June Chua is in her element when surrounded by people. She's loud and gregarious, and totally unapologetic about it. “Out and proud" is how she describes herself, and she uses it to her advantage, advocating and working for the transgender community in Singapore.
Along with her late sister, June started The T Project in 2014, a homeless shelter for transgender people in need of a safe space to get back on their feet.
Transgender Singaporeans who have undergone gender reassignment surgery are legally allowed to change their gender on their identity documents. It's a relatively progressive position that allows transgender people to get married, and be protected under legislation like the Women's Charter.
But this legal position isn't necessarily reflected by societal convention. June says that transgender people in Singapore continue to face stigma and prejudice, often from their own families.
“What the LGB community is facing is very irrelevant to what the transgender community is facing. Our needs and wants are very different," she said.
“We are fighting for survival every day, and we don't have the luxury of choosing when it's safe to come out, because our gender identity is very forefront," she says.
"For [people who transition at a young age], we are chased out by our families, we leave school early, so we don't have the necessary [qualifications], and the only industry that affirms us is the sex industry."
"I must accept myself first before
others can accept me."
The T Project
By providing accommodation and food free of charge, The T Project gives people time to deal with their struggles, and to save enough money to achieve more independence. But the work doesn't stop there; the project also offers job linking to give transgender people a wider range of options.
“It's totally fine if they want to do sex work, but there will come a point in life when they decide to leave sex work, either because sex work doesn't pay their bills any more or because they've decided it's enough," June says.
"At least they [can] come to The T Project and we can show them options they have."
June has been recognised for this important work. In August 2016, she was named Promising Advocate of the Year at the Singapore Advocacy Awards, an event put together by members of Singapore civil society to recognise the achievements of their own. In November 2016, she was named a Champion of Gender Equality and Justice by the Association of Women for Action and Research, the country's leading gender equality organisation. She was also the first trans woman to speak at the 2016 Singapore AIDS Conference, ensuring that the concerns of the transgender community were represented.
Self-confidence is key
Many might shy away from the publicity and scrutiny, but June says she's never felt worried about being such a public advocate.
“I've never shied away from identifying myself," she said. “In fact, the first time I meet new friends, I always introduce myself as a trans woman. I don't want people to guess, I always introduce myself as a trans woman. I want to get it out of the way first. I'm never shy about my gender identity. I must accept myself first before others can accept me."
But hard work and self-confidence alone cannot keep a shelter running in Singapore, where space is at a premium and costs are high.
The T Project announced last year that they were struggling financially, and in danger of losing the shelter. Originally supported by a local non-profit organisation, they had to move out of their shop-house attic space when the organisation relocated.
A crowdfunding campaign was launched to help The T Project continue. June tried to remain practical, thinking up alternatives that could keep the shelter going even if they couldn't afford to get their own space, such as seeking a new collaboration with other charities.
But to June's surprise, the campaign raised S$137,000, making contingency plans unnecessary.
“I thought I could retire already, actually. I thought at the most we would get S$5,000, S$10,000… But it really exceeded far beyond my expectations."
The money allowed June to find a new space for The T Project. According to her projections, it'll also allow the shelter to run for about two years.
New premises – new approach
The new shelter, now independent from the support of any local organisation, requires things to be done a little differently. While the previous incarnation had been a more informal arrangement, The T Project now has a five-member committee to help steer its work. Prospective shelter residents now also need to apply and go through an interview process to determine their eligibility, and are required to understand and abide by shelter rules.
There's currently just one person living in the shelter, and work is still ongoing to set things up – most of the furniture has been arranged, the kitchen set to rights and donated food neatly stacked in lockers. An electronic key card system with closed-circuit security cameras are next on the list, to ensure the space is as safe as it can be for its residents. June says they've already received a few referrals, including from the social service centres and the prison. But some people can find living in a shelter difficult to accept.
“A shelter for transgender people is still very new, so I think people are still very hesitant," she said. “One of the applicants came for an interview and we accepted her. Then after she thought about it, she called us and said she didn't want to stay in the shelter because her friends and her community said it's very 'low class' to stay in a shelter… So slowly, we'll see what we can do to change this concept."