“There is a general sense of hopelessness of never being legally recognised as their authentic selves, especially given the hoops they will have to jump through just to have a chance at having their gender marker changed” – Alexander Teh, a transgender man and Youth Worker from Oogachaga (LGBTQ+ NGO)
In Singapore, a little known rule profoundly shapes the lives of many people, including my own. Known by some as the legal gender recognition (LGR) rule, it’s an administrative rule governing how one’s gender marker can be changed from “F” to “M” or vice versa on legal documents like the National Registration Identity Card (NRIC) or passport.
Previously, a person had to undergo “a sex change procedure” and provide a letter from the surgeon confirming it’d been done. But, in 2017, the rule changed without prior consultation or warning, says Christopher Khor, one of the authors of the community survey. Now, a trans person’s genitalia must have been “completely changed from male/female to female/male genitalia”, and be confirmed by a genital examination by another doctor. It’s unclear why the rules changed, but the effect seems to be that people who need to change their gender marker must undergo more surgeries and an additional invasive process.
Many people, even within the LGBTQ+ community, are unaware of this rule and its related challenges. Leow Yangfa, Oogachaga’s Director, shares that some think “since post-surgery LGR is possible, so what’s the problem [for trans people]?” But they don’t understand “not every trans person is able or willing to access surgery”.
For one, it can be eye-wateringly expensive. Most of the surgeries aren’t even available in Singapore and aren’t covered by insurance plans. And there isn’t just one sex change surgery—multiple surgeries exist. For transmen, the new LGR requiring “complete” genitalia change might mean doing 5 distinct types of surgeries—and one can cost over $100,000.
The surgical risks can be severe and doing them leads to loss of reproductive ability. “This whole system [of LGR] is insane”, says Chris. At age 25, to avoid the discrimination he’d face due to his mismatched gender marker, he “felt like [he] was being forced into making a decision that [he] didn't want to make at this point in [his] life”—risking “major scarring and [the possibility of] losing the organ that is required of you to change your gender marker”.
It can feel like a catch-22 situation: without these expensive risky surgeries, a trans person can’t change their gender marker. But until they change their gender marker, they face greater obstacles in accumulating the resources needed for those surgeries.
In Singapore, a highly administrative state, legal documents like one’s NRIC are required for many things. The mismatch between one’s gender marker and one’s appearance affects many things—including one’s “plans to marry their partners, start families of their own, find housing, seek gender-affirming healthcare”, Alex explains.
An experimental study done by Asia Pacific Transgender Networkfound that the rate of discrimination at job application stage in Singapore was the highest of the Southeast Asian countries studied. Even with equal experience and qualifications, non-trans applicants received 81.5% more positive responses to job applications than trans applicants—and this is even before the interview stage. Another Singapore-focussed survey found unemployment rate amongst the surveyed transgender population around seven times higher than the general population.
Carissa, a young trans woman with a postgraduate degree, shared her frustrations at being unable to apply to civil service jobs, as they require the NRIC. D*, a young trans man echoed this: “I didn't manage to get any interview after trying for a few years”, despite being highly qualified in his field. He only recently lucked out with a company that has an explicit LGBT-friendly policy.
Even if one manages to land a job, some stress and fears persist. “I know that if they find out that I'm trans, most likely I will be fired. I live in fear that someone might find out”, shared Jared*. Alex adds that while he hasn’t been denied jobs specifically due to his gender marker being different from his appearance, it might have inadvertently enabled colleagues’ harassment and bullying. For example, refusing to address him by his preferred names and pronouns or using the bathroom peacefully—both of which he has experienced. So even if they’re not fired, a trans individual might feel like they have to leave, which has a “spillover effect on their own sense of resilience”, hampering employment in the long-term. Effects don’t stop at the individual—June Chua, who runs The T Project, a shelter for homeless trans people, also voiced the pain felt by some trans people of not being able to care for their aging parents.
While all single people can’t buy public housing before age 35, some trans people face the additional problem of struggling to rent in the meantime. If their legal documents suggest they’re transgender, they’re immediately at risk of rejection, harassment or even assault from hostile landlords or housemates. I remember the stress of poring through “female only” listings as someone who’s been living as male for years, and wondering how I could hide being trans from any stranger I might end up being housemates with. I ended up not moving out.
June is constantly beset by calls from distressed individuals, some facing violence and rejection at home. “[They’ll call me in tears] showing the luggage already on the floor”. And she shares a telling story: despite initial objections, a landlord found the heart to accept a new tenant’s pet cat. But upon realising the new tenant was trans a few months into his tenancy—perhaps by chancing upon his documents—evicted the tenant. “Cannot accept human being ah? I cannot take it leh—oh my god, cat allowed, trans man not allowed?”, June intones in exasperation and sadness.
Speaking to Daryl Yang, a lawyer, there isn’t much legal recourse when a landlord turns away an applicant. This is due to the absence of general anti-discrimination laws, as seen with racial discrimination episodes—perhaps an anomaly in this highly regulated city-state. In the acute stress of having nowhere to go, however, legal recourse is typically far from people’s minds. “When I say yes [to housing them]”, June explains, “they just totally break down and cry [because] they’re finally safe and don’t have to worry all the time.”
Physical and bodily safety is often at stake too. Due to his mismatched gender marker, D was once misdiagnosed as having an abnormal hormonal range and made to go for many expensive tests. Healthcare appropriate for transgender people, such as in the sexual health domain, was also a priority for June.
Travel, important for work and for access to trans healthcare like surgeries, is another landmine. Whenever one encounters immigration, June says “cold sweat” breaks out. Because with a gender marker that doesn’t match one’s appearance, says Chris, either you’re interrogated in public—bringing attention and shame—or you’re brought into a private room, which is even scarier. For myself, I’ve been stopped at Changi three times.
Yet there is no one trans narrative. The LGR isn’t the priority for all trans people. For trans people who can’t or aren’t interested in “passing”, i.e., to appear like a non-trans (“cis”) person to other people, changing their gender marker won’t help with the discrimination they’d face as visibly trans people. Especially for individuals who transitioned later in life, physical transition is more likely to be for self-affirmation rather than as a means to change their gender marker. “It’s very down the list of priorities” for them, notes June, as cumulative educational and employment struggles would still put many opportunities out of reach. Amongst the younger trans people Yangfa counsels, some might be more concerned with immediate issues like family acceptance.
Nevertheless, it’s precisely because trans people—like all people—have different life needs and goals, that amending the LGR is a good start. All agree that it would at least give options for a flourishing life. Just as how non-trans people don’t have to surgically change their body in order to have fair access to employment, housing, financial services, and physical safety—trans people should have these options open to them too.
One way to amend the LGR is to require clinical assessments and intention to live full-time as a certain gender, instead of requiring completion of all surgeries regardless of one’s personal circumstances. The other might be to remove a public-facing gender marker, especially for travel documents, as gender is usually irrelevant to the purpose at hand, e.g., to get a loan, housing, or an event ticket.
Bigger questions about governance and society remain. Who gets a seat at the decision-making table? Prioritising the views of those whose interests are directly affected, and the relevant experts of that domain seem key. In trans-related healthcare, Chris and June are adamant about the need to respect medical and scientific opinion, and consult trans people themselves about what they need and want.
How can respect for differences in a diverse society be cultivated? June recalls how some of her shelter’s biggest supporters, perhaps surprisingly, are older and not LGBTQ—demographics that aren’t typically associated with trans-friendliness. On the flipside, she relates how a transwoman who’d been living as a woman for years became terrified of interacting with social workers after one persistently called her a man. These anecdotes suggest encouraging awareness of, and respect for, the existence of diverse identities is both vital and possible.
“You don’t have to accept me, you don’t have to understand, but please respect me.” – June Chua, Founder of The T Project
*These individuals have requested to not give their full names out of concern for any repercussions.
This story was produced by Mick Yang, as part of the AAJA Asia Diversity Reporting Fellowship programme, and published on 24 January 2022.
Thank you to all interviewees who kindly spared their time and energy to share their experiences and insights. Thank you to the many people whose unstinting work of community-building, counselling, caring, and advocacy to see the light of a better day goes underappreciated. Thank you to the AAJA and Gilles for granting me this unique opportunity, and Julienne for your journalistic guidance. And thank you to all who encouraged me, especially Aishah, the most thorough and patient developer I know and the person who literally made this possible.
While every effort was made to ensure accuracy, it’s also impossible to fully capture the range of experiences and realities of transgender people in Singapore. Views about the legal gender recognition rule and the path forward vary within the community. There are also difficulties in securing a statistically robust study of these issues. Updates will be made as I learn more. As always, any mistakes and flaws in this piece are entirely my own.
Asia Pacific Transgender Network, Transgender SG, and Transgender Health Research Lab. “Challenges facing Singapore’s transgender community: a quantitative review”. Accessible at: https://transgendersg.com/singapore-transgender-survey.pdf.
“HDB | Eligibility.” Accessed January 24, 2022. https://www.hdb.gov.sg/residential/buying-a-flat/resale/eligibility.
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