ST: He's a woman... she's a man--Leslie Lung wrestled with sexual issues all his life.

Monday, August 25, 2003

He's a woman... she's a man--Leslie Lung wrestled with sexual issues all his life.

The ex-transsexual also sold his house and spent $200,000 to produce his own book on sexuality

by Wong Kim Hoh
There is something soft about Mr Leslie Lung. It is evident in the slight sway of his hips as he walks, and the gentle lilt in his voice. 'A lot of people who see me today will think I am effeminate,' the 39-year-old says matter-of-factly over coffee in Holland Village. 'But they should have seen me then.' Then was more than two decades ago, when he wore more than just the bangs which now frame his youthful face. He had long lustrous locks and a wardrobe full of heels, dresses and accessories. The ex-transsexual has thrown the dresses - together with a few skeletons - out of his closet.

Religion, he says, was his saviour. He has abandoned plans for a sex operation he once almost had. And although he admits to still feeling sexually attracted to men, he claims to have been celibate for the past 19 years. His road to self-acceptance has been rocky, but it culminated in a book, one which cost him two years of his life and more than $200,000 from his savings to write, produce and publish. But more about that later. Nineteen years of celibacy, I suggest as gently as I can, is a notion which beggars belief.

Mr Lung, who runs a creative consultancy company, squirms shyly in his seat and lets out a soft laugh. 'Well, I'm really not in any physical relationship with anyone,' he says. 'Chastity is a word we all hate. But I see it as being responsible to myself. I have made a choice and whether I find women or men attractive is irrelevant.' He adds, with a shrug: 'I have a support group to thank. When I get the urge, I talk about it and find resolution and move on.

Sex is so over-rated and yet, the irony is, it is so important.' He should know. He has been struggling with sexual issues all his life. He was born the only son of a pharmaceutical-company manager and a housewife. He has a 43-year-old sister who is a youth worker in Thailand. 'My Dad did a lot of travelling and I grew up deprived, not financially but emotionally,' he says.

In his mellifluously articulated English, he adds that he 'was not predisposed towards games or rough and tumble play' and was often bullied by primary-school mates for being soft. In his secondary 'all-boys missionary school, can guess which one, right?', he was often hauled up for having 'long hair and putting on make-up'. He struggled with himself and with his friends. 'I tried to be more manly, and suppressed my feelings and liking for art, dance - very narrow definitions of what makes a man - but I was miserable. I didn't feel like a man so how was I going to live as one? 'I was already considering a sex change when I was 12 or 13. My disciplinary master referred me to professional help and I actually went through all the proper channels. I saw a social worker, a psychologist; I read a lot of magazines.'

Over three years of counselling and professional diagnoses confirmed what he had long known - he was a transsexual, that is, he felt he was a woman trapped in a man's body. He did not involve his parents at first: 'They knew, I guess, but they never talked about it. They could see what was happening.' By the time he enrolled as a business administration student in a local polytechnic, he already had a closet full of dresses. He decided on the inevitable after graduation in 1984 - sex surgery.

But like a dramatic Hollywood script, he claims to have had an epiphany three days before he was due in the operating theatre - on a Good Friday, as it turned out. 'One of the key thoughts of the Bible is that a man shouldn't put on woman's clothes. I've always thought that ridiculous but suddenly I saw the principle behind the commandment. God is telling us not to do the opposite. Suddenly I knew that the operation would not be right,' he says. He decided to fulfil his national service obligations and confront his fears of more taunting and bullying face-on.

Turning Point
'I could have found a way out of NS because of my circumstances but to do so would be going against every aspect of my decision to be true to myself. I was really trying to discover who I was as a person, and gender was just part of it.' The next turning point came in 1991 when he met Mr Synclair Rogers, an American pastor who came out of transsexualism to become a husband and a father. The latter also started a ministry called Choices In Singapore to help people with sexual issues.

Mr Lung attended Mr Rogers' self-help support group. The people he met inspired him to embark on yet another tumultuous chapter in his life - to be author, producer and publisher of a book. 'The people I met wanted to talk about their sexual issues openly as they found resolution, and I thought it would be timely that such a book - frank, no-holds-barred - be written.' No publisher would touch the project so he wrote and published Freedom Of Choice, a collection of 20 true accounts of people triumphing over sexual struggles.

The project, which was published in 2000, took over seven years. It was a baptism of fire, one which saw him nearly buried under an avalanche of publishing, legal and distribution problems. He had to give up his lucrative design business to do the project full-time, and even sold his Housing Board flat in Dover Road to finance it. The exercise cost him more than $200,000 and a lot of tears: 'I was very mindful of the fact that people would say that I am exploiting people's stories to make a quick buck.' To silence these detractors, he donated all proceeds, amounting to $70,000, to three social-service agencies, from the sale of 500 hardcover copies of the book.

'People who were not gay accused me of promoting a gay lifestyle. Militant gays, on the other hand, accused me of being anti-homosexual,' he says with a sigh. 'But as the title suggests, the book is about freedom of choice. We're free to choose, and we can choose to be free from whatever constrains us. 'And if that means an alternative lifestyle for some people, then power to them,' says the author, who also gives talks on sexuality in secondary schools here.

There have been uplifting moments though. 'When I explained what I was doing to many of my clients, they rallied around me. They gave me props, made contributions, provided me with information,' says Mr Lung who has revived his agency. Its list of clients include Apple Computers, Asia Pacific Breweries and HBO Asia. Ruefully, he admits that he has sold only half of the 7,000 copies of Freedom Of Choice. The lack of publicity did not help; publications avoided reviewing it because of its controversial nature. 'I was in the PR business, I did press releases for my clients but I couldn't get any mileage for my own work. I was so frustrated,' notes Mr Lung, who lives alone in a Normanton Park apartment.

Would he do it all over again? He laughs and says: 'I hate that question because you can't know the answer. You can't live your life again.' There is a quiet dignity about him. He is obviously religious but he does not proselytise. People who do not know him, he says, 'don't know what I am all about. But we need to challenge our notions of sexuality as far as manhood or womanhood is concerned. Are women really from Venus and men from Mars?' He gives his parting shot: 'If you ask me, we're all on Planet Earth. But we are all different, we are who we are. And this is what I am.'