Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What (trans)wo/men want

I was thinking about the movie "What women want", starring Mel Gibson. You know, the drunken Jew-bashing "sugartits" "Passion of the Christ" Mel Gibson?

Not something new, but I realise the show is deeper than it makes out to be. There are already numerous intellectual discussions of the film on the internet. Maybe one fine day, we can get a few feminists (with sense of humour), queer theorists and trans/gender theorists to sit down and talk about the show. Throw in one psychoanalyst for that little extra spice.

A month ago, in an Indignation 2010 event, we sat in a circle and discussed a little about the issues transwomen face. Unfortunately, there could have been more transpeople at the forum to share, but nevertheless, the issues talked about were no less serious and related to transgender Singaporeans.

Apparently, most of the issues are somehow interlinked. Employment seemed the most pertinent.

The anti-discrimination laws in Singapore unfortunately do not extend to cover gender identity and sexual orientation (double whammy for gay transmen and lesbian transwomen - yes they exist, but will only be more visible when the hate and ignorance subside). The known (unspoken) rule is to keep "it" hidden.

But whoever decided that the responsibility of keeping "it" hidden should be that of transpeople? Ok, no time for discourse/power analysis. Cepat cepat.

A common issue among transgender Singaporeans (particularly transwomen, because transmen are not adequately represented) is that of jobs. In a self-professed meritocratic society, whose government continually recites the mantra of "fairness and meritocracy" to lull itself into a false sense of calmness/ignorance, why a transgender Singaporeans finding it difficult to get jobs?

There are many reasons, multifactorial, overlapping. First, employer prejudice. Employers simply do not want to hire because they are not comfortable with a transgender employee. Second, workplace prejudice. This might be mythical, as the employer will normally believe that colleagues as well as clients/customers might not be comfortable in the presence of a transgender employee.

(Do this exercise now. Replace the "transgender" and insert some ethnicity, religion or other identity markers. Will the employment practice be different? If so, what does that say?)

Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or of any other sexual orientation and identity, in this context is slightly easier, because sexuality can be hidden and everyone else will assume you are straight until proven otherwise in the 'court' of society. There will be no blip on the gaydar when the behavioral queerness is conscientious toned down. Your conservative Chinese aunty colleague will see your gay man as your typical good-looking well-dressed gentle-speaking gentleman.

For transgender people, there are some who "pass" well and some who do not - these are clear visible facial/physical traits. Regardless of whichever point on the spectrum of passing transpeople are on, they still remain under threat of being harassed - with stares, with quizzes, with taunts and for some unfortunate few, ostracism and violence. Nobody deserves this.

These are the particular social baggage, derived from a less understanding society, that are tagged along to most transpeople. In multicultural Singapore, there are more languages to use to insult a transgender person.

Employers also live in the same context and because of their awareness of this (plus other prejudices), their hands are forced.

I have so far mentioned 3 stakeholders - transpeople, employers and society. The government is another key stakeholder, an important impartial one, on paper. As people on the ground can talk about change, making differences and moving slowly to making these things happen, the government has the power to implement change and coerce people to follow suit.

In this case, I believe society, with its unreflexive insistence on binarism and heterocentrism, is the most sluggish and reluctant to change. So, the wiser employers and impartial government could and should take the lead. Simple dynamics in governance. Technically, that is how change is made, different levels, strata and domains, moving at different velocities and trajectories, but roughly with a common destination in mind (plus, minus, give and take).

Unfortunately, we cannot merely review and change employment laws and employment practices alone. Societal attitudes have to change too. Changes in employment practices constitute merely one aspect of a multi-prong approach to securing (non-discriminatory) employment for transgender Singaporeans. Other aspects include education and awareness, among other things.

But change is slow, in phases, and never wholesale. While we wait and let society evolve, employers and the government can introduce practices and policies, and show others that this is the way things can be done. The government and some bits of the private sector can come out of their own closets and say, "We do not discriminate in our hiring policy. We welcome LGBTQ applicants." (repercussion: Christian boycotts?)

Still, we need another 2003 Goh Chok Tong, who will step forward and say that the government, as an employer, will not discriminate against transgender Singaporeans (plus the GLB). Can Lee Hsien Loong do that?

If the government is truly concerned about bread and butter issues Singaporeans are facing, why not introduce anti-discrimination laws extending to gender identity and sexual orientation?

While we are into the whole discourse on working hard in the capitalist system and wanting to attain, sustain or improve our middle-class-ness, we also need to address the condition and position of transgender Singaporeans with respect to attaining employment.

Education is one aspect. It is not merely about learning what they throw at you in school, but also dealing with that questioning and dissonant feelings growing up. I hate to use the term "gender dysphoric", but it happens to be the only term understandable in such an environment.

You know what I mean, right? When some person or phenomenon is different, we look to medicine, psychiatry and ideology to explain why they are "different", resulting in us believing it is a medical anomaly, a mental health issue, or something that can be dismissed as immoral.

We are too ready to turn to these items to otherise what we perceived to be "not normal", and in the process, legitimise these items, our subscription to and relationship with these items, as well as our personal moral and ideological positions.

We turn to EXTERNAL tools to explain why OTHER people are different - and there thus are at least two reasons to be distracted from evaluating ourselves and our means of judgement.

Seriously, some boys know they want to be girls, and some girls know they want to be boys. So who are we to say they are confused when they already know who they are and who they should be?

Less likely but not unreal, there are boys and girls who simply are not comfortable in their own clothes and skin, and do not necessarily identify with the opposite sex. Do we rope in experts and call these kids confused or crazy? Do we aim to help these kids with the view to make them "normal" as how we want them to be?

How are "gender dysphoric" school kids helped at the school level, by peers, counsellors, teachers and principals?

Kids are smart little people. They know that something is wrong when they see the "doctor" too often. Some might feel that they are perfectly fine, but people are telling them they are sick or wrong or immoral. Others might internalise the views of other "experts" and feel depressed and/or guilty.

Mental and emotional wellness are important areas to look at in a schoolchild's development. There is always the possibility of a scenario in which an academically talented child with "gender dysphoria" and related social(isation) problems may lose interest in school and lessons, and either drop out or discontinue further studies.

I hope MOE already has plans to empower "gender dysphoric" students (as much as I hate those words). (By the way, this hope reminds me of a reading of Amartya Sen's Capabilities Approach in the context of empowering young queer/questioning children... erm, just read it la! There is a Wikipedia entry on it)

Another factor that has impact on employment is administration (assignment of sex). There are pre- and non-operative transmen and transwomen Singaporeans whose sex are still legally stated as their birth-assigned sex.

Given medicine and psychiatry's influence on policy, it would be great it medical and psychiatric experts, along with lawyers and transgender Singaporeans, can whisper in the ears of the establishment and make concessions for the (re)assignment of sex for pre- and non-operative transmen and transwomen Singaporeans.

Concessions have to be made in such a phallocentric establishment. Penis = male = man = must be masculine = must love women. No penis = female = woman = must be feminine = must love men. It is this binary logic that is prejudicial against transsexual Singaporeans, and more so for pre- and non-operative transpeople. Even the mainstream media has continued to identify pre- and non-operative transsexual persons wrongly. Even though pre-/non-operative transmen and transwomen identify themselves as male and female respectively, the media will reassigned them as female and male, based on their biological status. Yes, Singapore Press Holdings journalists are also gender experts. This thinking is in every way, very cock.

At the societal level, there is the perception that (transition-seeking) transsexuals (with hormones + with or without surgical intervention) are transvestites, which is a medical term for fetishistic cross-dressers. And the convenient moral substitute for this would be "pervert". To coat it with a layer of demonisation syrup, let's call it "sex/sexual pervert". Lump it with the mythical child-predators that are gay men. Wrap them all together and believe that gay men are just women inside who want to love men, so they cross-dress. That is what MANY MANY Singaporeans believe, regardless of gender, race, language, religion, education, etc.

100 years ago in 1910, it has already been proven that tranvestism is different from homosexuality. In 1923, studies have suggested that transsexuals are different from transvestites and homosexuals. I think Singaporeans should play some catch up. In fact, in Secondary 3 or 4, I won a monetary bet with a classmate who kept arguing with me the definition of "transvestite" - he believed it referred to someone who changes sex but I was telling him it was with regards to cross-dressing but with eroticism. See, Ridzwan? I told you so! (And they say men can forget things. I still remember)

What problematised tranvestism is that not all who cross-dressed derived sexual and/or erotic pleasure. Furthermore, not all those who cross-dress are homogeneous in terms of sexual orientation - so there is no way we can associate transsexuals with transvestites and homosexuals. That is of course, when you have a gay (MSM) transman who derives erotic pleasure dressing up as a woman, or a lesbian transwoman who derives erotic pleasure dressing up as a man.

People derive pleasure different. Just look at Steve Chia and the pictures he took. Who are we to judge?

It is because of this general gross misunderstanding and misconception of transpeople that creates inertia at the administrative level to assign transpeople their respective sex and gender. I am not even talking about male women and female men walking the streets of Singapore (although that would be an ideal situation for gender and sexual diversity and equality).

Perverts who are likely to commit crimes (sociologists and deviance theorists will scold me for this statement) are everywhere, and not confined to any community. A male-bodied person in transition, who wears culturally feminine clothes, is not a pervert. The transpeople I have met are honest people who (want to) earn an honest living. They definitely do not prey on your children, or try to convert you to their lifestyle. I do not have gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people coming to my doorstep on weekends to get me interested in adopting a new gender identity or sexuality.

Even "allies" of transpeople hold some myths themselves. For example, there is the belief that transpeople are overcompensating, reproducing stereotypes, trying to seize the privileges associated with a particular sex. But remember this, transpeople exist in the same social context and cultural logic as we do (argued time and again by activists and theorists). None of them like to be harassed, and I believe most want assimilation and a normal life (by most people's standards).

Not only do the transpeople aim to assimilate (passing is one way), they also have to deal with the medical aspects (specifically hormonal) of it. It is not just wearing clothes and looking the part in this gender circus. That is what many people take for granted.

The government should revise the policy on sex (re)assignment at the administrative level, and come up with simpler, transparent and shorter procedures that are favourable towards pre- and non-operative transsexual Singaporeans. It is unfortunate that the existence of transsexuals is legitimised by the authority of medicine and psychiatry, but if this is going to be the terms and conditions of the gender regime for the moment, I believe these authorities should also urge the government to revise the policy.

Having that "female" or "male" on your official identification papers is something most of us take for granted, but for others, it means something to them. So if we are meritocratic and fair to all, I don't see why we shouldn't start making administrative changes and allow pre- and non-operative transsexual Singaporeans have their respective sexes/genders officialised.

These are a few factors that affect the confidence and capacity of job-seeking transgender Singaporeans. This is a rice bowl issue, and we should be discussing sexual minorities and their rights to fair employment. And to move towards fair employment practices (we are always moving, because there's a lot to improve), we need many changes at different levels of society and from different stakeholders.

Transgender Singaporeans may form a minority, but the government should look at the Constitution again, and do what is necessary to protect them. Society will always be a lot slower in changing its general attitude towards transgender Singaporeans, so it is up to employers and the government to take some control, and introduce measures, standards, practices and policies are favour a fairer employment scenario for the T's.

add: I think REACH would be a good avenue to make suggestions. For the past 3 years, I have been sending letters to the Straits Times (I've sent 13 letters so far this year, and had only 2-3 sentences published. The paper simply does not want to carry the message of respect and recognition for LGBT Singaporeans). It's time to branch out to REACH. I can imagine the civil/public servants thinking when they see my email, "Not this fucking psycho again."

If you believe some things can change, and have suggestions, do write to the press and REACH too. Your words might go further and reach more people than you think. If you have a computer, an internet connection, an idea to help Singaporeans, feel free to engage these channels.

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