I did that. It’s all so strange.
I think I only realised it was depression after I came out of it. It took me one whole year to recover. When people anyhow say “oh I’m depressed”, it’s really not the same as having depression. I had good money, I was earning well, I had land, I had savings, I had my family’s support, but I was still depressed. People kept asking me, “huh you depressed for what”. But it doesn’t work like that, it can happen to anyone.
I finally stopped doing sex work when I was 38 and started working at the Women’s Care Centre. And then I started the T Project. A lot of people ask me if I’d have liked to start the T Project earlier but I say no. Everything has a timing. And I think this is the right time for it. I have the wisdom and the experience to do it.
What do you think helped you in your recovery?
For me, it was a lot about going back to what I enjoy doing. Going back to my hobbies. I really liked reading books since I was young. So I started reading again. It was like coming back to the age of innocence. I also started focusing on my diet and eating healthily - till today, I try to eat three different kinds of fruit a day. It’s helped me a lot. And eating chocolate. I still always have a bar of chocolate in the fridge, just in case. Nowadays, sometimes I feel sad, but I’m no longer depressed.
Thanks for sharing all of that with me, June. What are some of the initiatives that the T Project is embarking on to address mental health in the trans women community?
Currently in the shelter, the women have various mental health issues. On top of that, they’re all homeless. They face a lot of challenges. I bring in in-house counselling, done by one of the volunteers from AfA (Action for AIDS), AfA does it for free. I’m very grateful for that.
In the longer term, AWARE granted us the Power Fund! So with that, I’m going to organise 6 workshops for the trans women community. One of them is going to be about self defence. Not the martial arts kind, but how to protect yourself from STIs and HIV.
There’s also going to be one on mental health and suicide. This one I want to organise for friends to identify if someone’s depressed, what symptoms there are, what to do and what not to do, how to talk to them.
According to a survey done in 2012 by Oogachaga, a non-profit community-based organisation working with LGBTQ+ people in Singapore, 60.2% of LGBT respondents indicated that they had been at the receiving end of homophobic and/or transphobic experiences. The discrimination faced by trans women was disproportionately higher, with an incidence rate of 94.4%. Studies show that transgender people face a higher risk of depression and suicidal ideation than cisgender heterosexuals. It is important to note that one’s sexual orientation or gender identity alone does not increase their risk of mental illness. Rather, stigma and discrimination, as well as low levels of institutional support, contribute to this situation.
The Alicia Community Centre is now open for visit from the public, the only social service specifically serving the transgender community. Their website can be found here.