Transgender Singaporean activist, June Chua, gets real with Passport about life as an LGBTQ person in an ever-evolving Singapore.
Settling into a cozy loveseat at The Alicia Community Center, chatting with Miss June Chua feels like catching up with an old friend. We squeal about our mutual love of Ali Wong and her latest Netflix special, and cackle over our shared desire to be her best friend, no, to date her, no, to be her! I admit that I’m nervous to meet June, and she giggles. After all, June gets interviewed quite a bit. She’s an icon in the LGBTQIA+ community in Singapore, a hero, a boss, and a friend to many. June’s special phrase is typically an iteration of “have a fairytale life,” and for many in the transgender community, June’s tireless work has directly helped them achieve theirs.
What started as a passion project to offer direct aid to friends in the sex worker community, June founded The T Project in 2014, Singapore’s first housing service NGO for transgender folks experiencing homelessness. To date, it is also the only social service program in the country that caters to transwomen as well as transgender people living with HIV.
June’s background as a sex worker is what she attributes to finding her purpose. She admits that in the beginning, she was clueless. “When I first started, I was very naive…then we snowballed and The T Project started to grow. Someone asked me, “June, do a Powerpoint. I said, “Where to buy that?!” She giggles. “I liked sex work because it taught me all of these things: prudence, discipline, financial independence. With all the cash flow, I bought my house and property, then I can start my NGO.”
Like any transition, things don’t always go so smoothly. Our hero recalls encountering pitfalls in her 19-year sex work career. “I got depressive…and I remember asking myself if I’ll continue to do sex work or not. Really. Am I going to continue doing this? And that time I thought, I must reinvent myself.” She recalls combatting those struggles by visiting new countries with her friends during the spring. She jokes about her skills in compartmentalizing, even in friendships. “I got my travel friends, all cis. I don’t know why I got more cis friends than trans friends!” She laughs. “And I’m still friends with my teenage friends, 30 years! Got travel friends, got sex work friends, got mahjong friends, very compartmentalized.”
Her depressive episodes were soon met with anxiety about future stability and aging out of the industry. June recalls, “I kept thinking, what’s next? Already got a limited edition Louis Vuitton bag! I kept reinventing myself, looking for finding purpose. I reached a point where I got an anxiety attack, whenever I go to sex work, even walking five minutes, I still sweat!” She would count down the minutes until she’d have to go to work, and that’s when she finally accepted that the anxiety was becoming too difficult to manage. She reminisces for a minute, “It became very scary for me. So when someone offered me a job, I left sex work.”
June found an opportunity to work as a volunteer coordinator at a drop-in center for sex workers and stayed there for five years. In that time, she found her purpose when she witnessed firsthand the huge lack of available transgender services at LGBT events. She felt engaged and inspired to do something about the fact that for the past 50 years, Singapore has had zero social service programs for transgendered youth and adults. Until now.
So, why a shelter? She says, “In a parallel universe, maybe I made wrong decisions. So maybe I need shelter. I may be homeless. That’s why I start there. They say ‘you got so much empathy.’ I didn’t know what this was called, but that’s why I always tell people: what if my life was worse? Maybe in the parallel universe, I may need a shelter.”
She jokes about the slow-paced progression, but it works for her. She says it best, summed up with ubiquitous acronyms, “I not very “KPI”, I not very “SOP” one. Because to me, it’s not SOP (standard operating procedure), it’s the people. What’s my KPI (key performance indicator)? That’s one person who can live their fairytale life—that’s my KPI. I reached my KPI the first day someone stay in my shelter.” She pauses for a minute in ponderance, then cackles loudly. “Make sure I sound intelligent, okay?”
The sentiment of “stronger together” is embedded in the very fabric of Singaporean activist work. With other active local initiatives like Pink Dot (an annual event supporting LGBTQ Singaporeans and their freedom to love), AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research, Singapore’s leading gender equality group dedicated to removing gender-based barriers), and OogaChaga (a community-based organization focused on affirming LGBTQ individuals, couples, and families), where does The T Project fit in?
For June, activism is less about biting off more than you can chew and more about taking small bites. She says, “People always ask me, how to change the mindset of society? I’m not here to change [everyone’s] mindset, I’m here to change the mindset of one person. One person will have a best friend. That one person would have one colleague. It’s a society made up of individuals. So I want to change one purpose, one individual mindset, one person at a time.”
“They say, June, you should do more, T Project should do more. If you think that I should do more, then please go and start your X Project, your W Project, lah!”. (“Lah” is an iconic and pragmatic Singlish colloquialism to add emphasis or exasperation to statements, similar to the Canadian “eh”.) June takes a sip from her water bottle as she settles into her chair. In June’s world, she’s always thinking of how to actively stave off any potential harm to her employees and volunteers. Collaboration and partnerships with local LGBTQ organizers as well as cisgender mainstream organizations have been important in bringing awareness of The T Project to Singaporean society at large, and she’ll typically be the first to check the cis-nonsense at the door.
She explains, “I went to a family service center once to give talks; it’s a very disappointing one, lah. I love collaboration but I always tell people, T Project is a trans-led, trans-focused, trans-specific organization. So many spaces that a trans person may enter are cis-led, surrounded by cis-gendered people…and they feel so isolated. Also, I go a step further; I want them involved in a decision-making position. When I started, a lot of people told me what to do. A lot of cis, good-intentioned people told me, you should do this or that, but I stick to my gut.”
Her instincts have not led her this far for no reason. From the beginning, June trusted her gut, finding issues with the “cis-tem”. She recalls a few government-sponsored workshops (specifically for sex workers) that she attended, and expressed her vehement disappointment. “I don’t know why sex worker workshops must be resume writing and financial literacy…so by default, because we are sex workers, we do not handle our finance? If you are working in a bank, do you have financial literacy for bankers? No, riiiight?” She draws out the last syllable like she’s about to spill the tea.
“In my mind, I knew something was wrong with that. Then the second thing I notice; why are cisgender people teaching the transgender community to do this, do that? So I think, I can do better. I know more because I went through all this. Telling sex workers what to do…I feel very angry. You never asked what I want, you all think, then do the things you think we want, and then we happily go, because…my community is so clueless.”
The harm comes two-fold at another workshop, this time featuring a hapless insurance agent. “Knowing we are trans sex workers, they come only with all the saving policies. They say we must save X amount per month, per year. But as a sex worker, you don’t know if this month you’ll earn $500 or $500,000. So if you want us to have a fixed account, how? Some of us don’t even have a bank. At the time, trans people could not get insurance at the hospital. So they only think of savings for us. They already preplan. They stereotype us already. They don’t even ask us first what we need. I say, “How? You know we are sex workers, what if we are injured? We can transfer money every month, but what if we cannot come in? If we have to go to jail, then how does a savings policy help us, ah?”
Mid-rant, she sighs and adjusts her bangs. “So, you know, being me, I ask all these difficult questions. Because I know, this is not serving me. So I think I irritate them.” These experiences solidified June’s resolve and determination to get help to the people who needed it the most.
“I want concrete aid. People tell me to fight for my rights, ah, I don’t have that patience. She laughs and leans back in her chair. “I really applaud the academic ones, lah. But I’m helping the really falling-through-the-cracks one. What good is policy if there’s nobody to benefit? Let me feed and house the ones that are going to benefit from that policy.”
As a pragmatist, she feels blessed to have had this journey from sex worker to founder of The T Project, and therefore it’s only right to spread the blessings around. What started as a hopeful initiative has now grown to include a crew of staff, volunteers, and donors, but there are still many pages left in June’s fairytale. Her signature boundless energy has had its limits as of late, and with everything going on, her version of self-care involves more detective novels, collecting artwork, indulging in sea salt chips, and keeping a tidy house.
In the same vein of self-preservation, June holds a lot of hope for future generations. She has faith that finding solutions today to combat the issues in the Singaporean transgender community will yield an ambitious Executive Director who will rise up to tomorrow’s challenges. She has confidence that the shelter will eventually work itself into redundancy, and hopes for more counseling services to be made available to the community at large.
With everything under her belt, and a bright future for The T Project, June will be the first to modestly deny the “hero” title that so many have given her, and rather admit that she’s already living her fairytale life. She admits that she wouldn’t say no to a rich, older “Prince Charming” sweeping her off her feet and somewhere overseas, though. We have no doubt it’ll happen for this proactive and industrious advocate!