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Breaking the Binary

By Tay Hui Zhi, Elena

Not many are aware of the existence and struggles the non-binary community face in Singapore. TAY HUI ZHI, ELENA talks to someone who identifies as non-binary to find out more.

Photo caption: Athena Kong, a Singaporean who identifies as a non-binary person, poses for a photo in their room. (Photo by Tay Hui Zhi, Elena)

The first time Athena Kong, 19, realized they were not comfortable being referred to by the gender assigned at birth was when they started feeling unlike themselves wearing a skirt in secondary school.

In most Singapore schools, uniforms are compulsory, with female students donning skirts and male students wearing shorts or pants. 

“Being in a skirt, you’re naturally categorized with other people who are assigned female at birth. For some reason, it just didn’t feel right with me,” said Kong, currently a student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore.

When they were 14-16 years of age, Kong particularly hated the way their body looked, their voice sounded, and how people perceived them.

“I hated the way my body looked because I was bullied a lot in primary school [being called] ugly, fat, and stupid,” said Kong, who now identifies as a non-binary person and goes by the pronouns they/them.  

Scientists agree that gender exists on a spectrum. Those who do not identify with the most common gender markers, Female and Male, use other terms like non-binary, genderfluid, genderqueer, and more. 

Many such people whose gender identity is “opposite” or “across from” the sex they were assigned at birth are sometimes referred to with the umbrella term transgender, according to Gender Spectrum, an organization that works on binary gender issues. 

Singapore has no official estimates of transgender people among its 5.6 million population.

In a report by Statista in 2022, 12% of respondents were said to be part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in Singapore. They did not give the breakdown of each category. 

Transitioning to non-binary

In Singapore, gender confirmation surgery has been legalized since 1973 for the transgender community, making it one of the most progressive countries in the world when it comes to transgender attitudes.

Kong said they also thought of transitioning to a man at one point, recognizing themselves as a guy and even giving themselves more masculine names, like Klenn, Aden, and Adrian. 

However, none of the names stuck with Kong. Said they, “I didn’t want to have to feel the hurt of them slipping up and everything. And since I don’t experience that much dysphoria [distressing feeling] from my name, I chose to stick with it.”

These thoughts were carried on from school days and played a part in Kong’s initial decision to perhaps transition into a male, as they started wearing chest binders and cut hair short. 

“I never realized how liberating it was to see myself with short hair. I just felt more that way. I didn’t like the way I looked with long hair,” Kong said.

Kong’s aversion to being seen as a girl stemmed from the gender stereotypes associated with femininity, and their body dysmorphia – a condition where a person spends a lot of time worrying about flaws hardly noticeable to others in their appearance – further added to it.

These changes reaffirmed their realization that they didn’t fit in with the “typical” feminine side of the gender spectrum.

However, soon after secondary school, they realized they didn’t necessarily want to transition to male either – after experiencing more liberty to explore and experiment their gender identity, ultimately feeling most comfortable as a “non-binary person.” 

On pronouns and school

Now studying at the polytechnic, Kong said they had told their friends about their pronouns, “but they continue to use she/her, and they have no guilt about it. They use it as though it’s their right.”

It is a common negative experience many in the transgender community go through, especially in schools and colleges.

In a survey published by TransgenderSG in 2021, 22% of transgender people reported being verbally abused, while a similar number shared experiences of people spreading rumors about their gender identity.

Half of the respondents said other students intentionally misgendered them. 

“I think it’s good to get teachers to teach students how to be more understanding towards people who are just simply different from them and how important it can go a long way for the community as well’,” added Kong.

A minister said in 2020 that the government would work with educational institutes to promote the teaching of gender education. However, policy specifics are not known.

Photo caption: Pinkdot, an annual event to show support to the LGBT community, was held at Hong Lim Park on June 18, 2022. (Photo by Tay Hui Zhi, Elena)

Progressive, but also conservative

June Chua, 50, the founder of T Project, Singapore’s only social service for the transgender community, said that she gets support from the government, which has helped the shelter survive from 2014 till now. 

“They’re very supportive of resources for the LGBT community, and they support the homeless shelter; they support my counseling programs,” Chua said.

The government also has laws in place to protect the transgender community, including the religious harmony act that has been amended to protect LGBT community.

Last year, Singapore’s parliament repealed the controversial Section 377A law inherited from British rule, which banned sex between two men.

However, the government then immediately amended the Constitution to protect the definition of marriage between a man and a woman, making Singapore one of the most progressive on some issues while very conservative on others.

Similarly, the National Registration Identity Card (NRIC), the legal identity document for Singaporean citizens and permanent residents, has binary gender marker, as “M” or “F.” 

In the 2021 TransgenderSG survey, 85.7% of respondents said having their gender legally recognized was important, while 82.5% felt that having the correct gender marker on their NRIC made them feel safe.

“Transgender people are just like everyone else. Just because we identify differently, just because we don’t fall into the same gender bracket that society is so comfortable with, doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve respect,” said Kong. 

“Change in society is difficult, but change is important.”

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