The case for anti-discrimination legislation — from an unexpected quarter

Vanessa Ho speaking at Hong Lim Park, 24 August 2013

Vanessa Ho speaking at Hong Lim Park, 24 August 2013

Guest essay by Vanessa Ho

Foreword by Yawning Bread: As in all LGBT communities around the world, there is a tension between those who would adopt the language and styles of the mainstream to advance the cause of gay equality, and those who argue that such “progress” is meaningless unless we also help protect those who are more disenfranchised and voiceless than us. This is often oversimplified into “mainstream gays versus radical gays” — a caricature that does the complex debate a disservice. Setting aside that oversimplification, I have always wanted to have a voice for radicalism on this site, and am pleased that Vanessa has taken up my offer.

Yet, as she concludes, what appears at first as radicalism may in fact be a lot more beneficial to a wider scope of people, including those who aren’t sexual minorities.

Singapore’s LGBT community should shift away from talk about marriage equality. I am not saying that we should *not* fight for marriage equality, but that there should be a much stronger emphasis on fighting for anti-discrimination legislation. Marriage equality is great for people who believe in monogamy, who believe in the significance of marriage, and who are in monogamous long term relationships. But this is not the case for everyone. Not to mention that some within our community may not have the good fortune to meet “Mr/Mrs Right” and thus  do not get to enjoy the opportunity to get married.

In any case, the situation may be more complex than it appears.  Some within the transgender subset of LGBTs do have the right to get married — provided they are post-operative.

Lately, there have been some voices bubbling in the community talking about this, and it is time to start to amplify them. It is time to fight for our right to equal opportunity and non-discrimination; to fight for our right to be judged based on our ability and not our personal lives. It is time to end stigma, violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression; to fight for equality and liberation. Anti-discrimination practices and rules should be mainstreamed into every industry and every ministry — in education, social support services, workplaces, legal services, prisons, military, and so on.

* * * * *

I work with Project X — a group that advocates rights for sex workers in Singapore. We work primarily with Singaporean and Malaysian sex workers — who are seen as illegal — as working with other nationalities requires one to be multi-lingual, which is much harder for us. In the course of our work, we’ve noticed that many Singaporean and Malaysian sex workers are transgender women.

The transgender sex workers that Project X meets face verbal, physical, emotional and financial violence. These forms of violence are meted out by members of the public, their customers, as well as law enforcers. These forms of violence may not (or at least only rarely) be “bloody violence”, which is one of the reasons why Singapore is seldom cited in international discussion on human rights violations, but it is injurious, short-term and long-term, to the victims nonetheless.

To illustrate the dire need for a new, non-discriminatory framework, I would like to highlight one area that anti-discrimination legislation should cover, though it is one area that normally doesn’t come to mind — which is perhaps the reason why hurtful practices fester there: policing and access to justice.

Particularly tragic is the way law enforcers are part of the “system of discrimination and violence” even though they are tasked to protect the public from wrong-doers. In our work, we meet many trans women who encounter law enforcers, then get detained, screened and tested for drugs. Some get jailed. At Project X, we have recorded countless stories where trans women are sexually harassed and assaulted by law enforcers. Trans women are disproportionately targeted for “random checks” by police. We have also heard countless stories where law enforcers deny access to justice simply because of their gender identity and expression.

Here is a case that we just concluded: a trans sex worker was harassed at her block by an unknown man. She reported this man to the police. Unfortunately, in her distressed state, she exaggerated the incident by adding a false statement: she told the officer that not only did the man harass her, he also stole $50 from her. She soon regretted this mistake and voluntarily recanted this statement within the next 24 hours, but unfortunately, that was not good enough for the officer. He decided to charge her for false information (Penal Code, Section 182). He even called her using his own personal phone to threaten her saying that he will persuade the prosecution to throw her in jail for a few months. Thankfully, we managed to find a pro bono lawyer for her and reduced the punishment from a jail sentence to a $3,000 fine. All well and good, but her harasser walked free. There has been no follow up on the complaint against him.

* * * * *

When talking about transgender people and transgender sex workers, I think it is important to also highlight the concept of intersectionality. We are not made of just one identity; and oppression does not just target one aspect of our identity. One can be discriminated against because one is transgender, because one is of an ethnic minority, because one is of a certain age, and so on. In the case of transgender sex workers, they are discriminated against based not only on their gender identity and expression, but also on their chosen profession. The oppression they face is compounded.

Let me illustrate this point with a specific: There are such things as licensed brothels in Singapore, despite it being explicitly criminalized under the Women’s Charter. What this means is that there are brothels and sex workers in Singapore who are literally licensed to operate and hence are immune from police raids and criminalisation. However, pre-operative or non-operative transgender women are not allowed to be part of these brothels. Only people with an “F” (for female) on their identity cards are allowed to be in these establishments. Hence, many trans sex workers are in illegal establishments or left on the streets. While there is some benefit to being on the street over being in a brothel, the street exposes many sex workers to all sorts of bullies with no avenue for recourse.

Teasing apart the dual nature of discrimination faced by trans sex workers — Project X believes that sex work is work — allows us to see too the discrimination inflicted on transgender people who are not sex workers, who work in other industries. The latter group may not face discrimination on account of the nature of their work, but they equally face discrimination on account of their gender expression.

* * * * *

This is where I come to a question a lot of people ask me about trans sex workers: Why they are in this trade? This is my least favourite question to answer mostly because I don’t believe that there needs to be a justification — even if there is, it should be something personal and private, and not up for public scrutiny. As such, I will not give a direct answer, but rather to provide some food for thought.

What else is there left to do to survive when one is shut out of jobs, and when one’s education and family support is compromised because of one’s gender identity?

When we talk about discrimination against transgender people, we cannot simply talk about a one-off incident. Discrimination happens throughout their lives.  For some transgender sex workers — not all — this starts from their families. They might have been kicked out, or simply estranged from their families because of their gender identity and expression. Communication in the family breaks down, they don’t go home, sleep on the streets, stay at their friend’s place, and so on. Then we talk about discrimination in schools. When you lose the social support that a lot of people get from families, you also lose the “will” to be in schools. Not to mention the level of bullying because one is perceived to be different. A lot of them drop out, without even an O level or N level certificate. And we’re talking about a meritocratic society like Singapore — without such papers, you are nothing in this society; it will be extremely hard for one to get anywhere.

I would just like to put this thought out there: The sex industry provides opportunities for trans women that no other industry is able to provide. You are able to be in a community of transgender sex workers — and there are many transgender sex workers in Singapore (although it is important to stress that not all trans women are in sex work). There is a system of kinship that you see in this community. They take care of each other. They tell you what to do when you go for your sex reassignment surgery, teach you the skills you need to be on the streets, advise you where to find housing, suggest where to find employment if you want to move. It’s a social support system. The sex industry is also an opportunity for them to express their gender where no other industry allows it. Within this community, they feel free to put on make-up, clothes that they like . . .  without constantly having to explain themselves.

* * * * *

I urge Singaporeans, and the LGBT community particularly, to recognise that there is a desperate need for the decriminalisation of sex work alongside the enactment of anti-discrimination legislation. I know this is an extremely controversial thing to say in Singapore, but it is the only proven way to reduce the stigma and the resulting violence in the industry. It gives people a place to work safely. It gives people access to justice; when they go to the police, they won’t be turned away or told that they deserved whatever misfortune befell them. When they go to social services, they won’t be turned away. When they go to a job interview, they won’t have to hide 5, 10, 15 years of a gap in employment. It also gives them a legitimate place to work, with avenues for recourse when trouble ensues.

The above is why we need anti-discrimination legislation.  But let me end off by saying that when the day eventually comes — and I’m betting my eggs that it will — we will also need to push the State to enact training and sensitisation programmes. This is the future for the transgender and transgender sex worker community that I would like to see.

But although I have used the example of protecting transgender people, anti-discrimination legislation is very important for all marginalised groups: the LGBT community broadly, but also ethnic minorities, women, the disabled, seniors who want to work, etc. It’s in everyone’s interest to go for it.

pic_201309_05Project X is a group that advocates for sex workers’ rights in Singapore. We believe that sex work is a legitimate form of work, and that sex workers’ rights are human rights. We seek to end all verbal, physical, emotional, and financial violence against sex workers.


5 Responses to “The case for anti-discrimination legislation — from an unexpected quarter”

  1. 1 alan tan 5 September 2013 at 17:13

    yes, i agree that an anti-discrimination legislation is the ultimate aim for the all human right’s movement. but it’s too wide an area cause it encompass age, race, sexual orientation, disability, religion etc so i think LGBT should still focus on LGBT issue, rather then a general ‘anti-discrimination’ direction.

    • 2 Russel Tan 4 October 2013 at 04:53

      I think we should create a society where discrimination in whatever forms. is intolerable. This is of course very difficult but there must be common understanding that discrimination is wrong. Then, fighting for LGBT rights would be made easier.

  2. 3 Becca D'Bus 6 September 2013 at 00:52

    Here’s where I disagree with Alan and try very hard not to troll.
    LGBT communities are not monolithic. Among us are people of different races, abilities, religions and so forth. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem so, but I promise this is true.
    We need to be talking about a politics of coalition and cooperation, of shaking hands and building bridges, if you will. Not entirely foreign when we consider the signature Singaporean LGBT event is Pink Dot which is all about a demonstration of ally strength.
    I say all this for 3 reasons.
    1. As we work with other communities (disability groups, yellow ribbon etc etc) we are also working for LGBT folks. (That intersectionality thing…)
    2. As we show ourselves to be allies, we build the bridge for others to be allied to our cause. suddenly that 47% number starts dropping.
    3. Let’s face it, some of these causes are far lower hanging fruit. So why not create a climate of anti-discrimination with some of these easier to obtain goals?
    What we fear perhaps is that as we help others and they get their rights, and their space, they will be less allied when it comes to our struggles. And indeed, the gays to an extent have done this too, look for instance at how little we (and I mean this in the global sense of LGBT) talk about T? And who fought were among those that fought some of the fiercest battles in LGBT movements elsewhere if not trans folk? So yes, we have reason to fear, but how else do we build coalitions and cooperation?

  3. 4 Richard Lee 6 September 2013 at 07:36

    Alex, the importance of Marriage Equality in the countries where LGBT have fought for this is that .. in these countries, there are substantial tax and other financial advantages to being married .. extending to the children, adopted or otherwise.

    This is similar to what the Prophet Mohammed mandated for widows, divorced women and particularly the children including illegitimate ones.

    The West paints Islam as making women subservient but it provided safeguards and rights for women (including prostitutes) centuries before this was even discussed in the West.

    Today, in countries like Singapore, the fight for equal rights faces the same bigotry, ignorance, hatred and sheer non-Christian attitudes that the Prophet & MLK jr. faced.

  4. 5 swh 7 September 2013 at 13:24

    I agree with the idea of pursuing anti-discrimination legislature and attitudes within society – in fact I think this should be foundational compared to secondary legislature on marriage / child-adopting rights et cetera. However pertaining to the sex work industry, I find what this writer is saying problematic. If they chose this profession out of free will, then they should understand the importance of necessary legislation needed to prevent a spread of STDs, a real hazard in this industry, which is independent of sexual orientation.

    On the other hand, the writer seems to be insinuating that many are forced into this trade due to socio-economic circumstances and societal ostracism. If so, then why be so condescending to claim that you’re trying to make sex work acceptable to society on behalf of all these sex workers, transgender or not? Shouldn’t the focus of the solution be then to, yes, protect the rights of those who really want to be in this profession but more importantly, as the organisation, help individuals who do not want to be in this line of work to find / train for employment elsewhere? I’m not saying it is going to be easy but surely the solution sounds more palatable than trying to “improve” the lives of these individuals but making them stay in this line of work if they don’t want to?

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