HOMOSEXUALITY, GAY LIFE, IN SINGAPORE
Gay sex acts are illegal in Singapore, the government does not recognize any organization for homosexuals, and gay scenes in films and television programs are censored. Even so Singapore has had a thriving gay community for some time that has been quietly tolerated. Gay bars in Chinatown have special lesbian nights and feature attractive men on podiums stripping off their shirts. Drag queens are tolerated and even embraced. For a while it seemed like the only person who pushed the limits of free speech was a funny Indian Singaporean drag queen named Kumar.
In Singapore, sex between men is still a criminal offence punishable by up to two years in prison under a law dating back to British colonial rule, although it is rarely enforced. Some homosexuals have deemed the ban as discriminatory and archaic, but Singapore defends it as necessary for the city-state to uphold its conservative values. There are no laws specifically targeting lesbians. Traditionally, the only mention of homosexuality in sex education classes in school has been to point out it is illegal. The media has traditionally been afraid to addresses gay topics out of fear of having their licenses taken away for “promoting homosexuality.” However, over decades, few people have been prosecuted under Singapore’s anti-gay laws.
According to Human Rights Watch: “Although the government has said it will not enforce the law, penal code section 377A still criminalizes sexual acts between consenting adult men. On August 21, 2012, the Court of Appeals found that legitimate grounds existed for a constitutional challenge to section 377A, and referred the case to the High Court. Sexual acts between women are not criminalized. There was an unprecedented turnout on June 30 for Singapore’s Pink Dot fourth annual festival, held at the Speakers Corner, supporting “freedom to love.” However, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups continue to report that LGBT people face a range of harassment and abuses, including physical assault. [Source: Human Rights Watch]
In a 2001 Time sex survey, 8 percent of men and 10 percent of women said they had slept with somebody of the same sex and 24 percent of men and 24 percent of women said that bisexuality was acceptable.” In conservative Christian areas there is widespread intolerance of gays. One Anglican church in the conservative neighborhood of Queentown hung a banner that read: “HOMOSEXUALS CAN CHANGE.”
Intolerance Towards Homosexuality in Singapore
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that while gays were "people like you and me" he did not want the city-state to have gay parades as it would offend conservative Singaporeans. Authorities generally turn a blind eye to gay activities. In 2004 Singapore played host to a gay and lesbian festival that attracted about 6000 people. But the party was banned in 2005. One junior minister said the 2004 festival may have been responsible for a surge in the number of local AIDS cases, a remark that outraged gay activists.
According to Section 377A of the Penal Code acts of “gross indecency between two men” is punishable by up to two years in prison. In 2007, Thio Li-ann a former appointed member of parliament and a current professor at the National University of Singapore, said that repealing a colonial-era law making sex between men a criminal offence "would subvert social morality, the common good and undermine our liberties." [Source: Agence France Presse, July 24, 2009]
In 2005, AFP reported: “Gay groups have repeatedly failed in their bids to register as societies and attempts to hold lectures on gay issues have even been rejected. The government also announced this month that it had banned the planned fifth edition of the annual Nation festival, organised by gay website fridae.com, because it was "contrary to public interest". Senior Minister of State for Health, Balaji Sadasivan, said the festival -- one of the most popular gay and lesbian events in Asia -- might be behind a sharp rise in the number of new HIV infections in Singapore. [Source: Agence France Presse, June 19, 2005 ^*^]
“A similar Christmas party organised by fridae.com due to be held at a nightclub last year was also banned with police justifying the decision by saying it was "against the moral values" of most Singaporeans. In March, the government also barred Safehaven from holding a concert featuring a Los Angeles-based Christian gay couple because "their performance will promote a gay lifestyle which would be against the public interest". ^*^
A telephone poll of 1000 people by researchers at a local university in 2005 showed 68.6 percent of Singaporeans had a negative attitude towards homosexuals, 22.9 percent had a positive attitude and 8.5 percent were neutral. In 2003, Associated Press reported: “Singapore's influential council of churches yesterday asked the government to stop its new policy to allow the hiring of homosexuals for the civil service, claiming such a lifestyle was "sinful and unacceptable." The National Council of Churches, which represent Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians, urged the government to maintain legislation banning homosexual acts and refrain from the promotion of "homosexual lifestyle and activities." Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said earlier this month his government would begin hiring openly gay people. [Source: AP, July 31, 2003, ^*^]
Gordon Fairclough wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The government remains decidedly ambivalent about gay people. In an interview last year, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said that gays "are like you and me" and shouldn't face discrimination in the civil service. But laws prohibiting homosexual acts remain on the books. The government has also refused to register a group campaigning for equal rights for gays, saying that it is "contrary to public interest to grant legitimacy to the promotion of homosexual activities and viewpoints." Under Singapore law, societies must register with the government. Recently, censors banned a Taiwanese film about two gay teens, saying it "conveys the message that homosexuality is normal." [Source: Gordon Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2004 *=*]
"This place is full of contradictions," says Stuart Koe, chief executive officer of Fridae.com, a gay Web portal with its main office in Singapore, and the organizer of the August parties. "Change at the grass roots is outpacing change at the policy level. But things are moving in the right direction." Many things, such as a gay-pride parade, remain out of bounds. Arjan Nijen Twilhaar, editor in chief of gay-oriented magazine Manazine RA, says officials have warned him against "promoting a gay lifestyle," and have objected to photos of "too skimpy" underwear in an ad. "You are always on thin ice," says Mr. Nijen Twilhaar, "and you never know when it's going to crack."*=*
“August's dance parties got official scrutiny, too. A "Military Ball" planned this year had to be renamed. Police said they were concerned that guests might inadvertently break the law by wearing uniforms without authorization -- an offense in Singapore. Nation organizers say authorities also objected to anti-AIDS campaigners handing out condoms and pamphlets. The local police objected to the materials "based on the misunderstanding that they promoted gay sex," Mr. Koe says. The distribution ceased, but the police said in a statement that they did not request "the removal of any booth." A spokesman for Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs says: "Many Singaporeans continue to voice their objections to displays of homosexual behavior. There are certain things that homosexuals want which are not feasible now," including the setting up of a society. *=*
Tolerance Towards Homosexuality in Singapore
People Like Us is a tolerated gay self help group. Fridae.com is the main gay and lesbian website. Many gays and lesbians meet through websites. Some sites have hosted beauty contests. In 2003, Singapore quietly lifted it restrictions on hiring homosexuals in the civil service as part of Singapore’s campaign to loosen up and encourage diversity as a way of making the city-state more responsive economically. In an interview with Time magazine, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said, “in the past, if we know you are gay, we would not employ you, but we just changed this quietly.”
Singaporeans theaters have hosted plays about gay life that featured kissing and a little nudity. Completely With/Out Character staged at the Necessary Stage was a one-man performance by a former airline steward named Paddy Chew who discussed his life with AIDS, took questions from the audience and briefly showed his emaciated body. Karaokes, saunas and cafes oriented towards gays have opened up and regular businesses pursue the “pink dollar” (Gays are regaded as high-earners with lots of disposable income).
The suburb of Tanjong Pagar has a large gay community. In the early 2000s, the Borders bookstore there was a popular gay hang out. Describing the scene at a club there called Taboo, Jen Wei Ting wrote in Time, “As you adjust to the dim blue lighting, you catch silhouettes of couples kissing, touching and necking openly, both on and off the dance floor...almost all the patrons are male.”
In 2009, Associated Press reported: “The gay community in tightly controlled Singapore held its first-ever rally, taking advantage of looser laws on public gatherings to call for equality. About 2500 participants wore pink clothing, played music and sang songs at a park known as Speaker's Corner, said organizer Pink Dot, which represents Singapore's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents. "This is a great opportunity for us to make our pitch for the equal treatment of the LGBT community in Singapore," said Roy Tan, a Pink Dot spokesman. [Source: Associated Press, May 16, 2009]
Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng told the state-owned New Paper on Friday that gay people "have a place in our society" but warned they must "not assert themselves stridently as gay groups do in the West." The government eased a ban on public demonstrations last year, encouraging Singaporeans to air grievances at Speaker's Corner as long as they don't discuss race, language or religion. The government says public discussion of those subjects could enflame passions and create instability in the multiethnic city-state.
In 2000, Alejandro Reyes wrote in Asiaweek, Gay-rights activist Alex Au Wai Ping Au and his colleagues argue “the treatment of gays is a litmus test of the authenticity of the official drive toward a more open society. To promote civil society, the government is, for example, launching a "speaker's corner" in a local park. There, Singaporeans will be allowed to speak their minds without having to register beforehand. While the authorities say that citizens aren't yet willing to accept homosexuals, Au and his colleagues counter that attitudes have changed. They recently released a survey which they say shows that citizens -- even in the supposedly more conservative housing-estate heartland -- are more tolerant toward gay activity than expected. For example, 46 percent of streetside respondents and 74 percent of those replying on the Internet said they could accept a gay sibling. "It's an indication that Singapore is not the monolithic, anti-gay society the government says it is," Au concludes. [Source: Alejandro Reyes, Asiaweek, June 9, 2000 *-*]
“Yet in recent years, authorities have softened their stand on gays -- at least unofficially. "We leave people to live their own lives so long as they don't impinge on others," said Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1998. "We don't harass anybody." Indeed, Singapore has several widely acknowledged gay hangouts, and local homosexuals are especially active on the Internet. Police have largely discontinued their sting operations to flush out gays. And officials consult more with groups with homosexual members, such as Action for AIDS. Gay themes are often tackled in plays, while movies with homosexual scenes are permitted. In a recent breakthrough, the debut show of a Chinese-language TV drama serial had a gay storyline. *-*
Such loosening is one thing, says Tay, but granting a license to a homosexual group is another. "To allow a society or a public meeting can be likened to ending the ban on Playboy," he notes. "It's a question of symbols, of what is officially allowed. Singapore society has a strong conservative streak that will back the government decision on this issue." In other words, don't expect a major shift on this hot-button topic anytime soon. *-*
No Parties or Sex, Singapore’s Gay Christians Get Together to Pray
In 2005, AFP reported: “Gays in Singapore are not allowed to have sexual relations, group together as registered societies or even stage big parties -- but they are allowed to worship. Each Sunday, up to 100 members of the Free Community Church (FCC) gather at a commercial building in the heart of Chinatown district for a service lasting about 90 minutes. The gathering includes all the typical characteristics of other Christian church services, including hymn singing, a prayer session, communion taking and delivery of the sermons. [Source: Agence France Presse, June 19, 2005 ^*^]
The Free Community Church also has its own resident band that performs each Sunday. "It is like any other church service," Susan Tang, an FCC vice-chairperson who is a mother of three and not gay but is involved in the church as part of her desire to help minority groups, tells AFP. "We are gay friendly and gay affirmative ... we do not view homosexuality as a sin whereas all the other mainstream churches do. "People approach the Bible in so many different ways. "We choose the approach that God would not discriminate who He loves regardless of his sexuality." ^*^
For 39-year-old lesbian Sam Khoo, the FCC has provided her with a place where she can attend Sunday service without being discriminated because of her sexual orientation. Khoo, who is open about her sexuality, used to attend mass at another church but says she left after being told homosexuality was against the Christian faith and was made unwelcome by fellow members. "I just want to have a place where I will not be ostracised, where I feel that I can actually worship God freely without being condemned for my sexuality," says Khoo, a software consultant with a multinational company. ^*^
The FCC traces its beginnings to Safehaven, a bible study group started in 1998 by 10 gay Christians that quickly attracted almost 200 members. "When that grew larger, the members felt they needed a bigger place to worship together," vice-chairperson Tang says, adding the church opened up two years ago. Reverend Yap Kim Hao, a former bishop of the Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaysia who regularly delivers sermons at the FCC, says the church is a place for gay Christians shunned by the mainstream churches to worship together. "It is to assure that God loves and accepts them even though the majority of the Christian community do not ... it helps them to increase their self-esteem and to know that they are not doing anything sinful," says Yap, 76. ^*^
"Many of the Christian churches regard homosexuals as a sin through their interpretation of the biblical teachings and I have a different interpretation," the retired pastor adds. The FCC is somewhat of an anomaly in Singapore, where government discrimination is as strong as that within the Catholic church. Tang says the FCC has been able to operate without any hassles from authorities because the church was registered as a company, and the congregation each Sunday was simply a private gathering. The FCC is also not affiliated with any other church. "It operates just like a regular church ... there is no reason why the authorities should be concerned," Tang says. "It so happens that a majority of our members are gays."^*^
Singapore Becomes More Gay-Friendly
In 2004,Gordon Fairclough wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “This famously stodgy city-state is becoming an unlikely center of gay culture in Asia. Nearly 8,000 gay men from around the world flocked to a beach resort here in August for an all-night party timed to coincide with Singapore's National Day. Laser lights played across the bodies of revelers, many shirtless and some stripped down to their Speedos, as they danced through the humid tropical night. Gay bars, dance clubs and about a half-dozen bathhouses have sprung up. This past summer, the national art museum even featured an exhibit of homoerotic photos. "Singapore's become much more tolerant and open," says Sean Ho, surveying the raucous scene at the dance party. Mr. Ho, a 33-year-old information-technology consultant, was decked out in a T-shirt proclaiming "Choose Sin" in large, red letters and "gapore" in smaller print. "They are giving us a lot more space," he says. [Source: Gordon Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2004 *=*]
“Singapore's more relaxed attitude toward homosexuality is also part of a broader government strategy to transform the small former British colony into a creative, idea-driven economy. That, Singapore's leaders realize, will require some loosening up, as well as a serious effort to change the world's perception of Singapore as a rigid, authoritarian place. Singaporeans have long accepted a high degree of social control in exchange for state-delivered prosperity. But that is evolving as more Singaporeans are being exposed to the outside world through the Internet, travel and the globalized media. *=*
“Those same forces have awakened gay people in Singapore and across Asia to the greater acceptance of homosexuals in the West and elsewhere, encouraging more to live openly and demand civil liberties. Once a taboo topic in Singapore, homosexuality has had a lot of attention in the local press. The cover of a weekly magazine recently touted the feature "Queer Eye for a Straight Nation." One commentator in the article suggested the new prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, could improve his look by opting for a wardrobe of "all white leather." *=*
In many ways, the 32-year-old Mr. Koe and his enterprises are emblematic of the shifts that are taking place. Mr. Koe, who has been openly homosexual since he was a teenager, spent six years at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a doctorate in pharmacy before returning to Singapore in 1997. He worked in the life-sciences division of the government's Economic Development Board before leaving to start Fridae, one of the largest gay-oriented Web sites in Asia. Mr. Koe, who lives with his partner, another executive at Fridae, says: "Sometimes, we ask ourselves: 'Is it futile? Should we just move to New York where people get it?' " For now, however, they have decided to stay. "At the end of the day, I'm quite happy to be here. It's gratifying to see the changes and be a part of it," he says. *=*
Economic Forces Behind Singapore Becoming More Gay-Friendly
Gordon Fairclough wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The driving force behind this change appears to be economic. One consideration: reaping so-called pink dollars from gay tourists. The August dance party and related events, including plays and art exhibitions with gay themes, pulled in about 2,500 foreign visitors and about $6 million, according to event organizers. The official Singapore Tourism Board commissioned a study of last year's Nation party, which looked at "the potential of tapping on these attendees to bring in tourism receipts." This year, the tourism board advertised the event under the headline "Party All the Time." [Source: Gordon Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2004 *=*]
“While some gay Singaporeans don't like the focus on the pink dollar, others see the profit motive as an avenue for gaining expanded rights. "It's highly unlikely we'll ever get gay rights on the grounds of civil liberties," says Dominic Chua, a 29-year-old schoolteacher. "The only appeal that seems to work is a pragmatic one that relies on dollars and cents." *=*
Critics of the government say all this smacks of hypocrisy. The government is content to let gay bathhouses with names such as Towel Club and Raw exist in the center of town, but loath, say some activists, to give gays permission for much besides sex, dancing and drinking. "Entertainment doesn't challenge their political dominance," says Alex Au, a leader of People Like Us, the group that the government won't register, thus limiting its ability to raise funds and hold public meetings. The group is seeking the repeal of colonial-era antisodomy laws, which generally aren't enforced against consenting adults. *=*
Of the government, Mr. Au says, "they are driven by economic imperatives. But they're trying to do the absolute minimum they can get away with, so it doesn't chip away at their ability to control the political agenda." Mr. Au believes the government blocked registration of his group not because it represents gays, but because it is independent: "They dislike any organization they can't co-opt or control fully." *=*
Chasing the Pink Dollar in Singapore
In 2003, AFP reported: “A Singapore property developer is specifically targeting Asia's affluent gay community for its chic 30-storey apartment project in a groundbreaking bid for a slice of the pink dollar industry, a report said. Locally listed SC Global's pitch marks possibly the first time a property developer has openly marketed a condominium project at the gay community in conservative Singapore, and perhaps even Asia, the Business Times said. The property developer has tied up with Asia's leading gay website portal, Fridae.com, to invite gays and lesbians from across the region on November 23 for a special viewing of the Lincoln Modern condominium. [Source: Agence France Presse, November 13, 2003 ^-^]
“Located on the fringe of Singapore's upmarket Orchard Road shopping belt, a two-bedroom unit at the Lincoln Modern comes with the cool price tag of S$1.3-1.5 million (US$751,000-867,000). First launched last year, the condominium is targetted at the trendy, glamorous and well heeled urbanite. ^-^
“The property developer said the decision to target the gay community was based on commerical reasons. "We have a duty to our shareholders to reach out to all segments of the market and to maximise the sales of our development, and it would include this community," a SC Global spokesman was quoted as saying. "We're just trying to reach a very specific segment of the market with this product. There's a very good match here." ^-^
Court Cases Involving Gay Issues
Singapore's government has become more tolerant toward gays and lesbians in recent years, but sodomy is still illegal. In August 2012, a man was arrested for having oral sex with another man in a shopping mall toilet. Associated Press reported: “When he applied to have the law declared unconstitutional as it violated his right to personal liberty, the charge was converted to a different section of the law governing obscene acts in a public place. The man was subsequently fined S$3000 (US$2460).” [Source: Associated Press, November 30, 2012]
In 2013, according to Associated Press, “a gay couple in Singapore seeking to abolish a long-standing law banning gay sex had their case heard in court, just days after a former department store manager sued his boss for alleged discrimination against homosexuals. The two cases highlight how members of Singapore's gay community have become increasingly vocal, demanding changes in the city-state's attitudes toward homosexuality by speaking out against discrimination and raising legal cases to challenge the law. [Source: Associated Press, February 14, 2013]
Peter Low and Choo Zheng Xi, the lawyers representing the gay couple Gary Lim and Kenneth Chee, said the couple hopes to have the law banning gay sex declared unconstitutional. Singapore law criminalizes sex between mutually consenting adult men, and offenders can be jailed for up to two years. Earlier, Lawrence Bernard Wee Kim San, a former manager at Robinsons department store, filed a lawsuit claiming his former boss had harassed him into leaving his job because he did not agree with his homosexuality. Robinsons denied any "biasness," ''unfair treatment" or "persecution" by anyone at the store, or that Wee faced "difficulties" or "threats" when he wanted to leave the company.
Gay rights are not widely accepted in largely conservative Singapore. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the issue at a conference last month. "Why is that law on the books? Because it's always been there and I think we just leave it," he said. "These are not issues that we can settle one way or the other, and it's really best for us just to leave them be, and just agree to disagree. I think that's the way Singapore will be for a long time."
Bans in Singapore on Gay Websites and Lesbian Kisses
In April 2008, Reuters reported: “Two women kissing in an advertisement led Singapore to fine a cable operator for breaching guidelines on sexuality in the conservative city-state. Singapore's Media Development Authority, which regulates and censors media and the arts, said on Wednesday it fined StarHub S$10,000 ($7,246) for airing a commercial for a song that featured "romanticised scenes" of lesbians kissing and portrayed the relationship as "acceptable". The music video of the song, titled "Silly Child" by Mandarin singer Olivia Yan, shows an intimate kissing scene before one of the women rejects her boyfriend at the end of the clip. "This is in breach of the TV advertising guidelines, which disallows advertisements that condone homosexuality," the media authority said. [Source: Reuters, April 9, 2008]
In 2005, Associated Press reported: “Singapore's government banned a gay Web site and fined another after both were deemed to carry offensive content, a newspaper reported Friday. The Media Development Authority in July put one of the sites on a list of 100 that are banned, after officials received complaints that it promoted promiscuous homosexual behavior and recruited underage boys for sex and nude photography, The Straits Times reported. The ban means that Web surfers in Singapore can no longer access the site, which is based overseas, the AP reports.Most of the banned sites on the list contain pornographic material. A local Web site called "Meet Gay Singapore Friends" obeyed a government warning to remove allegedly offensive content and was fined 5,000 Singapore dollars (US$2,960; ?2,440), the newspaper said. [Source: AP, October 28, 2005]
Shan Ratnam: Singapore’s Sex Change Operation Pioneer
Professor Shan Ratnam (1928 – 2001), a gynaecologist and sex change doctor at University of Singapore, pioneered gender reassignment surgery. According to fridae.asia, Singapore’s main gay website, “Singapore became a top Asian destination for sex change operations in the 1970s and 80s after he pioneered a technique that led to Singapore's first sex change operation in the 1970s. The late professor who performed both female-to-male and male-to-female reassignment surgery is believed to have operated on as many as 500 transsexuals between 1971 and 1991. [Source: fridae.asia, August 7, 2001]
The author of several books including Cries from within and medical texts on obstetrics and gynecology was also responsible for several fertility breakthroughs. He gave Asia its first test-tube baby through the in-vitro fertilization process in 1983 and in 1987, the first baby in Asia was born from a frozen embryo. Prof Ratnam received several awards including the Singapore Public Administration Gold Medal in 1977 and an ASEAN award for his contributions to Reproductive Medicine in 1991.
Shan Ratnam was of Ceylonese Tamil descent, and was born in Jaffna where his mother came from, although his father's family had lived in Malaysia for three generations. From the age of six months he lived in Kuala Lumpur. Ratnam's father was ordered to be beheaded by the occupying Japanese in 1942, but was saved by a Japanese woman married to an Indian man. His mother died at age 38 during the Occupation from rectum cancer, as did his youngest sibling from tuberculosis meningitis. This inspired him to become a doctor. [Source: zagria.blogspot.jp]
He trained at the Singapore General Hospital from 1959, and began teaching at the University of Singapore in 1963. He studied at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London where he earned MRCOG and FRCS in 1964. He then became Professor and Head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Singapore in the new Singapore independent of the UK and then in secession from Malaysia.
In 1969 Ratnam was pestered by Shonna who was desirous to have sex change surgery. He became intrigued by the possibility, read the literature and finally practised the operation on two cadavers in the mortuary. He had Shonna evaluated by a team of psychiatrists who confirmed that she was indeed transsexual. Legal clearance was sought from the ministry of health and granted. Surgery was performed 30 July 1971 at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital. This was the first such operation in east Asia.
A Gender Identity Clinic was set up headed by Prof Ratnam, who ran it until his retirement in 1995, when it was passed to his nephew, Dr. Anandakumar. In 30 years more than 300 sex change operations were performed. In 1972 Ratnam's gynaecology department was recognized by the World Health Organization as one of 13 outstanding research centres in human reproduction. In 1983 Ratnam did the first Asian In-vitro fertilization. In 1987 the first Asian live birth from a frozen embryo. In 1989 the world's first live birth after microinjection, and in 1991 the world's first infant born via human ampullary coculture. He published 596 research papers in internationally refereed journals, 396 in local and regional refereed journals, 138 chapters in books and 795 presentations at conferences. In 1996, Ratnam was appointed as Emeritus Professor. In 2000, the Shan S. Ratnam Professorship endowment was set up to award internationally recognised O& G specialists annually.
First Sex Change Surgery (1971)
Chan Meng Choo wrote in Singapore Infopedia: “The first sex change surgery in Singapore was successfully performed on 30 July 1971 at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital. The operation involved a 24-year-old man and was the first procedure of its kind performed in Singapore and in Asia. There had been previous “sex change” operations performed in Singapore, but these mostly involved patients who had both male and female genitalia (hermaphrodites) and the removal of one set of genitalia. The 1971 operation was regarded as a first because it involved a surgical conversion aimed at functionally changing a person’s sex. [Source: Chan Meng Choo, eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia]
The patient was a 24-year-old Singaporean citizen of Chinese heritage. Her name was kept secret, but her background was later made public in a book. The eldest son in a family of five with two younger sisters, her father was a dentist who was often physically violent with his wife, which caused the patient psychological trauma. As a child, the patient was raised by her grandmother, who dressed her as a female. In her teenage years, she associated with other cross-dressers before frequenting the transsexual and transvestite scene at Bugis Street as an adult.
From the age of 16, she worked as a sales assistant, a housemaid, in a bank and as a public relations officer. She later won second prize in a beauty contest and became a model. While working as a part-time model, she joined a cabaret and was known as “Mama Chan”. She also ran a social escort service. Having lived as a woman for some time, she first consulted Professor S. S. Ratnam, a senior lecturer in the University of Singapore’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, in 1969. She had been suffering sexual and emotional problems, which had led to two suicide attempts. Ratnam explained to her that he had no experience in sex change surgery, but she continued to visit his clinic weekly. After researching the subject of transsexualism and sex reassignment surgeries, Ratnam familiarised himself with the surgical techniques by practising on cadavers.
The patient underwent a psychological analysis by a team of psychiatrists who confirmed that she was a transsexual who required surgery. A diagnosis of transsexualism requires that the patient possesses a continuous sense of inappropriateness about his or her anatomic sex, a desire to discard his or her genitalia and live as a member of the opposite sex, and the absence of physical intersex symptoms or genetic abnormalities. As well, his or her gender confusion (gender dysphoria) must not be caused by other disorders such as schizophrenia. The patient was also cautioned that the surgery would be irreversible, potentially involved a number of complications and required a prolonged follow-up period. Legal clearance for the operation was then sought from the Ministry of Health and granted. After consideration of the patient’s psychological profile, the medical expertise involved and the approval of the Ministry, the decision was taken to proceed with the operation.
The operation was performed by Ratnam and two other surgeons from the University of Singapore’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Associate Professor Khew Khoon Shin and plastic surgeon R. Sundarason. Photography of the operation was not permitted. Ratnam later described the three-hour operation as a success, with an uneventful post-surgery recovery. He later founded the Gender Identity Clinic specialising in sex change surgeries at the National University Hospital. After her successful operation, the patient went on hormone treatments and was functionally a woman, with the exception of being unable to conceive or menstruate. She later married a French man and owned a travel agency in Paris, before moving to England.
The July 1971 operation paved the way for sex change surgeries in Singapore and in the region. Singapore’s first sex change operation on a woman took place three years later, between August 1974 to October 1977 (female-to-male conversions are a more complex process and involve several surgical stages). In the 1970s and 1980s, hospitals in Singapore accepted numerous sex change patients from other Southeast Asian countries, with foreigners making up around half of all surgeries performed.
In the years following the operation, a number of legal issues arose for transsexuals who had undergone a sex change. By 1973, the government allowed sex change patients to have their new sex reflected on their identity cards. The Registry of Marriages implicitly recognised marriages involving a sex change patient, as it required only an identity card to prove the different genders of the couple. However in 1991, a marriage between a sex-change transsexual man and a woman was declared void from the beginning by the High Court, officially making such marriages illegal in Singapore. It was only in 1996 that the government amended the Women’s Charter to allow transsexuals to legally marry.
Becoming a Woman in Singapore
In 1995, a Singaporean man asked a court if could divorce his spouse because she was a woman who became a man. The court granted the divorce on the grounds of "unreasonable behavior" and said that the male wife “behaved in such as way that the plaintiff cannot...be expected to live with her."
In 2006,Leong Siok Hui wrote in The Star, “Tall, slim and self-assured, this 31-year-old Singaporean gal loves windsurfing, salsa and exotic dances, and enjoys an active social life. On occasion, she fights for causes that are close to her heart – like when the authorities threatened to close down the local windsurfing club. But life hasn’t always been peachy for Lo who was once a man. Back in 1991, Leona was Leonard, 15 years old and the vice chairman of the English Language drama society in an all-boys school. With his falsetto voice and fair complexion, Leonard readily took on the female roles in school plays. [Source: Leong Siok Hui, The Star, September 9, 2006 **]
“Every stage appearance was an exhilarating experience. “I lived for the wolf-whistles and catcalls. At the end of every performance, I would take in the audience’s appreciative looks before sashaying offstage with the poise of Gong Li,’’ recalls Lo. After the shows, he would drift trance-like back to class only to discover the words “Leonard is a bloody faggot” splashed across his desk. “Even Cinderella had her moment of reckoning,” she says. **
“It was in Primary Six that Lo realised he was born in the wrong body. From then on, Lo led a tormented life until he suffered a nervous breakdown while doing National Service. (In Singapore, all able-bodied, 18-21 year old male citizens are required to serve in the military for two years.) Lo, then 19, popped 40 Panadols but survived the suicide attempt. **
“My parents went ballistic (when I told them I wanted to be a woman). They hired an exorcist and monks. I was made to drink ashes and pray at the temple,” recalls Lo. “It took them about two years to accept me for who I am. But deep down, they’re still grappling with the changes and they’re also very apologetic for who I am. “But it’s their love that has taken me so far,” adds Lo. During his first year at the University of York in UK, Lo used his tuition money for his sexual reassignment surgery (SRS). “My parents were upset when they found out, but they forgave me later.” **
“The relatively higher cost of surgery and lack of options in Singapore drive many transexuals to Thailand for their SRS. But some transexuals suffer complications later due to a lack of follow-up treatment and information on the effects of lifelong estrogen therapy. Lo has had her share of medical complications. Last year, she was diagnosed with a benign pituitary tumour, which she discovered was due to a time-release oestrogen implant in her body. And, after a corrective post-sexual reassignment surgery last November, she developed urinary tract infection that required the attention of a specialist.” **
Life of a Transexual in Singapore
Leong Siok Hui wrote in The Star, “Under Singaporean law, post-operative transexuals are allowed to register their new sex status on their identity cards and are free to marry people of the opposite sex. (The first sex change operation was performed in Singapore in 1971.) But there is no legislation to prevent discrimination at the workplace – transexuals can be wrongfully dismissed or not hired on the grounds of sexuality. However, there are employers who hire based on merit and who look beyond gender, Lo adds. “I may have lost a few jobs because some people judged me before they saw my work,” says Lo. “But someone once told me that because of who I am, I will always bring a creative edge to my work. So I choose to focus on this positive aspect.” [Source: Leong Siok Hui, The Star, September 9, 2006 **]
In 2003, Lo and photographer Lance Lee released a coffeetable book highlighting the lives of transexuals in Singapore and Thailand. In the course of researching her subjects, Lo got an insider’s look into the world of prostitution and entertainment. “Apart from the ladies in Thailand, most in Singapore also willingly embrace prostitution because of the easy money. It is hard for them to break out of the lifestyle once they get into it,” says Lo, who became disillusioned.
Lo’s family and friends are her pillars of strength. During the transitioning period after SRS, she also had Sister Juanita O Carum, a Carmelite nun, to lean on. “I was quite lost, and my then boyfriend told me in my face, ‘You’re not a real woman’,” recalls Lo. Sister Juanita counselled her and gave her a lot of affirmation. “But what’s most important is to make peace with ourselves and accept ourselves first. Once you’ve arrived at that point, you will find love, friendship and many other wonderful things.”
“Relationships are not an easy thing for Lo and most transexuals. “I would love to go out with a local guy, but they’re terrified of me, of what their friends and family will say,” says Lo who has just ended a one-year relationship with a guy who was posted to Switzerland last year. “But I can’t accept a man who cannot accept who I am. Even if it means I’ll have to remain single all my life.”
Being a woman is not just about finding a husband, having children, etc, adds Lo. “It’s more about how you can give back to society, because a woman – in my definition – is a kind, giving, patient and loving person. Develop a passion, share your passion with others, and live and enjoy your womanhood.” Lo believes she has come to terms with being a woman. “I no longer fixate on the fact that I’m a transexual, but I focus on developing myself as a woman of substance,” says Lo. “I would like to get married and be a mother, but I believe love will seek you when you’re ready, you don’t have to look for it.” In the meantime, she wants to promote windsurfing, salsa and exotic dance as activities that can help women restore their confidence.
When Papa became Mama
Wong Kim Hoh wrote in The Straits Times, “Two months ago, a former first sergeant who served 10 years in the Singapore navy sent a mass SMS to all his friends. It said: 'Dear friends, I have changed my name from Frankie to Fanny.' Some laughed it off as a prank. Others called up Frankie Ler, 34, and were stunned when he told them he had decided to become a woman. The divorcee and father of a 10-year-old girl told them he had started 'transitioning': He had grown his hair, was taking female hormone pills, and had begun wearing women's clothes. 'I didn't want them to get a shock if they bumped into me on the street,' said the administrative assistant, sitting in a Rowell Road Cafe with her daughter. Her face is powdered, and she is wearing light eyeshadow and lipstick. Her broad shoulders fill out a conservative black blouse which she complements with a knee-length patterned skirt and sensible pumps. [Source: Wong Kim Hoh, The Straits Times, September 8, 2008]
“Half an hour earlier, Fanny was the main 'attraction' at My Wife, My Kids, one of several events in this year's IndigNation - the local gay community's annual pride season. Facing an inquisitive audience of more than 60 people, she explained why she had to change sex so late in life, after marriage and fatherhood.
Fanny - who has a younger sister - claims her transsexualism surfaced only last year. Her late father was a factory worker, her mother, now 56, is a retired washerwoman. 'I never thought I had any problems, I just thought I had an abnormal hobby,' she says in a mixture of English and Mandarin. That hobby was a penchant for dressing in women's clothes. She discovered she liked it while trying on her mother's clothes at 10, and continued to furtively cross-dress until she got married at 23.
The Yio Chu Kang Secondary School alumnus - who signed up with the navy after a brief stint as a security guard - met and fell in love with her wife on an Internet chatline. They got married three months later. Their daughter was born the following year. 'Just before I got married, I threw out all the shoes and dresses I had bought over the years. We were a very normal couple during our marriage. I was not gay and I did not have any interest in men,' says Fanny. The marriage broke up seven years later in 2004. The couple have joint custody of their daughter. 'We just drifted apart. It had nothing to do with cross-dressing,' she says.
One day in June last year, she typed 'men who love to dress up as women' in Google. The search engine threw up many links, one of which led to sgbutterfly.org - a resource site for local transsexuals. She trawled through the site's many articles and discussion threads, and even posted questions, on transsexual issues - from identity struggles to hormone treatments and make-up tips. 'I was so happy. I finally found the answers to so many of the questions in my head,' she says.
Two months later, after she was convinced that she was a woman trapped in a man's body, she spoke to the person closest to her: her daughter. 'I wanted to be a woman but I had to be sure it wouldn't hurt my daughter. So I decided to ask, not tell, her if I should transit. If she had said no, I wouldn't have done this.' The Primary 4 pupil (whom we are not naming to protect her identity) says she was 'a little bit surprised that he should ask this question'. Fanny carefully explained what she was going through and why she felt the way she did.
The precocious little girl gave her approval. 'His physical looks will change but he is still my father. He has always been very caring, and is always teaching me to be brave,' she says, adding that she has told two of her closest friends but sworn them to secrecy. Fanny felt a big load taken off her shoulders. 'My mind was very clear. I was divorced and I've been given a second chance to live my life right.'
She went for psychiatric evaluation which confirmed she had gender identity disorder (GID). She started her hormonal therapy late last year. Her sister, parents and friends were told next. They were shocked but took it well save for just one friend who has cut off all contact. The last to know was her former wife. 'She was very upset but I explained that I found it hardest to tell her because we had such a close relationship,' says Fanny who plans to have her operation in Singapore next year. 'To her credit, she joined sgbutterfly to try and understand why I had to do this,' says Fanny, who adds that the former spouse occasionally takes her shopping for women's clothes. Fanny happily lets on that she recently found a job in a construction firm. Her boss and her colleagues are aware of her status. She does not harbour grand plans such as marriage for the future. 'I just want to focus on my daughter.' The latter ponders when asked what it's like to have two mothers. 'It's okay to have two mummies. I can still enjoy both their love.'
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015