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28 May 2008

Transsexualism far more common than believed, say researchers

A new statistical study by Prof Femke Olyslager and Prof Emeritus Lynn Conway suggests Singapore rates for male-to-female transsexuals are over 1 in 2,000, whereas rates for female-to-male transsexuals are over 1 in 4,000.

For years, transgender activist Leona Lo has been trying to push for greater official recognition of the transsexual community in Singapore. One reason she hasn't had much of an effect, she says, is because many people assume the transsexual community's very small. "They think it's just me and [comedian] Abigail Chay," she complains.

Femke Olyslager (left), Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics at Ghent University in Belgium, with Leona Lo, the author of autobiographical From Leonard to Leona - A Singapore Transsexual's Journey to Womanhood and My Sisters, Their Stories, at a press conference held in Singapore on May 23, 2008.

It doesn't help that the most commonly cited study for the natural frequency of transsexuals (done in the Netherlands in 1993) suggests that only 1 in 11,900 biological men are male-to-female transsexuals, and only 1 in 30,400 biological women are female-to-male transsexuals. Applying those statistics to Singapore, it translates into a paltry 188 MTF transsexuals and an even more insignificant 74 FTM transsexuals.

But last year, Prof Femke Olyslager and Prof Emeritus Lynn Conway presented a new statistical study completely overturning those numbers. Hailing respectively from Ghent University, Belgium and the University of Michigan, USA, the two are respected researchers in Electrical Engineering who also happen to be transsexual women. As Prof Olyslager was in Singapore for a physics conference last week, Lo persuaded her as a friend to present her findings to the local and international press.

In her presentation, Prof Olyslager explained how the Netherlands figures are flawed: they're calculated using an accumulative method, based on a ratio of clients at Dutch gender reassignment clinics to the population of the country over the age of 15. This means that over the years, the ratio will keep going up - it doesn't measure the natural prevalence for transsexualism at all.

She and Prof Conway decided to process with the same raw data from the 1993 study using an incremental method weighing the number of clients at the clinics against the total number of births each year. What they ended up with was a much higher prevalence of 1 in 3,500 for MTF transsexuals and a 1 in 6,200 prevalence for FTM transsexuals. And remember, this isn't counting the numerous transsexuals who chose not to have surgery or who had surgery outside of the Netherlands.

Interestingly, these new numbers are pretty similar to a Singapore-based study carried out by renowned psychologist Dr Tsoi Wing Foo back in 1988. According to him, prevalence rates for MTF transsexuals came out as 1 in 2,900, while FTM transsexuals were 1 in 8,300 - rates that were previously judged as much too high to be credible.

Using their new method, Olyslager and Conway have calculated these rates as being 1 in 2,000 and 1 in 5,600 for MTF and FTM transsexuals respectively. Re-calibrating to allow for surgeries abroad and transsexuals who choose not to have surgery, they estimate that Singapore rates are closer to 1 in 2,000 to 1 in 1,000 for MTF transsexuals, and 1 in 4,000 to 1 in 2,000 for FTM transsexuals.

According to Olyslager, what this means is that Singapore currently has at least 1,000 MTF transsexuals, of whom roughly 680 have had surgery. These are modest estimates based on old numbers, she emphasises, and prevalence might be much higher. (Numbers collected from clinics today would be misleading, as now most Singaporeans go for gender reassignment surgery in Bangkok.)

These findings are important, not just because they're the first statistics on transsexual prevalence to be published in the press (Dr Tsoi's work was unjustly neglected for years), but because they show that there's a significant community of persons in Singapore (and other states) whose needs aren't being met by the government.

As of now, with no legislation against discrimination in the workplace, persons going for gender reassignment surgery run a big risk of losing their jobs (not only after the operation, but also before, as they are required to live for a year as their desired gender before surgery.) There's also an array of risks that comes with the hormonal treatments - dangers of osteoperosis, breast cancer or vaginal collapse if administered improperly. Proper avenues for aftercare, counselling and social security are desperately needed.

Lo herself has been making offers to give talks on transgender awareness in workplaces and other institutions. "Society needs to recognise that transsexualism is a legitimate medical condition, and that will lead to less transphobic behaviour," she says.

"Why are we sweeping this under the carpet? People with counselling after surgery will have a more successful life and be more socially responsible. It's up to the health authorities to set up a task force and do some work."

F. Olyslager and L. Conway's "On the Calculation of the Prevalence of Transsexualism" was first presented at the WPATH Conference in Chicago in September 2007, and has been submitted to the International Journal of Transgenderism. It can also be found online here (in PDF.).

For more trans-information, also see www.lynnconway.com and www.leonalo.com.

Reader's Comments

Comment #1 was deleted by its author
2. 2008-05-29 02:25  
How wonderful for Fridae.com to include an article covering transgenderism/transsexuality in Singapore! A refreshing inclusive look at our underrepresented brothers and sisters.
3. 2008-05-29 04:39  
Long long way to go...I was denied entry at Attica tonight! Hell f them cos Double O was hot!
4. 2008-05-29 06:24  
Think this research may be an important step towards acceptance.
5. 2008-05-29 19:22  

An Open Letter of a Transgender Woman in the Philippines

[25 May 2008 / Sunday / 6.04 AM to 6.45 AM]

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

Eleanor Roosevelt

My friends and I have been made to feel inferior approximately five hours before I wrote this letter. I'd like to sweep this incident under the proverbial rug but there is no more space to accommodate it.

On the 24th of May 2008, my friends and I were celebrating the anniversary of our organization the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP), the first transsexual women's support group and transgender rights advocacy organization in the Philippines. We settled to celebrate it in Ice Vodka Bar, located in Greenbelt 3, 3rd level Ayala Center, Makati City, Metro Manila. It was my first time in that bar. Two in our group have been there before and they had nothing bad to say about it.

There were five of us. I was leading the way. The bouncer stopped us. I asked why. His reason was we were dressed "inappropriately". We were rather dressed decently, tastefully, and most importantly just like any other human being who lives her life as female 24 hours a day.

I asked for the manager. The bouncer was nice enough to let me in. The manager, Ms Belle Castro, accommodated me. I don't know if I spelled her name right. I asked for a business card but she had none available. Her telling feature though was her braced teeth.

I complained. Ms Castro listened to me. I found her sympathetic, even respectful as she addressed me all throughout as ma'am. She told me the following:

1. (Referring to my friends, and obviously to me) That "people like them" aren't allowed in our bar every Fridays & Saturdays;

2. That that was an agreement between all the bars in Greenbelt (she particularly mentioned their bar, Absinthe, and Caf Havana) and Ayala Corporation, the company which owns the Greenbelt Complex;

3. That the reason for this policy is: "Marami kasing foreigner na nag-kocomplain at napepeke daw sila sa mga katulad nila." Loosely translated in English: "There are lots of foreigners complaining because they mistake people like them as real women"; and

4. That they have a "choice" to implement the policy.

I felt terribly hurt and uncontrollably agitated. This transphobic act is not the first time that it happened to me, to my friends, to people like us. To say that this has become almost a routine is an understatement.

I have shouted at Ms Castro several times, asking her why I'm f***ing experiencing racism in my own country and what gave f***ing foreigners the right to demand to block people like us to enter bars in our very own country.

Ms Castro tried to hush me by pulling the "It's our choice card" and asked me to talk decently. I am not proud at all of using the F-word as my intensifier and of letting my emotions ran raw and wild. My warm apologies to Ms Castro for losing my cool. Just like any of us, I know, she was just doing her job.

This may not be the proper forum to raise this concern. But is there any reliable legal forum to address this issue? Reality check: there is no antidiscrimination law in this country. And if you're discriminated, there seems to be a notion that you're supposed to blame yourself for bringing such an unfortunate event to yourself.

So, I'd just stand up through this open letter.

I am standing for myself. I am standing for people like us. I am standing up because I, am, very, tired of this incivility. We have long endured this kind of treatment for far too long. Enough.

I'll not go as far as campaigning for a boycott as it is definitely the simple workers that would suffer from any loss in revenue such an act may cause.

People like us would like to be treated just like any other human being. Just like those foreigners who complained about our existence: With dignity.

You know the civilized and ethical thing to do: Stop discrimination in your establishments.

Bigotry is never ethical nor a sound business strategy.


Ms Sass Rogando Sasot

Sass is one of the founding members of the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines (STRAP) [www.tsphilippines.com], an Associate Member of Transgender ASIA Research Centre, and a member of Ang Ladlad Party.

To have a dialogue with her regarding this incident, you may reach her at srsasot@... or through her mobile at +639276257010.
Comment #6 was deleted by its author
7. 2008-05-30 18:13  
I sympathise with Post #4. However, get a reality check is that blatant discrimination exists throughout the world, especially Asia. Yes, Asia.

The West has them too but at least the so called industrialised nations has legal checks in place over the years for the shit they started. Asia is way way behind in many aspects of respecting human rights. HK and Taiwan are pioneering states in demanding ( & getting) for basic rights for their own LGBT folks. Bravo.

Look at places like India and Singapore, where the latter legalises sodomy between st8 people but not gay. It's blatant public humiliation and discrimination. So wat are u gonna do about it? Protest and they throw u in jail just simply coz they can and will. They have nothing better to do. It's all about power.

Comment #8 was deleted by its author
9. 2008-05-30 18:18  
Post # 4, unless there is enough of the minority groups to stage a presence or protest, like say outside the bar district to draw attention to their plight, no one will care or be motivated enough to change. Meanwhile, go to your fellow gay bars to have fun whilst waiting for mainstream to trickle & open up. But dun hold your breath though, the dam is not gonna burst anytime soon.

Good luck!

PS: Had to break comments into 2 parts as had problems posting full text here.

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