TNP: Poser of 'Third Gender' (Jul 30)

Monday, July 30, 2007

Poser of 'Third Gender'


S'porean transsexual mulls over tough question FOR years, Ms Leono Lo knew it was not going to be easy. Asking to be accepted on a personal and human level is in sync with Singapore's vision of an all-inclusive society. But somehow things are different for a sex-change individual.

By Ng Wan Ching

30 July 2007

FOR years, Ms Leono Lo knew it was not going to be easy. Asking to be accepted on a personal and human level is in sync with Singapore's vision of an all-inclusive society. But somehow things are different for a sex-change individual.

The gay debate might have had some airing but what about the Third Gender? Transsexuals cause discomfort because they challenge conventional notions of male and female bodies.

Part man and part woman.

Fear of the unfamiliar spawns fear of such fringe groups and their lifestyles multiplying. Will it destabilise the traditional structure of family here?

Ms Leono Lo is aware of social prejudices and has no antidote to offer.

So she's doing the only thing she can think of - opening up and telling her story so others might see her as a human being.

Ms Lo had known something was different about her since she was 12years old and went by the name Leonard.

She knew she was not a homosexual.

But what was she then?

At 15, she chanced upon a book at the Jurong East Community Library called Cries From Within, co-written by the late Professor SSRatnam who performed Asia's first sexual re-assignment surgery here in 1971.

Said Ms Lo, 32: 'Every word in that book made sense to me. Finally, I had the words to describe how I felt. I read it from start to finish in one sitting.'

Today, she has not only written a book chronicling the stories of 13 transsexuals, My Sisters, Their Stories, but also her autobiography.


The book, From Leonard To Leona, details incidents which marked her journey from manhood to womanhood.

It is published by Select Books and will be out in the first week of September.

She started giving talks this year to help others understand.

'I do this so others may feel that they can live openly too,' MsLo said in an interview with The New Paper on Sunday.

She strikes you as just another woman, from the top of her coiffed head to her slinky outfits, attitude, outlook and slingback heels.

Her life took a turn at 21, while at university in the UK. She threw all caution to the wind and flew to Bangkok alone for the gender-changing operation which turned her physically into the woman she knew she had always been inside.

Her parents had no idea that she was going to have the operation.

Said Ms Lo: 'I was born a woman in a man's body. I only realised something was not right when I discovered I liked boys. But not as a gay man. I liked boys and I wanted them to like me as a woman.'

The realisation of her situation drove her to a desperate suicide attempt when she was serving national service. It was only then that her parents found out.

As an only son, she found that the situation was particularly difficult, and for her parents as well.

They hired an exorcist and monks. She was made to drink 'holy' ashes and pray at the temple.

'It took them two years to accept me for who I am. Now, my mother and I have a normal mother-daughter relationship where we discuss lipsticks and such,' she said.

During national service, the army downgraded her to a clerical position.

But she still had to serve out the 21/2years.

'It was difficult. It helped that I had a boyfriend who was very understanding. We had an innocent relationship - no sex, just holding hands and being together,' she said.

They later separated amicably.


After finishing her studies in Catholic High and Hwa Chong Junior College, she went to the University of York in the UK to study for a degree in English and literature.

'My parents supported me,' she said.

But in her first year in the UK, she decided she could not live as a man anymore and flew to Bangkok for her sex-change operation.

'I had researched the subject, spoken to the doctor and decided I had to get it done,' she said.

She used the tuition money that her parents had sent her for the air ticket and surgery fees.

'My parents were upset, of course, when they found out. But, ultimately, they forgave me and topped up my tuition money,' said MsLo.

When she flew back to the UK after her operation, she went immediately to see a lawyer to change her name by deed poll.

Then she wanted to change her passport to reflect her new gender status.

'But when I went to the Singapore High Commission to do that, they told me it could not be done without changing my identity card first,' she said.

She had to wait until she next returned to Singapore to get her passport updated.

She does not hide her status from anyone, including the men she dates.

Her employers were wonderful.

Ms Lo started work at the Health Promotion Board (HPB).

Then she joined Hill and Knowlton.

When they promoted her, she decided it was time to quit and start her own business.

'I wanted to be able to speak freely as a transsexual and didn't want that to conflict with my work or compromise my employers,' she said.

That was about three years ago. Today, her public relations company, Talk Sense, which concentrates on healthcare communications, has grown and she is looking to hire people.

Among her clients are HPB and Bayer Schering, a pharmaceutical company.

Apart from her books, MsLo also started a series of talks this year.

Titled 'Dare to be me - breaking free of the culture of shame. A Singapore transsexual woman speaks', the hour-long talk aims to shatter the 'culture of shame' surrounding transsexuals in Singapore.

She has given the talk twice, once at a friend's art gallery and another time to sociology students at the Nanyang Technological University.


She also plans to conduct the talk at various Singapore workplaces to raise awareness of transsexualism and gender transitioning in the workplace.

These talks will be conducted for free monthly.

She said: 'Compared to others in the region, transsexual women here are considered lucky in that we are granted legal recognition in our new gender.

'However, this is only the beginning of a journey that is fraught with difficulties because of the 'culture of shame' that still prevents many of us from moving ahead in life and fulfilling our dreams and ambitions.'