Transgender students and transphobia in Singapore

by | Mar 30, 2021

One moment, we were talking about the cooling weather, then we moved on to talk about transgender discrimination (Ashlee’s case), and soon came the #FixSchoolsNotStudents protest.

Not before long came the news of Myanmar’s military coup, then the Tanjong Pagar road accident. 

We barely have time to catch a breath before the next breaking news. 

However, as someone who has experienced transphobia in school, Ashlee’s case, alongside many others, resonated with me – I cannot simply let such conversations fade into the background.

As someone who was part of the protest at the Ministry of Education (MOE) building, news of the arrest is still fresh in my mind.

In this article, I talk about the transphobia that Ashlee explains to have faced in a MOE school, the community support it garnered, and MOE’s response to it. I also note how such stories are more common than you may think.

I then moved on to talk about how, alongside four others, I participated in a protest against transphobia, and again, the statements made in Parliament. Finally, I conclude with a brief note on what we could all do moving forward.

With rapid shifts in the news cycle, I appreciate you taking the time to relive the events that have passed but are still highly relevant especially for former, current, and future transgender students in Singapore.

Transgender students in Singapore

“[…] if I became unable to fit in the boys’ uniform if I somehow got hormone therapy, I would be expelled from school, instead of being allowed to wear the female uniform.”

Aside from the claims of threat of expulsion if she had worn the gendered school uniform that aligns with her gender, Ashlee, a Junior College (JC) student in Singapore, shared more about the transphobia she faced in school on Reddit. 

Most notably, she claims that “the MOE [is] interfering with [her] medical care” despite “getting a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria from the IMH (Institute of Mental Health)”.

Gender dysphoria refers to psychological distress from the incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity. 

In Ashlee’s case, as an MTF (Male-to-Female) transgender girl, her gender dysphoria comes from being forced to fit into masculine forms of gender expression, such as having to wear the boys’ school uniform and keep a short haircut.

In response, organisations like Free Community Church, Inter-Uni LGBT Network, Pink Dot SG, and TransgenderSG have jointly signed a statement of solidarity with transgender students in Singapore. 

Sayoni has even come up with an email template for members of the public to send to Members of Parliament (MPs), Ministers, or Ministries to share their concerns over transgender students in schools.

Ashlee’s story has revealed problems of transgender discrimination in Singapore, especially in schools.

Unfortunately, she is not the only one who has suffered under such non-inclusive policies.

“ALL SCHOOLS HAVE A DUTY OF CARE TO STUDENTS”

In a Facebook post, the MOE denies Ashlee’s allegations, and claims that “all schools have a duty of care to students”.

However, they misgendered the student by using the pronoun “his” instead of “her”.

Some teachers, counsellors, social workers, community and youth workers in Singapore have stepped up by signing a statement of support for transgender students. 

As of 9th February 2021, it has since gathered close to 700 individual and group signatories.  

It lists demands for “inclusive policies, training for all teachers and counsellors on gender dysphoria and LGBTQ+ issues, inclusive sexuality education and anti-bullying programmes, and having a statement of inclusion for schools and counsellors to abide by”.

We see how these needs are lacking in schools, with experiences of LGBTQ+ discrimination shared by students and former students on Instagram pages such as @MyQueerStorySG and @MinorityVoices. 

Mel, for instance, recounted how their counsellor told them in the school hall, “You’re not male. And you’ll never be one. No matter how hard you try. Get over it.”.

#FIXSCHOOLSNOTSTUDENTS

With stringent systemic barriers and a severe lack of substantive actions, some transgender folks, and allies, including myself, feel that we have exhausted all legal avenues of advocacy.

On 26th January 2021, four other protestors and I held a peaceful public demonstration outside the MOE building, standing against transphobia in the education system. 

We have also released a press statement illustrating the problems of discrimination in schools, and also “[calling] on Minister Lawrence Wong to end discrimination against LGBTQ+ students by MOE schools, so as to uphold the fundamental right of all students to education within a safe and supportive school life.”.

Since then, conversations have continued in the virtual space, under the hashtag “#FixSchoolsNotStudents” on social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. 

Under which, it has been heartening to see people express their support for the transgender community in Singapore, and share their own stories of discrimination in schools.

“CULTURE WARS”

In a Parliament sitting on 1st February 2021 on 1st February 2021, Education Minister Lawrence Wong addressed MP He Ting Ru’s questions on issues of gender dysphoria and gender-based discrimination in schools.

While the topic of discussion was a hopeful step forward, Minister Wong’s response that “we should not import these culture wars into Singapore” has received criticism. 

Critics like Twitter user @LisabelleTay expressed how it “[dismisses] earnest questions about the material welfare of persons”.

Personally, I have also made a note of some supplementary questions I would have raised in response to the ministers’ statements in Parliament.

MOVING FORWARD

Above all, it is important for people in Singapore to keep the conversations about transgender rights going, whether it be with our friends, families, or even MPs, ministers. 

For those of us who are in the position of privilege as cisgender people, it is especially crucial now to step up as allies. 

Start by extending your support to your trans friends and advocate for policies to protect them.

After all, we, the citizens of Singapore, pledge to build a democratic society based on justice and equality.