A united community relies on independence - Transgender activist June Chua joins Peace Boat (2018)
Joining Peace Boat's 97th Asian Voyage from Port Klang, Malaysia to Singapore, award-winning Singaporean activist June Chua introduced herself to participants as "an out and proud transgender woman"-though this is only part of her identity. According to Ms Chua, it is only by being vocal and visible that transgender people will achieve recognition, acceptance, and equality. Peace Boat participants were privileged to learn about these and other principles of allyship from Ms Chua through a series of presentations and panel discussions detailing her personal experience and activism in Singapore.
In her introductory event, Ms Chua explained that she did not become a transgender woman, but was born one. She calls herself an early transitioner, meaning that her journey to find her authentic self began at a relatively young age: with gender identity awareness at age 12, the start of her transition at 15, and finally with reassignment surgery at 17. She credits her supportive family for allowing her to express her gender identity as an adolescent while continuing to receive their support. Notably, this included not only reliable care and affection but tangible provisions such as food and shelter.
Many transgender people are not as fortunate. "Often," Ms Chua told participants, "parents are their first bully." Without a safe and supportive place to live, trans individuals may be unable to complete their education, forcing them to rely on precarious employment like sex work to survive. Although sex work is decriminalized in Singapore, arrest for solicitation can result in imprisonment, making it even more difficult to find or regain stability and increasing the likelihood of drug use, mental health issues, and contracting HIV, all issues that continue to challenge and stigmatize the transgender community.
To address such concerns, Ms Chua and her late sister Alicia started the first shelter for homeless transgender people in Singapore in 2014. Called the T Project, it provides transgender men and women with free room and board, allowing them to focus on finishing their education, building a supportive community, and finding safe and sustainable employment. The site of the T Project's first shelter was donated by a local NGO, but its 2016 relocation forced Ms Chua to find her residents a new home. She collected $137,000 from private and corporate donors (the Singapore government does not provide funding for the T Project) to secure the shelter's current incarnation, larger and better-equipped than its predecessor. Now in its fourth year, the T Project operates via an advisory committee and has expanded to include a crucial body of outreach and advocacy programmes, making it easier for transgender people to live independent and authentic lives. In recognition of her advocacy work, Ms Chua was named the Singapore Advocate Awards' Promising Advocate of the Year while the T Project won AWARE's (Association of Women for Action and Research) Champion for Gender Equality and Justice Award, both in 2016.
Peace Boat participants had many questions for Ms Chua, who answered them with unwavering patience and candour. She hopes that in the future, such activism will no longer be necessary, as all individuals will be free to live as their true selves. "When you are sure of what you want and who you want to be," says Ms Chua, "you don't need a role model." In her final event onboard Peace Boat, she told her audience that questioning and challenging societal norms is not only their democratic right, but their responsibility. "Stop abiding by the rules that people write for you. Write your own set of rules," she says. "I'm just one person. I can't change the world. The collective ‘us'-we can change the world together."