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22 May 2003

leona lo

An interview with Leona Lo who wrote My Sisters, Their Stories, the first coffee-table book about transsexuals in Singapore. She tells all about her tortuous experiences while attending one of Singapore's premier boys school, the difficulties transsexuals like herself face and the myth that gay men are jealous of transsexual women because they have access to heterosexual men.

Leona Lo is the author of My Sisters, Their Stories, Singapore's first coffee-table book about transsexuals, which Fridae recently reviewed. She recently resigned from her position as corporate affairs manager of a statutory board to devote her time to writing and windsurfing. Leona, who identifies as a transsexual woman, worked as an editor in Singapore as well as corporate communications assistant manager for a private healthcare group after graduating with an undergraduate degree from the University of York, United Kingdom. In 2000, she was given the Prospects Globe Award to pursue a Masters in Qualitative Research Methods at her alma mater.

Leona Lo who recently resigned from her position as corporate affairs manager of a statutory board to devote her time to writing and windsurfing
Fridae catches up with Leona and finds out more about her reasons for writing the book, the issues transsexuals in Singapore face and the links between the gay and transsexual communities.

æ: Congratulations on your new book, My Sisters, Their Stories.

leona: Thanks. It's a joint effort between the mother of all graphic designers in Singapore, Sylvia S.H. Tan and the gifted photographer, Lance Lee.

æ: How did the idea for the book come about?

leona: When Sylvia SH Tan first met me in 2001, we were meant to discuss the editorial concept for a coffee-table book for a mutual client. However, Sylvia was more fascinated by my account of my experiences as a transsexual in Singapore and abroad. Always keen to explore new themes, Sylvia felt intuitively that she had chanced upon a riveting subject matter. Our discussion quickly shifted to how we could collaborate on a book about transsexuals.

Having produced an eclectic palate of pictorial books in her 25 years as a pioneer graphic designer and more recently, publisher, Sylvia felt that the book, as with all her previous works, had to arrest the eye. So she began casting about for a suitable photographer until half a year later when she made the serendipitous discovery of Lance Lee at a lecture on photography. His intimate portraits of the katoeys in Thailand and the sisters at Changi paved the way for and determined the subjects - male-to-female transsexuals - of this seminal publication.

æ: What's the impetuous for writing My Sisters, Their Stories?

leona: While much has been written about the katoeys [ladyboys] in Thailand, little is known about the sisters in Singapore. What we see or hear about them is mediated through sensationalist books, films or news stories about transsexual prostitutes. What is not known is that many are driven to prostitution by circumstances.

The transitional period between self-discovery and the sex change operation is often the most turbulent for many transsexuals. In extreme - though not uncommon - cases, some are driven out of their homes by parents who cannot grapple with their gender dysphoria. Deprived of family and financial support, they turn to prostitution for subsistence. Over time, they become so accustomed to the easy money and soul-numbing lifestyle that they find it difficult to integrate into mainstream society again.

Sex reassignment surgery is itself a foray into the treacherous unknown. The relatively higher cost of surgery and lack of options in Singapore used to drive many to the backstreets of Thailand. Fortunately, experienced and skilful Thai surgeons have emerged over the years to perform quality surgeries with improved outcomes. What remains unchanged is the lack of effective follow-up treatment and research into the health implications of lifelong estrogen therapy, resulting in complications that would only surface years later in the individual's life. The standard treatment protocols for transsexuals in Asia remain undefined though they were pioneered by Stanford University Medical Centre in as early as 1979. At best, medical practitioners are divided over the right course of action. At worst, they are indifferent.
As for transsexuals who have had the benefit of a tertiary education, life is no less daunting. They often have to hide their true identities from potential employers and spouses for fear of being rejected or discriminated against, and live in constant fear of being 'outed'. If these scenarios sound familiar, it is because things have not changed greatly since the first sex change operation in 1969.

Leona Lo who recently resigned from her position as corporate affairs manager of a statutory board to devote her time to writing and windsurfing
On the other hand, transsexuals are not always the victims. Some behave in such a way as to draw condemnation upon themselves. That one has to respect oneself first in order to be respected by others remains a time-honoured truth. There are also employers who look beyond gender and hire based on merit. It has to be said that the Singapore government has generally been humane towards transsexuals, surpassing even the United Kingdom in allowing them to reflect their new status on their identity cards and get married following sex reassignment surgery. And if not for the pioneering efforts of the late Prof SS Ratnam, A/Prof Victor H H Goh and A/Prof W F Tsoi, many transsexuals would not have been able to gain a new lease on life.

This book bears testimony to the courage, determination and tremendous will to live of the transsexuals in Singapore and Thailand. By emerging from stealth, the sisters featured do not seek so much to be pitied as to be understood, and given the opportunity to compete on an equal footing with their peers. And in so doing, they have not only given a name and a voice to those before them, but also hope to future generations. If, after reading this book, you gain a deeper understanding and awareness of transsexuals, it would have achieved its simple objective.

æ: How has your life changed since embarking on this project?

leona: Strangely enough, it hasn't changed one bit. Sure, I've been receiving e-mails from critics, admirers, fledgling transsexuals and even ex-classmates, but life's pretty much the same for me.

Growing up

æ: When did you realise you were born in the wrong body?

leona: When I was in Primary 6, but I only found the words to describe who I was at about age 15.

æ: In an interview with the Singapore Straits Times, you said that you used to tell everyone who asked that you studied at St Nicholas Girls' School instead of the all-boys' school Catholic High. What was growing up in such an environment like?

leona: Sheer torture. One of my ex-classmates smsed me recently to apologise on the behalf of Secondary 3-4A, Catholic High School. He even invited me to his wedding. He really has nothing to apologise for since "we did what we knew best then, we do what we know best now." I declined his invitation and wished him all the best. I said I wanted to get on with my life. Seriously, I bear no grudges. I wasn't easy to live with anyway.

æ: Did you have any role model of sorts when you were growing up?

leona: Someone between Maggie Cheung and Mother Theresa. I didn't even know what a transsexual woman looked like until the age of 21 when I discovered the Internet in England. Then, and even today, Lynn Conway (www.lynnconway.com) remains my role model.

æ: Did you have gay/trans friends at school? And how did you learn there was a gay/trans community in Singapore?

leona: I had gay friends in school, but we didn't talk about it. We just knew that we were "different" from the rest. I only discovered the trans community when I was in National Service. They introduced me to the world of Raffles Place (RP), Changi Village (CV), sister-friendly discos and plucked eyebrows. But somehow I still felt like a stranger in their midst. I felt like an observer looking through the window onto my "own" community. The sisters pretty much left me alone soon after because I was too strait laced or prudish, come to think of it.
Being transgendered

æ: How and when did you come out to your family and friends?

leona: After I suffered from a nervous breakdown in National Service.

æ: Are you out as trans to people, like at work?
leona: Hah hah - my colleagues have been queuing up to buy the books.

æ: You were a Corporate Communications Assistant Manager at a statutory board before quitting to devote your time to writing. Did you experience any red tape?

leona: Well, I was (and still am) the most rebellious officer in service. Sure, there's a lot of red tape, but there has been more understanding and empathy than anything else. It takes a lot to accommodate a wildly erratic person like me. I must salute the nurses and dental therapists within my organisation for being so supportive and appreciative. They truly are the courageous ones.

æ: What are the difficulties you and other transsexuals face?

leona: Wah, where should I begin? One of my pet grouses is the lack of pre and post-operative treatment guidelines for transsexuals in Singapore. Goodness knows where the young ones get their hormones. There is also no quality assurance in treatment and what about pre and postoperative counselling for sisters to ensure that they are comfortable in their new roles. No wonder so many sisters cluster at CV - that's where they feel a sense of community.

For those like me who prefer to function at the heart of normative society, well, you know the usual story. I remember applying to Management Development Institute of Singapore for a communications job as a fresh graduate. The severe-looking lady interviewer commented: "But I thought Catholic High School is an all-boys school?" In my present job, a consultant from the Big 5 (or should it be 4 now?) spent a long time trying to convince my colleagues that I'm actually a man. Little did she know that I would "confess all" in a book. Indeed, sisters who live in stealth are often subjected to blackmail from those who are either jealous of our success or resentful of our existence - and these are usually the more educated ones.

When I was learning how to windsurf at PA Sea Sport Club, the guys and girls were talking behind my back about my "indeterminate gender." One of them later told me that they were very curious, but did not have the guts to ask me. My philosophy is this: what I used to have between my legs is none of your business unless we're sleeping together, and even then To tell you the truth, I have been increasingly disillusioned with the concept of social change over the years. But I still harboured hopes that the book would change perceptions. Alas, thus far, people seem to be more interested in my personal life, sexual habits - in short, the "eroticism" of sisterhood - than the daily challenges we face.

æ: In January 1996, Singapore announced that postoperative transsexuals would be free to marry people of the opposite sex - making Singapore one of the few countries in the world that permits it. So in terms of legislation, what other changes would you like to see changed?

leona: There is still no legislation to prevent discrimination at the workplace, to prevent transsexuals from being wrongfully dismissed or not hired on the grounds that they are transsexuals. They still haven't addressed the issue of transitioning at the workplace - how else are we supposed to pay for our costly operations? I'm prepared to organise free talks for employers and employees in Singapore, including the police force, SAF and religious groups on gender issues. This is already happening in Malaysia. Lynn Conway, my role model, was invited to deliver a lecture at HP in the United States. I pray that I would have the opportunity to do the same in Singapore.
æ: What other issues are transsexuals in Singapore facing?

leona: Asides from the more obvious employment issues, we also face relationship problems. The Singaporean man may consider going out with a sister, but would abandon her as soon as she is 'outed' because of the "shame" associated with going out with a sister. That's why many sisters have married foreigners. It seems that foreigners are more secure about their sexuality. But I still prefer local men (just like some people prefer kaya [a coconut and egg jam] toast to baguette). Not that I will compromise though. I'm fiercely protective of my identity as a transsexual woman. I should say I wear it like a badge of honour even if it means I'll have to remain single all my life. It's a cross I have chosen to carry. But there are lonely nights though...

æ: What advice would you give to someone who is trying to come to terms with his or her transsexuality?

leona: To the young ones: concentrate on broadening your horizons. Keep your options open. I had a camp mate who told me she wanted to pursue a diploma in fine arts as I was ORDing [Operationally Ready Date, also the end of one's compulsory military service]. I felt very happy for her. Recently, I heard that she's at CV. Not that there's anything wrong in doing that. My sisters at CV are some of the strongest and most sincere people I've encountered. It's just that it's very hard to break out of the lifestyle once you get into it. To those who are trying make it in the corporate world, even though you'll have a much harder time than your peers, don't give up. Attack your work with diligence, honesty and creativity and you'll gain your colleagues' respect. To hell with those who backstab you and perpetuate stereotypes about you. Let your integrity, diligence and creativity be the stereotype, win through. Remember - our sisters abroad have succeeded in a big way. And the list includes NASA scientists, engineers, bankers etc in the United Kingdom and the United States. This is not to say that I subscribe to the normative notion of success - you can be successful being a cabaret performer too. Success is about commitment and hard work. It's also about making positive contributions to society.

Relating to the gay community

æ: Do you feel being isolated by the gay community and if there's unity between lesbian and gay communities?

leona: No, and that's probably because I eschew umbrella politics. I believe more in the power of the individual than the community. I don't believe in embracing causes, be they homosexual or transgender. I refuse to represent a certain way of thinking and behaving simply because I've written a few lines about being a transsexual. To me, the concept of "community" is more intimidating and dehumanising than empowering. Anyway, I've always had a mixture of gay, lesbian (lesbian also gay right?) and heterosexual friends. I don't see them as eg. Sophia the lesbian. Sophia is Sophia, period.

æ: How do you respond to gay people who feel reluctant to identify themselves with transgender people?

leona: Why should they identify with transgender people in the first place? Because we share a common struggle? By this token, shouldn't they be identifying themselves with Afro-Americans and the Untouchables in India as well? To the outside world, gay and transgender people share a common destiny because they have codified our experiences in terms of our "sexual orientation," So we're back to the erotic again. I don't accept this categorisation. Anyway, I've never encountered such people before. I heard about them in books and discussions on the Internet, but I've never encountered them personally.

æ: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions the gay community has about transsexuals?

leona: Well, one of the sisters tells me that gay men are jealous of transsexual women because we have access to heterosexual men. I'm like - huh? Most of the time, gay men are the lookers anyway. Why would you want to have access to heterosexual men? Hee hee. One of my favourite books of all time is "Borrowed Time." Let's focus on the redemptive power of love, not sex, then perhaps a common ground could be established between the two "communities."


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