Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Bridging a transgender divide, and more

The Straits Times published my letter today, and for once gave it a decent title/headline.

before I give my thoughts, here is the original letter:

Dear Editor,

I read with interest Saturday’s special feature on members of the transgender community (ST, Sep 6, 2008).

I thank senior writer Wong Kim Hoh for covering the community – a minority in Singapore.

Transgenderism has, for the past few years in mainstream newspapers, been portrayed and associated with humour, self-deprecation, entertainment and sleaze.

The feature is a humble step towards providing the transgender community with the visibility and representation they have hitherto lacked.

I hope the information and education provided in the feature will debunk the stereotypes and prejudices people have of transgender individuals or persons who are struggling with their gender identity.

(omitted section) Such individuals seek not sympathy, but support, respect, equal opportunity and equal treatment. At the same time, they should not be seen as inferior, which is probably a source of the various forms of discrimination the community faces. (omitted section)

As we come to know of their struggles and courage, we should at the same time summon the courage to fight the stigma and discrimination transgendered persons face. It is disheartening to know that even those who support their cause, such as Daniel Kaw, also face such stick.

I make an appeal to Singaporeans to refrain from hurling insults and name-calling at people of a different gender identity. Putting others down does not make one better off.

The stigma transgendered people face is still strong and this drives some into secrecy and hiding. The best the rest of us can do for the moment is to treat them fairly and stop the attacks on their esteem and self-image. This removes at least one hurdle to their integration with rest of society.

With our ignorance and prejudices, we have made such a minority invisible. But with education and some sense of responsibility, we can build bridges.

Ho Chi Sam

-add-

I have to admit that I have purposely used the term "transgender", a superset encompassing the transsexual identity. I feel a bit bad at this lapse because there are differences between the two definitions.

While there are many people trying to grasp the difference in definition of "transsexual" (a person who identifies as a member of the sex opposite to that assigned by birth) and "transvestite" (cross-dresser).

Even among the transsexual community, there are pre-op and post-op transsexual people. Essentially, they want to be recognised by the sex they identify as, but Singapore is rigidly patriarchal and has a strange obsession with penises that our classification of gender/sex and conceptualisation of gender/sex-related issues are based on the presence-and-absence-of-the-penis binary. This is explained by the reference to pre-op male-to-female transsexual individuals as male (e.g. he, him, his, etc.).

There are more invisibles, the female-to-male transsexual people. And among the invisibles, more margins, trans-men and trans-women of diverse sexualities (gay, bisexual, asexual, etc.).

There is also the blessing/curse of the medicalisation and pathologisation of transgenderism/transsexualism. On the one hand, it provides legitimacy for sexual reassignment and empathy, given the dominance of medicalisation as an ideology; on the other, it stigmatises those of diverse gender identity which departs from current societal norms.

I believe now that there are steps taken to improve the visibility of transsexualism and its issues, there should be policy to help the members of the community.

Can they use their CPF for their sexual reassignment surgery?
Can those who identify as male/female be appropriately addressed as male/female (respectively) regardless of being pre- or post-op? (after all, who has the right to tell a person who or how he/she is or should be?)

There is a lot (for me) to learn about the transsexual community, and ultimately transgendered people. As of now, I am bordering on ignorant, in the area of knowledge and lexicon/terminology pertaining to transgenderism. And the only way to go is forward with an open mind.

Sidetracking, I was thinking maybe if you wanted to get a forum article published, you could start by praising the Straits Times. Perhaps instant publication by that standards would simply involve one praising the government.

-Published Letter-

Bridging a transgender divide

I read with interest Saturday's special report about the transgender community ('When Papa became Mama'). I thank senior writer Wong Kim Hoh for covering the community - a minority in Singapore.

Transgenderism has, for the past few years in mainstream newspapers, been portrayed and associated with humour, self-deprecation, entertainment and sleaze.
The feature is a humble step towards providing the transgender community with the visibility and representation they have hitherto lacked.

I hope the information provided in the feature will debunk the stereotypes and prejudices people have of transgender individuals or persons who are struggling with their gender identity.

Such individuals seek not sympathy but support, respect, equal opportunity and equal treatment. At the same time, they should not be seen as inferior, which is probably a source of the various forms of discrimination the community faces.

As we come to know of their struggles and courage, we should at the same time summon the courage to fight the stigma and discrimination transgendered persons face. It is disheartening to know that even those who support their cause, such as Daniel Kaw, also face the backlash.

I make an appeal to Singaporeans to refrain from hurling insults at people of a different gender identity. Putting others down does not make one better off.
The stigma transgendered people face is still strong and this drives some into hiding.

The best the rest of us can do for the moment is to treat them fairly and stop the attacks on their esteem and self-image.

This removes at least one hurdle to their integration with the rest of society.
With our ignorance and prejudices, we have made such a minority invisible. But with education and some sense of responsibility, we can build bridges.

Ho Chi Sam

Reader's reaction

'Excellent.'

MS MALA KRISHNASAMY: 'The special report on Saturday 'When Papa became Mama' was very well done. I learnt quite a bit about transsexuals. I also learnt from the brave individuals who were profiled...these are lessons on life. My thanks to Mr Wong Kim Hoh for his excellent journalistic work and also to all the photographers who produced such nuanced, beautiful pictures for the stories.'

17 comments:

Temp said...

An invitation to bloggers

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Regards
Singapore Kopitiam
http://forums.delphiforums.com/sunkopitiam/messages/

Sam Ho said...

thanks for the info.

Agagooga said...

Those people have been going around spamming blogs everywhere. You should ignore them (or even delete the spam, hurr hurr)

Anyway.

I'm sure you'd agree that Thailand has a much more friendly culture towards transgendered individuals than Singapore. Yet over there they are also "associated with humour, self-deprecation, entertainment and sleaze". Even if you think this a bad state of affairs, it is something to consider.

I don't think the reluctance to recognise transgendered individuals is due to "patriarchy". It is just a recognition of physical facts. If not, why do people undergo the operation in the first place? And why do even transsexuals (AFAIK) regard post-ops as more properly transsexual than pre-ops?

What actually do you mean by pathologisation of transgenderism? Do you mean looking at it as a "problem" which needs to be "cured"? Even then, a "cure" can come through sex reassignation surgery or counselling such that the person is comfortable with his biological gender. And the latter is not necessarily a bad thing: just as not all CHIJ girls are lesbians later on in life, likewise, not all who have transgendered tendencies continue to have them.

Actually here's an interesting question. Most progressives/liberals think (and so do I, perhaps shockingly to some) that people should be allowed to undergo sex reassignation surgery so they can be the sex they feel they really are. Yet probably most of these people would not approve of race reassignation surgery a la Michael Jackson or Dawn Yang. Wherefore the inconsistency?

Sam Ho said...

perhaps the humour is a way to cope, but we'll never know. i'll have to do more research in that area.

it is in patriarchy itself that gender identity is a rigid dichotomy. so, the transition is not without its social baggage.

even so, the identification with the opposite gender/sex and the want to assume the opposite gender/sex identity could also inform of patriarchy, which has determined for us its hegemonic brand of male-ness and female-ness. in this line of thought, the exhibition and celebration of male-ness/female-ness are merely reproductions of hegemonic masculinity/femininity.

gender identity disorder is used to medicalise a case in which someone does not conform to the aesthetics and ideology of the dominant masculine/feminine dichotomy (in this case, they are on "the other side" and want to acquire the socially recognised attributes, other than biological, of "the other side").

looking at it from one perspective, since it is pathologised/medicalised, the state and society are sympathetic to people diagnosed with GID, and allow them to integrate into society with sexual reassignment surgery.

i juxtapose this with the issue of sexuality, not gender identity, with regards to queer sexualities in our society. society (at least for the "'phobes and fundies") believes gay-ness is illness and can be cured. and so long as there is reluctance towards "correction", queer persons will not be tolerated, and hence will be marginalised and disincentivised.

gender identity and reassignment surgery on the other hand, ultimately reproduce, and not reconfigure, the dominant gender binary. so, it is not as contestable as discussing sexuality and sexual identity.

if gender identity becomes as fluid as (queer) sexuality, it will disrupt the binary/dichotomy. and you will see the 'phobes and fundies taking up the agenda. because gender identity disorder is ultimately a subset of the dominant/hegemonic masculinity/femininity discourse, most of us are cool with it.

we tend to pathologise things, observations, phenomena, behavioural traits, that deviate from the norm, that challenge dominant ideologies of the time. body dismorphic disorder, GID, kleptomania, etc.

pathologisation/medicalisation help society cope with these differences, since we like to make sense (or try to) of everything. we think skin colour should be fixed, so we think MJ is wacko, and we do not treat fantasy on equal grounds as reality, so we would charge that dawn is a fake and a liar. and if there is an "illness" or "disorder" that can be attributed to all these, all the better for us, as it points the "right" way to "remedy".

cognitivedissonance said...

Can they use their CPF for their sexual reassignment surgery?

Yes. Medisave. $350-$600 withdrawal limit for SH030P Penis, Sex Reassignment (Female to Male), Implantation of Penile Prosthesis, $2,000-$2,400 withdrawal limit for SH001M Male Genitalia, Transsexualism (Transvestism), Sex Reassignment (Male to Female), SI200F Female Genitalia, Transsexualism (Transvestism), Sex Reassignment (Female to Male), $2,800-$3,600 withdrawal limit for SH002M Male Genitalia, Transsexualism (Transvestism), Sex Reassignment with Mammoplasty (Male to Female), SI201F Female Genitalia, Transsexualism (Transvestism), Sex Reassignment with Mastectomy (Female to Male).

Can those who identify as male/female be appropriately addressed as male/female (respectively) regardless of being pre- or post-op? (after all, who has the right to tell a person who or how he/she is or should be?)

Can't legislate this.

Agagooga said...

So basically thanks to "patriarchy" we will never know what our unencumbered selves truly want to be.

Yet, the truly unencumbered self is basically a corpse. Our characters and personalities cannot be disentangled from social influences. There're very interesting parallels here with the idea of an uncorrupted soul and how worldly baggage and Sin twist it.

Even if you see "gender identity disorder" as how society punishes deviance from gender norms, you cannot deny that even without this medicalisation, those with transgender tendencies feel a profound sense of *wrongness* with their bodies, and identify with the other gender. If they don't, why would they want to undergo sex change surgery?

Unless you're saying that there's a non-negligible constituency of transgendered individuals who do not wish to go all the way, e.g. biological males who wants breasts but not a vagina, or a vagina but not breasts, or transvestites who want to wear a dress but not have fake breasts, and don't even bother to speak in an artificially high voice. Of course, you could once again blame "patriarchy", saying that due to it, those who feel even a twinge of transgender tendencies feel pressured into having all the others. But then, like Sin (or indeed, the proposition that we're all brains in vats) this is a very hard hypothesis to disprove and all facts can be rammed into this framework one way or other.

Supposing it were possible to abolish gender norms, even if we assumed that this liberated transgendered individuals, what about all the rest? In a world with no gender norms, people would feel profoundly discomfited. In our eagerness not to "oppress" the majority, we'd end up oppressing the majority. As Durkheim said,

"Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him."

I am disturbed that you do not consider body dismorphic disorder and kleptomania to be pathologies. Relativism is not a coherent position. Is *anything* a pathology then? Are anorexic individuals perfectly healthy? Are you also against the "negativisation" of disease? Living with AIDS is an equally valid mode of living - forget about antiretrovirals!

Sam Ho said...

thanks both.

to an extent, (gender) identity is shaped by patriarchy, which is why it seems "special" should someone has traits common of that from males and females.

it's not so much about society "punishing" deviance from gender norms. i'd prefer and am interested to look at how medicalisation/pathologisation of GID plays a role in social integration. if it is not medicalised, people will think these individuals (who want to do SRS, assuming if it's not called SRS in this context) are insane and this would not be socially sanctioned.

you don't have to be disturbed (as stated in your last paragraph) because that is not what i mean. pathologisation and medicalisation serve a social function. debating about the (historical) origins of pathologisation/medicalisation is not my agenda nor interest, but it is important we appreciate the social and political history behind them.

in you raising anorexia as a question of (im)perfect health, you are already assuming it's a health-related issue. valid, but in a different time and age, it would have been called something else.

medical opinion is medical reductionism, and medicine as we know, is a very trusted knowledge, among many different kinds of knowledge. i can say that there may be a god behind this and this is always a form of knowledge i subscribe to. in pathologising/medicalising something, we give primacy to the field of knowledge that is the hard sciences. just because they seem so reasonable and logical, doesn't mean they are the real truth. same goes for other forms/domains of knowledge.

the "creation" of disease serves society in different ways, besides sense-making and meaning-creation, and in the process, marginalises some groups while privileging other groups. i mean, if someone died of high fever, we could say that some deity took his/her life. it is because of observations of empirical data, which we assume to be an observation and empirical, that we label it high fever.

to be radical, i think anything can be pathologised, but it just depends on what the intellectual elite (who happen to be a group) think about it. there are social process being pathologisation.

sometimes we can do without it. for example, we can do without the guilt if we realise one part of our identity is not in sync with the rest/majority of the community's.

the goal of medicine (i.e. in SRS) is in-sync with the goal of an individual who wants to have SRS. so that is one good thing for the individual.

essentially, transgendered persons, or persons struggling with their gender identity, should have the right not to feel guilty or ashamed of who they are.

any way, we could be brains in vats.

Agagooga said...

Err. While primary and secondary sexual characteristics are largely not common to both sexes, there're plenty of common traits both share, like a head, 2 eyes, a nose, a mouth, ears etc

Just because something is medicalised does not mean people don't think there's something wrong with it ("insane" is a difference of degree, not type). Go out on the street and ask people whether they think someone who wants to do SRS is normal.

So what would you call anorexia? And just because it might have been called something else does not mean that it was not a sign of bad health. And it is curious to defer to the judgments of other ages more than that of our own: is there a reason why we should trust the judgments of other ages more than ours?

What you call "medical reductionism", most people call "what works". We give primacy to the hard sciences because they give us results. If you get slashed with a katana you can either pray to a god or you can rely on medical knowledge and get yourself stitched up. If you think the former is an equally good (or even better) way to approximate reality than the latter, good for you, but you probably won't be sharing the reality the rest of us live in for much longer, one way or another.

Sam Ho said...

it is very convenient bring in the empirical to disprove (and in the process) embarrass the conceptual/theoretical. and you can do it, again and again.

but as i would like to emphasise, i'm looking at it at the conceptual level, at the level of rhetoric and the formation of arbitrary meanings.

yes, the conceptual is sweeping and generalising, but so long as it has implications on one domain of life/society, i'm interested in looking at it (at the conceptual level).

going out on the streets asking people for their opinion, or getting painfully acquainted with a sharp weapon, is not a concern of this discourse. it is rather detached (from real life and empirics), but at the same time, it is not obligated to empiricism.

lived experiences will always have the "last say" over abstract concepts, because of the way they function. the conceptual lacks in the department of obviousness. but as a matter of personal taste, i find it fun to engage the abstract once in a while.

hope you know where i'm coming from.

Agagooga said...

Reminds me of what a lecturer once said:

"See, this is where Social Science comes in. We look at the evidence and disagree with their theories."

My comment to a friend:

"So humanities are just talk cock lah."

If a theory is not applicable to real life in some way, then it is just intellectual masturbation in a vacuum. This is not to say that it cannot be enjoyable, but it makes one question the utility of the theory.

And to jettison the empirical entirely begs the question of what the conceptual/theoretical are based on beyond flights of fancy and daydreaming, and leaves one seriously nihilistic about any implications they might have on one domain of life/society.

More broadly, strict empiricism is not the only way of falsifying a theory, but without reference to some aspect of the material world, it is not hard to find theories which are unfalsifiable, in which case anyone can say anything.

Sam Ho said...

humanities does talk some cock sometimes, but it (aims to) gives new perspectives and ways of looking at stuff.

so, looking at stuff in a different way may be deemed cock.

well, karl marx conceived of the pure/ideal form of communism not totally based on his observation of industrial capitalism. it is empirically-inspired, but not empirically-informed.

for example, i derive concept A after being inspired by empiric A1 at a specific time and place, but it is always possible concept A be disproven by empiric A2 or B, in a different space/time. more important, there is a concept and we can (should) appreciate its historical context.

i've heard people say that haha. "humanities talk cock one!" and "social science too rigid". we're surrounded by discourses that are of the cock and rigid kind.

puzzled said...

haha... rigid cock. wtf

Glass Castle said...

Hi Sam

This might interest you:

http://questioningtransphobia.wordpress.com/2008/09/16/post-2-on-bilerico-whose-responsibility-is-it/

- Jolene

Agagooga said...

http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/5746/

"‘With Islam, it is perceived that the current administration is responsible for suffering in the Muslim world’, says Shinn, ‘and therefore there can be no criticising of that world or how Muslims might experience that. The end result is to limit the conversations that Muslims can have about that themselves.’

... Surely, I ask him, the problem of censorship has its roots within the liberal left rather than any external threat to ‘Western values’? ‘Yeah, I think you’re right,’ says Shinn. ‘I think in many ways American campuses are a distorted and extreme way of dealing with problems in US culture. The left-wing ideology in these campuses doesn’t seem to be related to the way the world is. The antics on campus almost have a feeling of play acting, as it’s so divorced from people’s lives. Nevertheless, the Ivy League students are the future politicians and opinion leaders so it’s worth examining how they’re getting a distorted picture of how the world is working.’

As a left-wing champion of free speech, and a fan and reader of spiked, Shinn is exasperated that it is often the left who are now the loudest advocates of blue pens and artistic clampdowns. He reckons that there was a sea change in universities back in the 1990s that has now become politically mainstream.

‘As a gay man, I found the left’s fight for free expression very beneficial’, he says, ‘but that crossed over into identity politics. From there it was important to privilege the subjectivity of people who had previously been oppressed and marginalised. But instead of this emphasis on a diversity of voices, there became an unspoken rule whereby only people who experienced something, whether as a gay man or black woman, were allowed to speak about it directly. This created a real fracture where these oppressed groups, rather than finding commonality, separated out. These different groups ended up in these retreats which itself created paranoia and bad blood.’"

With "Islam" and "the current administration" in the first paragraph, you can substitute "the queer community" and "society".

alan said...

hi sam, thought this may interest you. kinda entertaining.

http://www.johncorvino.com/video%20clips.html

arly said...

hey sam,

i think i was in your class for cultural industries last semester.

oh did google-d for you blog because one of friends (your current "students") have/had a crush on you (haha) and asked me to read your blog :p

anyway, was reading this entry and reflected back on one of my tuition students' uncle, whom i believe is a transsexual, yea following that stereotype of having nice flowing long hair, petite frame and feminine gestures. but he/she always look so happy and high spirited. it makes me wonder whether i would have as much bravery and courage to face my own life as he/she does/have been doing it.

for me, there is always a fear (not really discrimination) of accidentally hurting his/her feelings. the constant awareness that "you are the Other who is different from the rest of us".

it is sad actually, society puts labels on each other and in the end, you will feel uncomfortable of someone who may be "different". but if put in another context, you might be the different one if you're the minority.

hehe... okies enjoy teaching in NUS.

love,
arlianny.s.

Agagooga said...

Reminds me of an interview with a transsexual I was listening to.

They claimed you cannot call the penis "boyparts" because that means sex = gender, and that dresses aren't "female" wear because gender is a social construct.

They also claimed that discrimination against transsexuals grew with the class system, because the core piece of the class system is sexism.

The best part was when the host was talking about his masturbation workshop. He said you should touch your penis and your vagina and your nipples etc in XXX ways, and one trans person said it was offended because the host assumed no one in the audience was transgender. Luckily no one who got off only on strangulation was in the workshop.

I wonder what progressives would say if I wanted to graft a third arm onto my chest and medical professionals denied me.