Teri Tan – being trans in Singapore
“Little man”, “ small boy” and their personal favourite, “daddy bankerboi”, are just some of the terms Teri Tan identifies with – not the usual phrases you’d expect a 28-year-old to want to relate with. But then again, Teri isn’t your average Singaporean.
After chancing upon Teri’s Instagram post and being inspired by their honesty, I was glad to finally meet Teri – our meeting twice postponed due to their erratic work hours and unforeseen Covid-19 measures.
With faint background sounds of birds chirping and children laughing by their condo pool, Teri shares with me their journey, from escaping overseas to living their truth today.
Establishing pronoun preferences
Today’s progressive society means being brave and open about the pronouns one identifies with – Instagram even allowing a function to add it to your IG bio – so it was important I established the preferred way to address Teri.
“I don’t really care actually. “She” or “He” is okay. I’m also okay with “They/Them”. I don’t really have a preference because I feel as long as it’s used respectfully it’s okay. But it’s also quite fun to see what aunties outside use [on me], so I think it’s a game.”
“My pronouns are “lazy lah”, they joke.
She or He? To Teri, it doesn’t matter.
But Teri wasn’t always this confident and self-assured. At 17, they developed an interest in gender identity, “the worst time because it was right before ‘A’ Levels, according to Teri. “I thought that I was just like, LGBTQ, queer or lesbian – the usual identities.”
“It was only when I went to New York that I learnt more about gender identity and questioned whether I was trans – but at the same time I didn’t want to be a man.” Contrary to belief, the natural assumption that most people have is that “trans” = binary (male to female or female to male), when in reality, it isn’t the case – identities such as non-confirming, non-binary and gender queer all exist too.
Discovering their identity in a foreign country
Unsure of who they were and fresh out of college, Teri knew that they needed to escape overseas in order to progress not just professionally, but personally as well. An admission to the business school in NYU and hesitant approval from their mother later, Teri was off to a concrete jungle where dreams are made of.
There, Teri could finally be true to themselves. “When it came to being “queer”, I was broadly accepted. I also specifically went to seek out spaces that was queer, where I would be accepted. I joined all the queer groups.”
But the cultural difference meant that Teri would still feel out of place at times. “I would sometimes feel like I wasn’t queer “enough” for [a group of friends]. I wasn’t super woke and involved in activism. They were still new concepts to me”, Teri shared.
Teri with their volunteering organisation teammates in New York, where they’re currently based
What made things even more challenging? Teri’s relationship with their mom. While New York presented freedom and a world of possibilities for Teri, video calls back home served as reminders of the reality that familial approval and acceptance were nowhere near close.
“When I first cut my hair short in New York, I shaved everything on the sides. For the longest time I didn’t want to video call my mother, but one time we did and she couldn’t stop scolding me. Every time I came back to Singapore twice a year, we would always have a conversation about being queer and would end up crying”, Teri lets on.
Teri and their mom during Chinese New Year
Contrary to a pivotal coming out moment we see on TV shows, Teri’s coming out to their mom is a continuous process – that leads to repeated disapproval. But through that resistance is where Teri has found self-assurance.
“I’m at the point where I’m quite secure and I know who I am that I don’t need her approval anymore. I know I’m never going to get [approval] so like, whatever lor, I will just do what I want.”
Navigating bathrooms and explaining gender identity to kids
Although the LGBTQ+ community has made tremendous strides and gained greater acknowledgement today, acceptance in society is a different story.
Teri recounts to me how airport security staff would get confused when communicating with them, realising they weren’t male upon hearing Teri’s higher pitched voice. And when it comes to public bathrooms, safety becomes a factor – something many of us don’t even consider.
“I think it’s safer for me to go to a men’s bathroom in New York, to have less eyes on me. Whereas in Singapore, either way is kind of weird. I think part of it is due to my race in New York. In New York, they see me as a small Asian boy, whereas here in Singapore, people have seen enough older queers that I’m mapped to that”, Teri explains.
“I prefer to go to the women’s bathroom in Singapore. If an aunty stares and confronts me, at least I can use the normative standard to explain”.
Teri celebrating Pride in San Francisco
It’s tricky enough explaining being gay or lesbian to kids who may ask about appearances or partners, but what about topics like being trans and gender identity?
Teri shared their insight. “There was a kid by the swimming pool the other day asking his father if I was a boy or a girl and I just smiled. I would love to be like “does it matter?” or “can I be both?” and make it a playful moment. At the end of the day, the concept of man and woman will never be gone, and that’s okay. The idea is to be playful with it, like hey, if you’re a woman do you always have to wear dresses? Not necessarily. Do you have to like pink? Not really.”
“I think it’s important to also educate your kid that the concept of gender exists, but you don’t have to conform to it. At the end of the day if they ask “what is gender?” and when they go out into the world [and understand LGBTQ+], they’d get a huge shock. So it’s also to prepare them for that.”
Being brave about body positivity
Besides being true to themselves, Teri is also on the journey of sharing their honesty with the world – or at least their social media followers for now.
“It’s scary as shit!”, Teri exclaims, about their latest post that featured artistic shots of Teri binding with nude-coloured tapes – a raw look at an intimate, vulnerable practice many LGBTQ+ individuals relate to.
Images courtesy of @glingwee
“Posting that was very scary for me because I wasn’t sure if people would be like “oh my gosh Teri posted nudes online”. To be body positive is so much easier said than done. For someone who’s not an influencer like me – I still work in finance – if someone in my industry were to find that [post], what would they say about it?”, Teri questions.
Aside from fearing that their colleagues or mom might chance upon the skin-baring post, it also puts their body insecurities front and centre. “I spent 2 hours deciding if I should post it or not. As much as I seem body positive, it is also an active process for me to choose to do that every opportunity I have. Every time it’s uncomfortable and I push myself to do it, it makes me more comfortable over time.”
Deciding to pursue transitioning or not
While Teri is still experimenting with binding, their decision to pursue top surgery and taking testosterone is still not 100% decided. Although, a common misconception is that to identify as trans, you’d need to undergo transitioning – which is completely untrue.
“For example, someone could look entirely masculine and still identify as a woman and that identity is as valid as someone who is feminine and identifies as a woman. It works in all sorts of configurations. The misconception happens because people make assumptions.”
“I don’t want to be a man, and I don’t need to take that amount of testosterone if I want to fully pass as a man. People take varying amounts of testosterone depending on how masculine they want to present as and it’s a very personal decision.”
They add, “There’s this thing called micro-dosing which means you take a little bit [of testosterone] here and there, so you get some of the changes more slowly than regular doses and you can stop whenever you want. It’d be more trial and error for me to see how I like it. If my voice goes a bit deeper, maybe I wouldn’t want that and I might stop – something like that.”
Despite thinking about this for a decade, Teri realises that they’re at a stage where they can present as non-binary without transitioning, and that’s perfectly fine.
Teri succinctly sums up the importance of acceptance, no matter what the decision. “Sometimes people are still figuring it out, and sometimes people have landed where they don’t need surgery or to transition. At the end of the day, it would be really nice to just get support. To say, “this is what I feel works best for me, and I would love for you to reinforce that how I’m feeling is totally okay.”
Future plans and hopes for Singapore
As Teri shared with me about their journey, it’s clear as day that they’ve come a long way over the past 10 years. But it seems their journey is just beginning. “At 18 years old I was struggling, watching TV in my room hoping nobody would come in, and here I am on a stage talking to LGBTQ undergrads, doing interviews, and being very out on all my social media platforms”, Teri mentions with a hint of pride in their smile.
On their agenda too is building an old folk’s home dedicated to queer people – something we both agreed society is sorely lacking. They elaborated, “There’s a lot of hindrance for queer people moving up the life journey, just because they’re queer. Even something as simple as owning a HDB, not everybody can get that just because they’re queer. So I want to take care of queer elders out there who need help.”
And as for their hopes for the future of Singapore’s society with regards to trans people? Teri presented 2 hopes and challenges.
“For the queer people, I would love for them to be a little more brave, whenever it is safe to do so. If someone hasn’t met a queer person before, they have no incentive or no personal experience to go off of to say “hey, I understand this person and that’s why I want to be an ally”. I understand it’s also not always safe to do so, especially in the workplace so perhaps don’t start there. With maybe less important friends, some acquaintances, just try and see lor, you never know how you’d be received”.
Teri with their mentor – the first person they came out to and the reason for Teri’s queer old folks home aspirations
“On the other hand for the general non-queer population, I would love for people to read up on their own. If people are so curious about trans surgeries, don’t ask the trans person about the surgery unless they’ve personally shared about it. Questions like “Eh are you going for surgery? How was it?” are very invasive. If you have a queer friend and you’re close to them, just be supportive if you haven’t vocalised it – it goes a long way.”
Teri Tan On Being Trans In Singapore
Image courtesy of @carolourivio
People like Teri are inspirational reminders that we should come to honest terms with ourselves and live our lives truthfully, whether it’s as part of the LGBTQ+ community or not.
If you have personal friends who are in their journey of self-discovery or are simply curious to understand more about gender identity, it’s important to remember that learning respectfully is of utmost importance.
In the wise words of Teri: “The last thing is also to not be afraid to be wrong.”
Here are some resources and organisations you can refer to if you’re looking for guidance online:
- The T Project: social service, offering shelter and counselling for the transgender community
- Oochanga: resource guide on transitioning
- TransBefrienders: peer support for transgender youth
- TransgenderSG: web resource for the transgender community
All images courtesy of Teri Tan unless otherwise stated.
Some quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.