Meet 21 year old Singaporean Alexander Teh… the man behind one of Singapore’s largest trans social groups!
It was a spritely Sunday afternoon when I first spotted Alex seated outside a Starbucks outlet. At first glance, Alex seems like any other heavily caffeinated student using the coffeeshop as a study space. But Alex is not your typical millennial.
The struggles that Alex faced due to his gender identity and sexuality spurred him on to help others in his shoes. And he’s been doing it through Trans* It! – a trans centric program under The Purple Alliance that has now grown to become one of Singapore’s largest trans social groups.
But before he became the coordinator of one of Singapore’s most prolific trans groups, Alex too was once a gay trans youth struggling with his identity…
From the age of 4, Alex was already keenly aware of the fact that he was trapped in the wrong body.
Many people have commented that that’s a very young age for self-discovery, but I know of many other trans people who realised it at around that time as well.
I guess that’s the age where children begin to understand the concept of gender.
Over the next few years, Alex rebelled against his biological gender. When made to line up in primary school, Alex would always try to sneak into the boy’s line. When teachers called for strong male volunteers to help out with manual labour, Alex would always enthusiastically raise his hand.
But as much as he tried, there were some gender norms that he couldn’t get out of.
I never felt great about being made to wear the ‘girl’ uniform.
Things got worse when I was a choirboy in secondary school and had to wear a gown during performances. A GOWN, of all things.
Since we didn’t have the chance to choose whichever uniform we were more comfortable in, I had to suffer in silence.
When puberty hit, Alex’s struggle with himself compounded.
Before puberty, Alex was attracted to women because he felt like he had an obligation to like women. But after puberty hit, he found himself checking out men instead.
I thought that the defining factor for determining someone’s gender was based on which gender you were attracted to. I didn’t know boys could like boys too.
So I wasn’t happy with the revelation. It just made me more confused.
During his secondary school years, Alex tried his hand at becoming a girl despite knowing deep down that it didn’t feel right. Having never learnt the distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation, Alex’s confusion led him to believe that maybe he was a girl after all due to his attraction to men.
There was no mention of even the existence of LGBTQ+ people during class, let alone information on how one could go about discovering their gender identity and sexuality.
Growing up, I didn’t even know of the existence of the word ‘transgender’.
It was only when Alex turned 16 that he found out about the T in LGBT. The turning point came when Alex met another trans man at his workplace.
One day when we were texting, he told me he was transgender and started telling me his story.
I felt like his story was very similar to mine. I went to do some research and learnt the distinction between gender identity and sexuality.
Thereafter, Alex became determined to start socially transitioning to let everyone see the man he always knew he innately was. He started coming out to all of his friends, with the most memorable incident happening during a presentation in his first year of polytechnic.
I gave a presentation on the topic of LGBT for a General Education module and told the entire class I was trans.
There was a deadly awkward silence in the whole class after my coming out lol.
While his friends readily accepted Alex as a gay trans man, coming out to his family unfortunately, wasn’t quite as easy.
Alex came out to his parents by handing them a pamphlet from Oogachaga – Singapore’s only community based LGBTQ counselling centre. Although his parents didn’t get dramatic when Alex explained to them what it all meant, they still had trouble accepting it.
My dad thought that it was just lesbianism.
When I told him that I liked boys, he thought that it was a bit contradictory.
It took Alex a while to explain the distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation to his parents. And when they finally understood, they still maintained that Alex was too young and that it might all just be a phase.
My parents kept telling me that I was too young, that I have a lot of discovery and exploring to do.
I know that they have a lot more experience than me but at that age, I am sure they were clear about their gender identities.
As a result, Alex was unable to undergo HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) as he needed parental consent since he was still legally underage.
Despite his personal setback, Alex decided to focus his energy on helping other trans people.
Alex’s foray into the local activist scene began when a member of LGBTQ community group The Purple Alliance added Alex on Facebook because he thought Alex was cute. The pair struck up an offline friendship and not long after, Trans* It! was born.
Trans* It! started off as a support group for trans people, and held its first meeting in January 2014. Over time, Trans* It! evolved into a social group where members would meet up every month in an informal setting.
There is no structure in the gatherings. It’s very informal.
We just meet up to eat and get fat together.
Trans* It! currently boasts over 25 members, making them the largest public trans social group in Singapore. Members range from as young as 19 to people in their thirties. Not just exclusively for trans men and women, there are also quite a few non-binary people in the group as well.
Now that Alex has finally turned 21, he is currently undergoing HRT and documenting his transition on his YouTube channel. He also has plans to fly to Bangkok soon for a top surgery.
An aspiring psychologist, his hobbies include reading, cycling and…dancing when nobody’s watching. Currently single and available, Alex candidly lets on that he has a soft spot for Indian men.
I can wiggle my ears, give great hugs and make fantastic Milo (who doesn’t want that in a boyfriend?)
Alex has very kindly taken time out of his busy schedule to answer our Q&A so read on to find out more about how life as a gay trans man in Singapore is like!
1. How was your first coming out experience like?
The first friend I told didn’t have much of a reaction. She was just like ‘Oh cool’ lol.
2. What were some of the difficulties you faced being transgender in Singapore?
When I was fresh out of the closet, I didn’t feel safe enough going to use the men’s bathroom, so I continued using the women’s bathroom for a while.
The problem with that was that I kept getting told by women that I was in the wrong bathroom Not feeling like I was able to ‘pass’ enough to use the men’s bathroom was a trying time for me, so I remember just avoiding bathrooms for a long time.
The lack of awareness of issues pertaining to transgender people face have also been a source of distress. I had to endure some of my cis gay male friends talking about how vaginas are repulsive and I’m just like… honey, trans man here with a vagina.
While my anatomy doesn’t define me, it still hurts to hear insensitive remarks like that.
3. How did your family respond to your gender identity and sexuality?
I came out to my younger sisters first, four years go. They were 12 at the time, and they were really cool about it. My brother… not so much.
I came out to my parents a couple of months after that, just before I turned 17. They didn’t respond too well either. They tried to pass it off as me going through a phase, or me just being a lesbian (HAHA I’m actually a gay man).
My dad’s still not that crazy about me transitioning, but my mum is coming around. Better late than never, I guess!
4. How has the reaction from the straight and gay communities been like?
I find that straight people are more willing to listen because it’s unfamiliar to them.
Gay men can be more judgemental. Some of them are very narrow minded. Many men I’ve encountered, especially online, think that if you don’t have a penis, you are not a man.
5. What has been the greatest reward in running Trans* It!?
The greatest reward is knowing that the participants have forged relationships with each other, and that the group has played a part in expanding their circle of support
6. What has been the greatest challenge in running Trans* It!?
The greatest challenge would have to be the constant questioning of whether I’m doing as good a job as I can, and if i’m doing anything damaging.
To me, working with people is always challenging, especially when it comes to working with people from marginalised communities. Even though I’m part of the trans* community, I am aware of how every trans* person has different experiences and I need to constantly remind myself of this, so that I don’t intentionally hurt anyone who joins the group, and I reduce the likelihood of unintentionally doing so
7. What do you think is the biggest misconception straight people have about the trans community?
I think one of the biggest misconceptions that straight and queer people have is that all transgender people want surgery, and I’m here to tell you that that’s not true.
While there are many people who identify under the transgender umbrella (whether they are trans women, trans men, genderqueer, non-binary or agender etc) who need HRT and surgery in order to match their physical self with how they identify, many others don’t see the need for it.
This isn’t to say that trans people who want to transition medically are less confident than trans people who don’t – it’s just that everyone functions differently and nobody has the right to say who is not “trans enough”, and who is.
8. What advice do you have for other trans people living in Singapore?
We still have a long way to go in terms of getting accessible and proper healthcare, and things like looking for jobs can be tough as well, but as cliché as it sounds, things will get better.
As it is, the local community is so small, but we can use this to our advantage! What we need now more than ever is for everyone in our community to come together and to be there for each other.
Once we do this, the haters won’t be able to bring us down (both figuratively and literally, because we can form a wall and body-bump them out).
Keep being strong and keep being you!
Once again, Dear Straight People would like to thank Alexander Teh for sharing his story with us.
You might also like to read: