The invisible lives of Singapore’s Muslim transgenders

“I know I did wrong,” said Sherry from Project X, a community based organization aiming to empower sex workers of all sexual orientation and gender identity. Sherry identifies as Muslim and transgender. When she was younger, her family and friends told her wearing girl’s clothes is wrong and tried to change her mind. 

“But I made my own decisions”, said Sherry, “and if I keep on letting it affect me, I wouldn’t get anywhere.” 

In 2014 a group of Muslims started a campaign called Wearwhite to protest against PinkDot, an event started in 2009 in support of the LGBT community. The Wearwhite campaign has since been taken over by a Christian pastor. 

“Religious groups are not accepting us,” Maya, a Muslim transgender woman, told us. “They use religion to control what they want to control. It will take a very long time for religious groups to be tolerance of the LGBT community.”

Maya said Wearwhite contradicts religious teachings by doing something out of hatred and disgust. She said Muslims are taught to be accepting of everyone and respect each other. 

“There are so many Muslim transgender out there who are still good people. It is just that our gender identity is different.”

Nicole Hussin, a make-up artist who also identifies as Muslim and transgender, expressed that Islam teaches to instill love, forgiveness and mercy. Nicole’s brother hasn’t spoken to her in six years since she decided to change and her father wishes she would die. 

“In Islam, trans people should be respected the same way other humans are respected,” she said, “these people are just being difficult and they will never conform to anything we say.”

Joe Wong, Program Manager at Asia Pacific Transgender Network (APTN) and a transgender man, said much of the tension towards the transgender community comes from the unfamiliarity and media portrayal. He added that laws in Singapore do not exist to protect the rights of minorities.

“Advocates and activists are not seeking special rights but making sure it is understood that trans rights are also human rights,” Joe said. Joe said people are born Muslim and leaving their religion is not an option; the challenge remains with larger society acceptance. 

Although neighbouring Indonesia has opened the world’s first transgender mosque, Singapore is yet to provide a safe place for Muslim transgenders to pray. A Free Community Church exists to welcome the Christian LGBT community but it does not offer specific services to Muslim transgender. The Humanist Society welcomes all who wish to attend their events but they don’t enquire about their level of personal faith. 

“Unfortunately we are not currently aware of whether there exists an organised place of worship for persons identifying as Muslim and LGBTQ+,” said the Humanist Society. 

Muslim transgenders face many challenges in their day-to-day lives. Most refrain from attending mosque for fear of discrimination and the problem of whether to attend the male or female section. What happens to Muslim transgender after they die is a consistent concern. Many worry that it will be difficult to arrange a funeral service. 

Mohammed Imran, founder of Leftwrite Centre, a platform for forums on topics such as race relations and free speech, is optimistic about the visibility of Muslim transgenders. Imran said religious opinions evolve but the process depends on information and communication with the community.

However he agreed that the law is one thing and the community must work together to erase negative prejudices. The Muslim community acknowledges that Muslim transgenders exist but there is no attempt to link up to the wider society. 

Imran started an informal network in 2014 after being approached by two Youtubers who were ambassadors of PinkDot. They were receiving a lot of criticism from the conservative Muslim public for their participation in PinkDot. After meeting Munah and Hirzi, Imran realised they were disconnected from Malay-Muslim community so Imran decided to bring together various support groups to channel resources and help. 

“The problem in Singapore is the lack of interaction between communities,” Imran said, “support groups exist on their own without interaction.”

A range of people attended the initial meeting, including Mufaridah, a Malay lesbian support group, and Jejaka, a gay Malay support group for youths. The informal network has had three meetings so far and the meetings involve sharing tips on dealing with LGBT youths and sharing personal stories and resources.

“In one breakthrough session, I managed to get a well-respected religious leader to attend and hear their stories,” Imran said, adding that he personally said to Imran that it was a transformative experience for him and he can now empathise better with the issue beyond the noise in public discourse.

“Knowing where to channel help and support is the main objective of the network and I think we had established some good relations and contacts on this,” Imran said. 

Although the Muslim transgender community is yet to be represented as part of the informal network, the meetings are a step forward in changing the conflict between religion and gender identity. Imran is now looking to see how the Muslim transgender community can be part of the network. 

“The conservative voice will always be louder,” he told us, “Indonesia and Malaysia’s problems will have an impact on Singapore and empower conservative voices.”


 

Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

Reporting by Nicole Nee and Imogen Braddick. Writing by Imogen Braddick.