I was invited to be part of stage drama AKKA’s panel discussion. I agreed as I wanted to support my friend, Sonia, who was playing the role of Kamini. Topics such as discrimination against transgenders and other relevant issues were discussed. I personally felt that it was a good step in the direction of raising awareness. After the discussion, I recall having asked Selva and Suresh, the pillars of Avant Theatre, what their long term vision was with regards to the information they then had.
This triggered my curiosity. I have had numerous individuals step forward with false promises of wanting to improve the dire situation of myself and my sisters, only to discover later that it was either for individual or professional gains. I wanted to know if something was going to be done for the transgender community in Singapore. It took a while. On 16 February 2014, Sonia and I were invited to meet Selva at his office together with a few others. They were sharing their ideas and they asked us “What is it that you want to do for the people of your community?”
That question caused me to reflect on my life thus far. You see, that question was monumental. I have and still am trying to forget many ugly incidents of the past. My life had been a blur for a good many years.
I had spent most of my time sitting in a corner, crying while asking God, “Why?”
As a child, I had my innocence and ability to trust stripped of me – I was sexually abused. From a young age, I knew I was different. While moving through the stages of life, I suppressed my emotions and succumbed to societal norms. I did well in my studies, graduating with a Diploma in Engineering from a local polytechnic. I completed National Service as all able-bodied Singaporean men do, and joined a respectable company.
Questions about my sexuality (which I had been suppressing) had finally started to resurface. One thing was for sure – I knew I had to be true to myself. I knew I was a woman. I had to be. There was no other way. I could not accept the male shell that I was trapped in for decades. I started on hormone therapy and experienced significant changes in my physical appearance.
That was when I realised the repercussions of my unorthodox decision. Having been brought up in a staunch Christian household, my decision was viewed as the ultimate betrayal to my faith. I was chased out of my house and lost my job because of my sexuality. Or rather, my decision to be the person I truly was. Having been chased out, I was forced to take shelter at multi-storey carparks. With the meagre savings I had, I lived each day as it came. Needless to say, there came a point when all my savings depleted.
Like a god-sent, I met a sister from the transgender community who understood the my plight. She provided me refuge at her home. Following which, I went for several interviews and was either immediately rejected or requested to provide a more “personal service” to the employer. These experiences only made me lose hope and over time, I was broken and gave up on believing in people. Having lost everything and not being able to secure a job, I had to do something no woman would ever want to wholeheartedly – putting a price on my body for someone else’s need for cheap physical gratification.
But tell me, did I have a choice? Somehow, hunger felt a lot more real than dignity and self-respect which were not feeding me. Sandhya the sex worker was born. What happened next was a tragedy. Money that I had painstakingly saved for my sex change was stolen by a man whom I thought loved me for who I was. I had no choice but to hit the streets again. I was determined to be true to myself and I knew that would only be possible once I shed my male exterior.
Unfortunately, this also meant that I had to return to sex work. As luck would have it, I was arrested for soliciting. That just made the search for employment harder. I know of some sisters from the community who left sex work thinking that they had found true love, got married and even adopted a child. Many returned to the streets after the husbands who “loved” them had exhausted their savings. Day by day, we start distancing ourselves from trust and love. Many sisters have taken their own lives as they see theirs spiralling downwards.
Life has not been a bed of roses for my kind. It may not be your reality but it definitely is our truth. One of the best blessings we get as a transgendered person is the ability and presence of mind to appreciate the smaller things in life. The transgender community here is a close-knit one and we treasure this bond regardless of the world we live in.
I can still remember the looks on the faces of everyone present in the room as I narrated my story. They were amazed by the unity of the transgender community. Many of us had lost our biological families as we had chosen to be true to ourselves. In exchange, we had the blessings of fellow transgenders who understood the trials and tribulations of being transgender in Singapore. Like all families, we have arguments, but we never go to sleep without resolving them with hugs.
We did not choose to be born male. We did not choose the paths we were made to take. The sex industry was inevitable for our survival. Each night ended with a prayer to God to free us from the pain and disgrace that was bestowed upon us. We prayed to be accepted by society just like how the gay and lesbian communities are (more or less) embraced by mainstream culture today. We too yearn to be loved.
I would like to end with a request. Accept us as we are. Respect us as we are.
This article has been contributed by Sandhya Thomas Nathan. She was involved in the production of “AKKA – The End” (2014) and “AKKA 3” (2015) by Avant Theatre. More recently, she was featured in a promotional video for Pink Dot 2016. The team at ChutneySG would like to wish Sandhya all the best in her future endeavours.