TODAY: A web beacon for transgenders (May 28, 2007)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A web beacon for transgenders

A project coordinator by day, he uses his net-savvy skills at night to reach out to an unlikely group

Monday . May 28, 2007

Cheow Xin Yi and Esther Fung

A sword-wielding wushu (martial arts) enthusiast who is also a father of two, Daniel is not someone you would readily associate with the transgender community.

So when the assistant manager of a construction firm decided to start a local web portal for the group two years ago, he was - not surprisingly - inundated with questions from those around him.

"Many people ask me for a reason. You can say it's sympathy or empathy, I seriously do not know. It's like asking, 'Why would you make a donation or do charity?'" he said.

Daniel met his first transsexual friend online more than 10 years ago during the early era of IRC (Internet Relay Chat), who "showed him what it was like to be a 'sister'," a local lingo for male-to-female transsexuals.

As he befriended more through the net, he started toying with the idea of forming an online support group for the transgendered, which consists of transsexuals, or those who wish to become members of the opposite gender, and cross-dressers.

"The focus is on the net-savvy ones. They are generally young, clueless about life, with no one to turn to besides surfing the web for information, " he said.

Garnering previous experience with hosting websites for the wushu community, Daniel finally set up SgButterfly. org in 2005, a website dedicated to the transgender community in Singapore.

While it focuses on transgender issues, anyone - including non-transgender people - can participate in discussion forums or register as SgButterfly members.

The open nature of the portal is deliberate, said Daniel, since a big objective of SgButterfly is to create awareness of a group prone to misconceptions.

"The idea is to educate people with proper information on issues like transgenderism and Gender Identity Disorder (GID)," he said.

GID is a psychiatric condition commonly associated with transsexuals.

Fully aware of the sensitivity of the topic, Daniel, however, stressed that education in this sense does not mean advocating a lifestyle.

"In life, nothing is 'the right way'. Information and discussions within the portal is to bring knowledge to all, but the decision to accept is really up to individuals, " said the 35-year-old, who takes pains to make sure that his website keeps within Media Development Authority guidelines.

Acknowledging that gaining public understanding for the group does not come overnight, Daniel is happy meanwhile with the progress that SgButterfly has made in uniting the community.

It currently has more than 900 members, monthly hits of 600,000 and 200,000 page views, a result Daniel considers "very successful for a local portal catering to a niche group".

Besides online activities, Daniel also organises monthly outings to further reach out to members.

But maintaining the website is no easy task. Besides the hours spent every night (four hours initially) to generate discussion and build up member base, Daniel has had to fend off online intruders who harassed members or solicited openly and privately.

To enforce tight measures for the website's non-soliciting policy, Daniel has eight moderators monitoring the forums everyday, removing and banning participants who break the rules spelt clearly on the website.

And of course, there were the raised eyebrows about his liaison with the community.

While his wife and parents approve of his SgButterfly activities, his wife has requested that his face not be identified for this article, for fear of a public backlash.

But Daniel is amazingly upfront with what he is doing - even his superiors at work know about his "interest". In fact, some SgButterfly members have visited Daniel - who stays in a four-room flat in Teck Whye with his wife - for Chinese New Year.

"I talk to lots of my colleagues about SgButterfly and its members. Many actually want to know more about my movement out of curiosity. They don't object, but neither do they openly accept it."