Unheard Voices: The memoir of a Singaporean transgender sex worker‏

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Welcome to Unheard Voices, a segment where we conduct interviews on  prevalent issues faced by the minorities, e.g. judgments, prejudice and unfair treatment, that are usually not explicitly known in our social environments, media landscape and daily interactions with people.

SEX WORKERS: What was the most recent article we saw on Straits Times in regards to the local sex work industry? – Sisters’ peddle sex in cars at park. In the mainstream media, we often only see one side of the sex work community. But beyond what we read on the newspaper, do we actually know the personal lives or background stories of these sex workers? Listen to the story of X…

*This is an anonymous interview, with certain content being tweaked to safe keep the privacy and identity of our interviewee. Validity of factual information provided by interviewee is up to reader’s discretion. Please do not republish this article without Offbeat Perspective’s permission.

History of Sex work in Singapore

In the 1960s to 1970s, only foreigners were allowed for the Medical card system. They were not supposed to have visited Singapore at any time of their life before, and could stay in Singapore for a maximum of 2 years.

They would live in a brothel – which acts as both their place of sleep and work, and were not allowed to engage in any kind of relationship with locals. Later during the 1990s, Bugis Street and Johor Road were close down as soliciting areas, due to the AIDS epidemic at that time.


 Growing up years

Smiling as she reminisced about her secondary school years – Some boys threw water bombs at her and her other friends for being “Ah Guas”. In sweet revenge, they peed in the plastic bags and threw it back at the very same boys. Her male classmates would also run after her in their muddy clothes for fun when PE lesson had ended to playfully scare her.

She and her 2 close classmates later eventually transitioned into their preferred gender identity. Post-secondary school years was a bit tough for her, and being placed in a new environment with new faces – she found it hard to make any new friends. As a result, she chose to drop out of school halfway to focus on her transition journey to becoming a woman.


I chose Sex work

Having once been in the trade for almost 20 years, one thing she does not like is the notion that she should be “rescued”. Though some sex workers do enter this line willingly, there is this public misconception that almost all sex workers are coerced, or forced into this trade.

Unlike in the past, some pimps now may earn money through room renting, or will even cook for the girls. The relationship between both parties may even become that of a partnership, where both show equal respect to another.

But there are of course – exceptions to this. Some sex workers might be forced into this trade, or have been human trafficked, but that kind of scenario is not extremely common in Singapore based on her on-the-ground observations. According to her, transwomen sex workers might actually makes up a significant population of sex workers in Singapore.

When asked why she chose sex work over other jobs, she replied coolly “Not because I want to, but because I need to – due to limited options”. She is happy to have been in this industry because it allowed her to keep her identity as an transgender individual. This might not be the case if she had taken on mainstream jobs – since she most likely would have to conform to more socially accepted gender binary roles.


The life of a Sex worker

“Do sex workers enjoy sex work?” is an ever-popular question she often gets and to that, this is her response “ As a teenager, did you yourself enjoy studying?”. Like many of us, she would have wanted a job that could  provide her an environment to continue growing and learning. But as a transgender individual, the lack of employment options led her to eventually choose sex work as one of the better alternatives for financial security.

She further adds on that sex work is a “mundane and repetitive” occupation. When asked if there are emotions involved when having sex with her client, she states it is purely a job she undertakes, with no enmeshed emotions involved. She further emphasised on being able to “compartmentalize” her different life aspects, such as drawing a clear line between her job and personal life.

As a sex worker, she is ready to put her self esteem down, and serve the clients needs and wants – so that she can earn a living. But once her daily work ends, she puts aside this role of hers to return back to her personal life.

Was she ever discriminated or harassed? She never faced any significant incidents before, though she did recall a case where one of her sex worker’s friend passed out for a few minutes after being strangled with a string by her client.

When she woke up, she realized the client was still digging into her bag, most likely to look for money. She quickly screamed for help. They did not report the incident to the authorities for fear that they would be caught for soliciting sex. Instead, she and her other sex workers friend stripped, and beat up the client to teach him a lesson.


Sex work and safe sex

With increased education provided from civil society groups, sex workers are now more informed on the possible sexual risks and their modes of prevention, and are more keen to use condoms during their work to prevent the risk of contracting sexual infections or diseases.

In regards to the pre-conceived notion of sex work being associated to unsafe sex, this is her reply “Sex work does not necessarily lead to transmissions of STIs, nor puts you at a higher risk of getting infected. Regardless if you’re a sex worker, or a person involved in a sexual relationship, it is your responsibility as an individual to practice safe sex.”

However, there are cases where sex workers may be cajoled, or feel pressured by clients to not use protection e.g. physically threatened, or be bribed with increased payment.


Sex workers issues

Moving on from that, there is the issue of sex workers being afraid to openly report crimes happening to them – as it may backfire, and cause them to be penalize for soliciting instead.

“This year, Project X recorded more than 50 reports of abuse. These forms of crimes often do not get reported because sex workers are afraid to go to the police. This is worrying, and it is the same lack of trust that deters potential trafficking victims from seeking help from law enforcers.”

Exercise prudence to protect potential human trafficking victims (TODAYOnline, July 25 2015)

She hopes young people who are interested in advocating in the area of sex work- can focus on tackling this essential issue first before even pushing forth the decriminalization of sex work. This is because she personally views the latter as a western concept that will take a long time before it can be applied back to our asian society and government.

Underage sex workers are also another problem, such as the recent case in August where – Man gets 9 weeks’ jail for sex with underage prostitute who was alleged to be 14 years old at that time. The Vietnamese victim later lodged a police report, as she no longer wanted to prostitute herself. Her Vietnamese pimp is still at large.


Progress in welfare of Sex workers and Transgender individuals

She is glad many Singaporean transgender sex workers regardless of age, race, and religion, whether they are pre-operation or post operation have the option to work as a sex worker in the medical scheme.

A health care drop in centre used to provide only subsidized treatment to the sex worker population in the past, and as a result – it deterred transwomen sex workers who would find excuses not to come. Now, both testing and treatment are free for transwomen sex workers which have made them more willing to attend health checks.

Insider information is that the government has also been doing on-the-ground work, and taking in suggestions with individuals from certain civil society groups; when drafting up the human trafficking laws.

Transgender individuals now can also change their IC name even if they do not go through the full sex- reassignment surgery.


More inclusive support for the Transwomen community

Waiting for the impact of of Human rights groups and policy revisions would take decades to bring about a change. Thus, she feels it is more feasible to focus on providing prompt help to the transgender community.

She mentioned about the presence of The T Project a shelter for homeless transwomen which is food and rent free, which also recently appeared on our Strait Times Newspaper. Yale -NUS has helped raised $7000 for The T Project to start a food donation, which is an important step in terms of sustaining the shelter.

She hopes more young people interested to help the transwomen community can advocate for them in terms of – increasing their options e.g. employment and educational opportunities such as – financial schemes or scholarship to continue their education or take upgrading courses such as e.g. Makeup, when they do not have the financial backing of their families who might reject them during, or after their coming-out phase, or when they face employment difficulties.

A possible idea of hers would be to create jobs for transwomen e.g. set up an independent shelter or resource centre, which will be fully run by none other than transgender women themselves.

She also hopes that when there are events organized by the LGBT community for women e.g. Women’s Night, the term transwomen would be included, since there is the letter T in LGBT.


 Love beyond the labels

Broaching on the topic of sexuality in regards to the boyfriends of transwomen, she quips – “Love is not about gender or what is in between your legs, love is about 2 persons.”

For the many transgender individuals out there who may face rejection by their parents, she has this motto statement – “Don’t ask why your parents don’t love or choose you, but what you can do to make your parents love you more.” She also shared other life setbacks she faced which might be too private to publish in this post.

A recent incident that brightened up her day was when her sister-in-law allowed her to go to the school to collect her niece’s school results. What made this simple act so impactful? She elaborated her sister-in-law could have very well asked her own sister, and that she might not even want the school to know her daughter had a transgender auntie. After explaining to her niece about her identity as a transgender individual, her niece still fully accepted her for who she was.

Though it took almost 15 years for her family to fully embrace her transgender identity, they have generally been quite supportive. Thus, she is very grateful for the warmth and acceptance she has received from her loved ones, which adds on to her already jovial outlook in her life.

 Where she is at now

She spends her time on meaningful activities, and hopes others can view her as a person, and be able to see past the label of her being a transgender or a former sex worker. She is a human being, an individual, and a person, just like all of us after all.

LGBT communities and organizations X have suggested – for readers to check out:

Oogachaga cass Break the Binary

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 Pelangi Pride centre

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 Free Community Church

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The T Project

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