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Inside Singapore's First Transgender Shelter

By Guan Tan

The shelter has an outdoor porch, living hall, an office, two bedrooms, a kitchen, toilet, and yard.
 
Felicia Yap
The shelter has an outdoor porch, living hall, an office, two bedrooms, a kitchen, toilet, and yard.

In 2014, June Chua and her elder sister, Alicia Chua pulled together their savings and founded Singapore's first-ever transgender shelter called The T Project.

"We saw a lot of homeless people in our community... We felt we could help," Chua attended several LGBT workshops. She quickly realised that transgenders are a skeleton in the LGBT closet. "Most shelters, talks, and petitions are LGB-relevant, not 'T'." 

Homeless transgender individuals faced a conundrum, "they cannot go to shelters for women [or] men," for some have fully transitioned, other partially, or not at all. Either they don't qualify for female shelters, or they risk assault in male ones. 

Chua's shelter solves the dilemma. She welcomes both male and female transgenders for six months per stay. "It's a temporary shelter that houses up to eight residents. When they stay here, we link them up to social services." Social workers are pegged to each resident, offering information about HDB rentals, BTO applications, financial planning, career opportunities, and medical help. Opportunities, options, and education are scarce to these individuals who are forced to the periphery of society for their gender choices. 

Carolyn ChengJune Chua, co-founder of The T Project.
June Chua, co-founder of The T Project.

"I want them to consider the future and not live life day-to-day," Chua continues. More often than not, transgenders are dismissed by their family for fear of shame. I've seen transgenders as young as teenagers being forced into sex work. They seek out hotels and motels and work to fulfil the rental costs. Mainstream jobs refuse them because "their gender identity is seen as a weakness. 'You're a trans woman. Are you sure you can do this job or not?'" 

"[If, in one day] they earn S$100 as a sex worker, S$60 [goes] to rent, which leaves S$40. S$10 is for makan (food), S$10 for cigarettes. [And they're] left with S$10. The next day's rent is $60 again. What if the next day they only earn $50? Then how? Then the [leftover] $10 from yesterday will go towards rent. Then food how?" Chua explains that it's a tiring, never-ending, vicious cycle. 

Felicia YapFood donations from acquaintances of the shelter.
Food donations from acquaintances of the shelter.

What her shelter does, is to "give them a peace of mind, and not worry about rent and food. When your basic needs are fulfilled, you can go one level up in the Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and start thinking of other things – the future." Chua's shelter is a non-profit, and is dependent on public donations. There is only one paid staff, manager Eztelle who oversees all operations and administrative issues of the shelter.

Felicia YapEztelle is the only paid staff at The T Project. She formerly played a managerial role at a multi-national company.
Eztelle is the only paid staff at The T Project. She formerly played a managerial role at a multi-national company.

As we wandered around the shelter, we met a Chinese lady named Linda. She's 43 years old who had moved in in March. Her story is that of rejection. For the past 27 years, she's been rejected by her immediate and extended family. Forced to leave home by her family who didn't want their neighbours to know of her gender identity, Linda left for Malaysia. After spending over 20 years there, she returned to Singapore in 2016. 

"I have a HDB flat here that I co-bought with my second eldest brother. But because he couldn't accept the way I dressed, he refused to let me live with him." Linda sought refuge at her grandmother's place, but her grandmothers passed on soon after, and she was forced to pack her things up and leave by her extended family. 

Carolyn Cheng43-year-old Linda has been at The T Project for three months now. She works as a part-time skincare sales associate.
43-year-old Linda has been at The T Project for three months now. She works as a part-time skincare sales associate.

"I thought life was pointless. My journey has been too difficult. I didn't know how long I could continue. So I decided to committed suicide. I jumped into the sea." Linda attempted suicide near the Marina Bay. Her words were heavy with regret as she recalls how the security guard saved her. "The police came, they sent me to IMH." 

The counsellors at IMH referred her to The T Project, "June and Eztelle came to visit me. They assured me that it was okay, and that they would bring me back as soon as I was discharged.'" 
 

Carolyn ChengKristin, 55, dubs herself a
Kristin, 55, dubs herself a "veteran" in the local transgender landscape.

Across the room was another resident willing to share her story. A petite lady with short, blonde hair, she introduced herself as Kristin who is 55 this year. 

In 1976, she came out as transgender. "When I was 14-years-old, and I was charged with first-degree murder... I set fire to someone because she called me, 'Ah Gua'. She called me names and made fun of me, and told my mother that I didn't go to school, [that] I played around and played truant. I got so mad, I set [her on] fire." 

Kristin was a juvenile. She was placed on probation and went back to Beatty Secondary School. 

Felicia YapKristin preparing a meal for the residents.
Kristin preparing a meal for the residents.

She went on to transition to a woman and eventually worked as a mamasan. But it didn't take long for her to commit another offense. "In 1985 I committed another crime. I got so mad at this guy who had sexually abused his maid's daughter," Kristin continues to note that she already knew of the man from accounts of sexual abuse from her transgender street girls. He had a fetish for violence and took it out on Kristin's girls. "Eventually I found this guy, he brought me back home. There, I spiked him with some pills, then I castrated – I cut off his penis." 

When asked if she regrets her criminal offences, Kristin snaps back, "No regrets. Because I have to defend my girls. I'm the kind of person who will fight men who bully women." 

Kristin was sentenced to four years in jail. After she served her sentence in 2004, "I left Singapore for 12 years." When she returned home last year, her friends referred her to The T Project, and she was welcomed to stay. Kristin thinks of it as a token of reward for the many occasions she has stood up for the transgender community. 

Felicia YapA clothes rack in the backyard.
A clothes rack in the backyard.

I asked Linda and Kristin about life here at the shelter. Linda shyly utters, "It's a hundred times better here than being home. Here, I am free." Gesturing to her blue and red floral sundress, makeup, and wig, she adds, "Everyday I can dress up prettily, I can work part-time. I can dress this way for a walk. And I can walk home this way. I never had to change back into men's clothes." 

Felicia YapLinda's lower-bunk bed and belongings.
Linda's lower-bunk bed and belongings.

She confides, "But to be honest there's still stress. I'm worried that this place won't last. If this shelter shuts down, I'll be thrown back into my old life." 

Linda is still in the process of medication and recovery. She confesses that she still harbours suicidal thoughts. "I will dress up prettily and think to myself, 'Wow, if I were a real girl, how happy would I be?' I hate myself, 'Why am I a boy? If only I were a girl, that'd be nice." Linda wants to reincarnate as a girl in her next life. 

Felicia YapOn a shared bedside table, Linda's prescribed medications amongst other residents' belongings.
On a shared bedside table, Linda's prescribed medications amongst other residents' belongings.

Kristin promptly reminds us, "When you are given a place to stay... you feel proud. You want to change. Now I'm jobless, I'm waiting for them to [find] me a job. And I will show them how I'm going to pay back this [favour], thank them for what they have given to us. You can't [find a shelter like] this in other places – Malaysia or Indonesia. You can't get this!" She's actively searching for a job, "I can be a cleaner, I am a good cook. I can cook. I can work in a restaurant, in a canteen. I haven't found a job, [but I'm] still looking." 

Felicia YapA shared mirror and beside table in Linda's room.
A shared mirror and beside table in Linda's room.

Scanning these two confident individuals seated squarely before me, I could not have fathomed that they had had such tumultuous lives. They look so secure, composed, and happy. Maybe this is what June Chua set out to do, to offer transgenders a taste of the most enigmatic things in life – security, stability, and pride.

I bolted back to June Chua, and asked her a final question, "What is your ultimate wish for the shelter?" She snapped back, "[For it to be] redundant." That would mean transgenders now have a place in society, are independent, and no longer discriminated.