Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ivan Lau's Agend(er): Transphobia

As expected, a George Lim Heng Chye-ish self-righteous moral imperialist has to invoke his politically privileged position as the good responsible parent, in the form of Ivan Lau has a letter on cross-dressing bit at the National Day Parade 2011 published.

Here's his letter, titled "Drag wrong, guys", at the sensationalist inspiration of the editor (but I won't go any further on that or he'll boycott my letters, if they already haven't).

Watching the National Day Parade is a family affair for many Singaporeans. This year was no different for my family.

There was an impressive display from our national defence troops. Children from different schools as well as volunteers from various organisations put up a great performance, as was the fireworks display.

However, as a parent of three young children, I question the appropriateness of cross-dressing in the segment on racial harmony and nation building.

Prominent male comedian Gurmit Singh, known to young audiences in his role as a male alien in the television series Cosmo & George that airs on Okto, was sari-clad as an Indian woman.

Talented male actor Chua Enlai, known to children as a male host of many programmes on Okto, was dressed as a young, modern woman.

Was such casting necessary in the context of portraying racial harmony and nation building on national television? Or was it the organising committee's intention to portray harmony of another kind, namely that of transgender or transsexuality? It that was the intent, then the show should had been more aptly rated NC-16.


Ivan Lau

Transgender/transsexual harmony? Seriously? Just because Gurmit and Enlai cross-dressed? ...

Oh wait, we are talking about self-professed morally upright folks who are probably both transphobic and ignorant, hence the conflation of transgender, transsexuality and cross-dressing.

The fact the Straits Times and Singapore Press Holdings published this, further casts in stone this erroneous mix-up.

There are people who are trying very hard to educate Singaporeans about the differences and the implications of holding such ignorant beliefs/myths about transgendered persons.

Just because some guy who wears the hat and invokes the imagery of a concerned parent who wants to make a stand and be responsible, and shares his insecurities and transphobia (or rather hide them behind his children) with the dwindling readership of the Straits Times does not mean falsities like that can be perpetuated without a proper dialogue.

When Ivan Lau writes like that and goes unchallenged in a public domain that already does not treat transgendered and transsexual Singaporeans with equal dignity and respect as their cisgendered counterparts, it creates the impression that cross-dressing (itself a thing not to be taken seriously thanks to its presence in the domains of entertainment) can be conflated with transgender and transsexuality.

If we follow the parenting of Ivan Lau, I guess we all should close our minds, be stubborn, bigoted and tell our kids to impose their own ideas of right and wrong onto others. Don't only stop there, just associate bad things, things we don't really know much about with people who we feel and label are different from us.

I wrote a letter in response to the Straits Times Forum, but unfortunately was not published. Thankfully Leona Lo's letter was, even though it was rather short. Not sure if the editor had done some editing (it was indeed short, according to Leona). By the looks of the title "Crossfire over cross-dressing", it seems he has.

Here's Leona's response to Ivan:

Mr Ivan Lau suggested MediaCorp should have given the National Day Parade segment on racial harmony and nation building an NC-16 rating as it featured cross-dressing actors Gurmit Singh and Chua Enlai ("Drag wrong, guys"; Thursday).

Transgender and transsexual women are not cross-dressers. Neither do we enjoy being spoofed on national television. Rather than give us an NC-16 rating so as to keep us out of his children's sight, we would advise the writer to give them a lesson in respect and tolerance instead.


Leona Lo (Ms)

There are different views on transgender, held by different persons.

To use the term "transgender" loosely, cross-dressing is a form of transgender identity and behaviour (not behaviour alone). It is an identity that exists in a certain context.

Earlier scientists saw cross-dressing in the medical and psychiatric context, as pathological. Hence the term transvestism. Some believed that cross-dressing is fetishistic, and that transvestites derived pleasure.

In this view, to be break it down scientifically (and to dangerously simplify it), the form is cross-dressing, but it is medicalised as transvestism, and its function is to personally derive pleasure from it. Therefore, it is pathological, and it is believed to be curable, or can be rehabilitated to normalcy, whatever the institution of medicine decides to be "normal".

Here's another perspective, cross-dressing does not only exist in the medical domain, but also in the domain of entertainment. Here, we have drag. In the domain of the theatre or performance platform, we get people who imitate and mimic the manerisms and dressings of a gender that do not correspond with their physical sex, for the sake of entertainment. Same form, but different function.

This is also considered by some as an art form, which attempts to incite one to see the imitative nature of gender. Art does question. Again, same transgenderal form, but different function.

See the myriad of perspectives?

In other more damning perspectives, there are people (HELLO Ivan Lau!!!) who label pre-operative and non-operative transsexuals as transvestites (crazy, fetishistic, obsessive masturbatory ones at least) and/or cross-dressers because their mannerisms and dressing do not correspond with their physical sex (anatomical sex, normally) as how the tyrannical majority would have want.

A non-correspondence and "misalignment" of gender (mannerisms, dressing) and sex (penis/vagina, breast, etc.) is thus either wrong, unnatural, sinful, crazy or any of the combinations.

In the minds of ignorant self-righteous bigots, what is eternalised as wrong can be righted, what is unnatural can be punished and destroyed, what is sinful can be rehabilitated, what is crazy can be reinstitutionalised. Because these assholes hold very close and dear to their hearts the very flimsy fragile idea that gender and sex are the same thing and are essentialised. It does not help that socio-religious institutions and mechanisms are in place, and continually and uncritically defended by the state, that subscribers to this hegemonic and imperialist ideology think they will also be in the "right".

As written, I have shown only a few of the many different perspectives on transgender and in particular cross-dressing. Do note there are further positions on these, some viewing these positions as mutually exclusive heterogeneous entities, some don't. (If I had to put myself into one, I belong to the latter).

I disagree with the way transgender has been shown to Singaporeans. One common form is drag on mainstream television. It implies we can never take transgender people seriously, and we can laugh at them.

At the same time, transgender visibility has to start somewhere. For instance, heterosexual male-to-female post-operative transsexual women have attained visibility before their female-to-male counterparts, or their homosexual or bisexual male-to-female post-operative counterparts.

Their visibility is also steeped in a history of "Ah Kua" shows and the sex trade, and associated with drag and entertainment. To me, the visibility is a blessing as well as a curse.

On the other hand, I feel it is necessary to have cross-dressing as an art form, to continually remind us (above entertainment), that gender is imitative. This, according to some transgender studies scholars, is a dangerous position as the position appears to make us of transgender individuals and their lived daily realities as a selfish academic pursuit to prove the arbitrariness of gender, an outcome that does not help to improve the well-being of transgender people.

Still, I believe that these two positions, while at tension, do not in any way aim to belittle or atomise transgender realities, in the way Ivan Lau has done.

We may associate with or distance ourselves from particular types (to assume there are salient categorisable groups) of transgender, because we do so in a country that is full of ignorance and transphobia, which in turn hurt the livelihood, well-being and lives of individuals whom we have the audacity to label as "different".

Since the Straits Times has made the choice to publish Ivan Lau's letter, I hope they will have the social consciousness and journalistic diligence to continually educate Singaporeans on transgender issues and address the hurtful myths and transphobia. I thought the newspapers are to play a role in nation-building? The publishing of such a letter belittles and ostracises our transgendered citizens!

Well, here's my unpublished letter:

I refer to Mr Ivan Lau's letter "Drag wrong, guys" (11 Aug 2011).

In an effort to be a responsible parent, Mr Lau has questioned the use of drag at the recent National Day Parade. I disagree with him and do not condone his views.

First, drag for entertainment and comedic purposes, is not new to Singaporeans as artiste Jack Neo has endeared us to his Liang Po Po and Liang Si Mei characters on prime time television. Perhaps Mr Lau may want to consider reserving his slithery mixture of praise and criticism for Jack Neo too. What about Robin William's Mrs Doubtfire or Martin Lawrence's Big Mama's House, movies that have made many families laugh?

Second, I take issue with Mr Lau's transphobia and ignorance. Is he suggesting that transgender persons have no role to play in Singapore? As far as I know, Gurmit Singh and Chua Enlai do not have sexual reassignment surgery, thus rendering Mr Lau's insinuation of "transsexual" harmony a ludicrous overreaction. The fact that these two have made people laugh is a testament of their talents.

Third, as the context in which cross-dressing takes place in Singapore is often in the domain of entertainment, many like Mr Lau fail to see that it is an art form. Art serves different purposes to society, not only providing us with entertainment, but also social commentary and an opportunity to reflect on our lived daily realities.

Fourth, it is a common strategy to identity oneself as a parent to lend more weight to one's criticisms and demands. As a result, certain kinds of people exert a greater influence on governance and policy, even though items such as drag will probably have little or no bearing on their lives or future. I do not believe parenting can and should be used as a front for ideological domination and the suppression of other identities and viewpoints.

Fifth, while drag performances often create the impression that transgender people cannot be taken seriously, Mr Lau's letter further condemns transgender minorities to invisibility. This is something any human being with good sense cannot stand up for. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Even if the portrayal of the sari-clad Indian woman was done by a male-to-female post-op transsexual Singaporean, I as a family man would have no issue.

We cannot define "harmony" with conditions and exceptions, and it extends beyond race, religion, culture, encompassing gender and sexual identity.

Drag or cross-dressing, or any form of transgender depictions, certainly do not affect our respective personal alignment of sex, gender and sexuality, nor do the creation and support for different people threaten our individual brands of "good" parenting.

I certainly do not want my children to be ill-adjusted and intolerant.


Ho Chi Sam

Let me ask you a question, Ivan. What are YOU going to do for the improvement of the well-being and lives of transgender and transsexual Singaporeans?

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