Entry to clubs “on the basis of … testicles”

A group of transgender women (i.e. MTF transgenders) launched a campaign called Sisters in Solidarity (SIS) with a press conference on 5 May 2010. They felt the time had come to put an end to discrimination against their community.

This move was triggered by the experience of Marla Bendini being thrown out of China One, not once, but twice. China One is a club in Clarke Quay, a nightlife district along the Singapore River.

Leona Lo, chairing the press conference, blasted the club’s unacceptable policy of humiliating transgender women and determining entry “on the basis of the presence or absence of testicles.”

Following Bendini’s complaint, Lo had communicated with China One which admitted that they had an unwritten policy to deny entry to all pre-operative transgender women. Post-operative transgender women will have to show their identity cards to prove that their sex has been changed… and even then entry is not assured.

This is just like Nazi Germany, Lo said. “My [identity card] becomes like a Star of David, which all Jews then had to wear. My own IC is used as a crude [instrument] to discriminate against me.”

Unsatisfied with China One’s reply that didn’t retract its policy, Lo then wrote to the landlord CapitaLand. In an email reply this week, the company said they had not known about it, but would investigate the matter.

* * * * *

Marla Bendini (left) is an Arts, Media and Design student at the Nanyang Technological University. She went with a friend, also a pre-operative MTF transgender, to China One one Saturday in September last year. This was not her first visit, she had been a regular there, she said.

Midway through the evening, a bouncer went up to her friend, asking her friend to tell Bendini that she (Bendini) had to leave. The bouncer clearly did not realise that the friend too was transgender.

Bendini then confronted the bouncer and insisted on speaking to the manager. She wanted to hear from the manager’s own mouth why she was being evicted. However, she agreed to speak with the manager outside the club, although by then, people were already staring. “If a bouncer comes to you and talks to you, it’s a big deal. People look.”

The manager was not pleased that he had been called. Asked whether it was his decision to evict her, he said it was. Asked for a reason, he said something to the effect of “You should know why.”

He avoided saying anything about gender, recalled Bendini, but “he then asked me to show him my identity card.”

“Why?” Bendini asked.

Again, the manager said she should know why. After more iterations of the same, he finally said, accordingly to Bendini, “Not everyone knows you’re a man.”

“If not everyone knows,” retorted Bendini, “Why is it an issue?”

And that’s the thing. As Lo pointed out, most people partying away cannot spot a transgender woman (notice, for example, neither the manager nor bouncer realised that Bendini’s friend was too), and even if they did, most people don’t care anyway. That’s their experience from going out.

There are the rude remarks they all too often find hurled at them, e.g. “Ah kua”, “bapok” or “pondan”, and they want to put a stop to that, but it isn’t as if their presence in a club, restaurant or shop would make other patrons flee.

At some point, the manager (or someone else from the club) gave the absurd reason that transgender women would harass the straight women in the club.

Transgenders are the last people who would want to do so. “And what’s the chance of straight men harassing women?” asked Lo rhetorically.

Bendini pointed out that far from being a problem for other partygoers, transgenders are at the receiving end of it. “I’m the one under threat. I have guys groping me. To say that I might be a potential problem for the club is completely ridiculous.”

* * * * *

It was deja vu on 28 April 2010 when Marla Bendini stepped into China One again, this time as member of pole-dancing group Acro Polates that had been engaged to perform at the club. However, for this night, Bendini was not scheduled to perform.

Ming, the founder, instructor and director of Acro Polates explained at the press conference that they were a close-knit group, so other members of the group would be invited to attend as guests to “cheer on” those who were performing. Bendini was among a guest list of about 20 persons that Ming submitted to the club.

The club does not dispute that she was on the guest list, said Lo.

After the first set, the bouncer once again informed Bendini she was not welcome. On being alerted about the matter, Ming got involved, telling the manager, “What’s the big deal? After the second set (which was about to start) we are [all] going anyway.”

But the manager, who was unfriendly throughout, kept referring to a “hidden rule”.

At some point, there was a heated argument between that manager and the club’s events organiser who had hired Acro Polates. As the women recalled, the manager demanded of the events organiser: “Who let her in? How can you let anyone into my club without my consent?”

The organiser was heard to reply: “She is part of the performing group. Why can’t she enter? Anyway, it’s just one night, why kick up a big fuss?”

The manager was clearly very angry, saying something about “keeping things in order.”

His sense of order appears mightily misplaced.

* * * * *

The issue, as Lo put it, citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is that “as long as you bar a transgender woman from entering your club, you are discriminating.”

Apparently, China One is not the only club in Clarke Quay with this unwritten rule, though Lo did not name the others at the press conference.

“These clubs have clearly violated our human rights,” she stressed. It is worse that they are doing it without being open about it. “If you choose to discriminate against transgender women, be brave enough to post a sign, publish [your policy] prominently on your door, so people can choose whether they want to support your club,” she added.

* * * * *

The Sisters in Solidarity campaign is not only about discrimination at party clubs. There is also systematic discrimination in the workplace.

Tricia Leong (right) told of how she was fired abruptly soon after she started transitioning. She believed that one of the two partners in the company wanted her out despite the other partner being fine with her presence. Since then – twelve years ago – she has not been able to get another steady job. She had to sell her home to survive financially.

It was only very recently that Singapore’s Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices launched a publicity campaign to get employers to hire on merit. We can see its messages all over metro stations, for example. They should be reminded to include transgender persons as a vulnerable group.

This matters to Bendini too. “Four years later, when I graduate, would I face the same kind of discrimination as Tricia?”

* * * * *

But the steepness of the uphill task was illustrated right at the press conference itself when a reporter from a mainstream newspaper asked a question that screamed “stereotype”. That question referred to the MTF sex workers, mostly foreign, operating in Changi Village.

Lo shot back: “There are more so-called straight sex workers in Geylang than transgender prostitutes in Changi. People see what they want to see.”

Indeed, it was a totally unwarranted digression. Would the same reporter, at any forum about women’s rights and gender discrimination, think it relevant to raise a question about Geylang prostitutes?

Leong gave a different response to the reporter: “One reason why there are sex workers is simply because they can’t get any other job.” Workplace discrimination is so severe, how else are they to survive?

* * * * *

The Sisters in Solidarity campaign will need to be a marathon one, considering how deep-seated prejudice is. Their first step is to organise a petition with the aim of getting 1,000 signatures. This will start this Saturday, 8 May 2010, at the Post Museum, 3 Rowell Road, off Jalan Besar.

3 Responses to “Entry to clubs “on the basis of … testicles””

  1. 1 Anonymous 6 May 2010 at 09:46

    Consider publicising this petition at Pink Dot on 15 May 2010? There should certainly be more than 1,000 people there willing to support this call for equality.

  2. 2 liew kai khiun 6 May 2010 at 15:43

    I am utterly disgusted with not just the club involved, but this whole culture of discrimination in the country, which often goes not unnoticed. The indifferent mainstream should be sensitised strongly in this matter for it will hit them in some ways in future in an ordinary night out where you will be barred from entry because of your wheelchair, or simply just your age as some “real” “older” women had found out on Ladies Night some time ago.

  3. 3 sistersinsolidarity 7 May 2010 at 13:34

    Dear Alex,

    Thank you for kind consideration and respect as to using the correct pronouns when referring to me and my fellow sister, Ms Tricia Leong, as transgender women. This comes as a rarity amongst the disheartening disrespect and indifference some local media has shown towards transgender individuals despite my plea at the press conference held on 5th May 2010. I would also like to thank you for the kind photos of me that you’ve taken and chosen to publish, unlike the media reports that conveniently took pictures off my facebook or website and published them out of context.

    Marla Bendini

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