Inside Singapore's Only Shelter For Homeless Transgender Women

The refuge keeps twelve women at a time off the streets. It's also funded entirely by donations.

by Morganna Magee
Dec 13 2016, 8:35pm

All photos by Morganna Magee

Forty-three year old activist June transitioned with the full support of her loving family when she was 17. "I became aware I was transgender during my secondary school days," says the health worker. "A group of students called me a bapok, a derogatory Malay term for trans. I felt relieved realising that was who I am, and I finally had a name for it."

Many trans women in conservative Singapore had a different experience altogether: Facing the breakdown of family ties—which disrupted their education —working the streets was one of the only ways to make cash while avoiding discrimination. Now, the same women who transitioned back in the seventies, eighties and nineties are facing an uncertain future as older sex workers.

Seeing a gap for housing support within this community, June and her late sister (who was also transgender) opened Singapore's first shelter for homeless trans women in 2014. "My late sister always told me that we are so blessed, we have to give and do more for others. That inspired me," says June.

June says the discomfort when her breasts grew was "the most beautiful feeling; my body was becoming what it was meant to be."

The shelter's first incarnation was a shop attic, with room for just three women. Version two opened in October this year, with larger facilities and room to sleep twelve people. It has been entirely funded by donations, with the Singaporean public donating money, goods and food through an online fundraising campaign that far exceeded its financial goalpost.

The money will go towards sustaining the shelter for two years, offering food and shelter to residents, who are encouraged to apply for work during their stay. They also have three-monthly reviews of their situation.

Bunkbeds at the shelter, next to the lockers that house the women's personal effects.

The generosity of Singaporean people gives June hope that for the younger generation, "the shelter will become redundant. There will come a time when nobody will need a transgender shelter anymore because they all are in charge of their lives."

Open to all transgender homeless people, she hopes to one day employ women from the community to oversee the daily running of the shelter.

Toiletries donated to the shelter by the public.

Singapore has historically had an inclusive approach to its small but vibrant Transgender community. In the 1950s, the flamboyant "Asian Queens" would give impromptu performances for tourists, and Asia's first gender reassignment surgery took place in Singapore, in 1971. More than 500 surgeries were undertaken in the 20 years that followed, until the fear of AIDS lead to government pressure to restrict them.

Read more: The Trans Lawyer Fighting to Keep His Community Alive

Under conservative rule, attitudes to sex and sexuality remain deeply conservative. But Singapore is also a country of contrasts: Sex outside of wedlock is frowned upon, but prostitution is a legal profession for female citizens. Operating out of brothels, the industry is heavily policed and regulated, with monthly health checks.

The shelter's living area.

June rejects the idea that trans women are always in distress. "Everyone has their ups and downs in life, and as a trans woman, I have my fair share," she says. "But my challenges are not more than the general public's, just different. I have always embraced myself and love myself too much to let anything get to me for more than a day."

Working at a women's healthcare centre, her pragmatic attitude extends to the industry so many trans women in Singapore turn to. "Sex work is work," she says. "It's the only industry that doesn't question our gender identity and we do sex work to survive, not to affirm our gender identity. Sex work has empowered my community to be able to live a life that they choose and not have to conform to what society dictates—what we should do, or how we should change."

June at home, shaving her legs.

Above all, June wants transgender women to experience the same confidence and self-love she has. "The greatest gift you can give yourself is to be able to be the true, authentic you. I have been able to wake up every day as me, and fall in love with myself every day," she says.

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"This feeling is simply magical, and despite the discrimination I [have faced] as a trans woman, I am still counting my various blessings I have in life. If you see my gender identity, you will only see limitations. But if you see me as a person first, you will see endless possibilities and capabilities."

June's apartment, filled with Asian pop art. Like 80 percent of Singaporeans, she lives in a government-supplied HDB flat (Housing Development Board).

The sitting room of the new shelter. The address of the building remains anonymous for safety concerns.

The new shelter is slowly being decorated with the same Asian pop Art June favours in her home. On the wall hangs a photo of June and her late sister, Irene.

An urn containing the ashes of June's sister, Irene, who was also transgender. She passed away last year.