June Chua was looking for new ventures after decades in the sex work industry and she decided to start The T Project, a housing service and community support nonprofit for transgender Singaporeans experiencing homelessness. June’s understated reflections illuminate her levelheaded, humble approach when it comes to commandeering an initiative that offers stable footing for transgender Singaporeans. In this conversation, June shares about her years in the sex work industry, what she sees as the most important aspects of The T Project, and what it means to run an organization like this when there are a lack of relevant social service agencies.
By Ari Weinstein
Can you tell me about how you decided to start The T Project?
I’d been a sex worker for many years. Sex work is very mundane and repetitive, and it came to a point where I wanted a change of career. The initiative came from a specific need, that my community needed a shelter; and from a very simplistic notion, that I wanted to start that shelter.
I’m curious what you see as the most successful parts of the project.
Saving lives and providing a safe space for the community. Over the years, I see more and more transgender people being open about their gender identity. Perhaps The T Project, in our small way, has helped to make Singapore a safer society for them to come out. This made me very happy. Ten years ago, before The T Project, there were zero social services available in Singapore, much less anything that was trans-led or trans-focused.
What was it like growing up as a transgender person in Singapore?
Marvelous, marvelous! I don’t have a cliche answer of discovering my transgender identity and feeling conflicted or not knowing what to do. I became aware I was transgender at 12 years old and from that moment onward, I’ve totally loved being a transgender woman. I never asked myself, “Why am I like this? Why can’t I be like the boys?” I don’t have much self-doubt, or wonders of why I can’t “be like that.” I did not mind the teasing when I was the only girl in an all boys school, and I was a lost cause to the teachers and the discipline master. When I became aware that I’m a transgender woman, I’ve been on a journey to fulfill my real, authentic self.
It sounds like you had already started some self-expression and maybe even a little bit of activism as a student.
I remember shutting down a senior who actually used the f-word. I looked at him defiantly and I flipped my hair. He was not worth my time. But I wasn’t really doing activism then, nor did I start right out of school. After schooling, I went to the sex industry. You must understand that being an 18 year old transgender woman, going through your gender-affirmative surgery, getting your gender marker changed legally to female, and joining the sex industry was the norm in Singapore. At the time, being gay was taboo, as was being transgender. I went for gender reassignment surgery, legally became a woman, and became a regulated sex worker. I did that for twenty years. I totally enjoyed my sex industry career. It made me financially independent; it made me my own boss; it made me who I am today. I can do NGO work because of the savings I built up as a sex worker. I am more proud of my sex work than my “activist work.” I was not doing any activism during those years in the sex industry. It was when I decided to leave the sex industry that I became involved in what you see as “activism.” I’m not sure I’d call my voice “activism.” It’s something that I love to do, I love doing what I’m doing now.
You talked about being your own boss as a sex worker. What exactly was that like?
In Singapore we have regulated brothels where you can work without disturbance from the authorities. The only thing that they need you to do is go for mandatory STI testing every month and HIV testing every six months. I was not someone standing on the street or abused by clients. I was my own boss. I could go to work and take leave any time I want. I could reject any customer I want. My sex work was incredibly safe.
What was the process like to get The T Project started?
It all started around 2011. Everyone would invite me to come speak at events and workshops, especially at the various universities of Singapore. I was the token transgender public figure who was willing to talk. People would ask me to talk about how I grew up and to talk about my journey, and I would speak about what it was like to be a sex worker and to be doing well at 20 years old but not so well at 30 years old, and when you get to be 50 or so it’s harder to find sex work opportunities.
I would always talk about how the transgender community in Singapore had zero family support and needed a shelter. Eventually, around 2014, I was in a workshop with the CEO of an NGO who was helping the migrant workers in Singapore; they were thinking of setting up another shelter. The director emailed me the next day and said, “June, we’re starting another shelter. Do you want to start a shelter with me?” Of course I said yes, and the rest is history. At the time that I was a sex worker; I didn’t realize that this was “activism.” I just wanted to have a safe space for my friends. I’ve learned a lot along the way.
Do you now have your own space just for The T Project?
In 2016, the other NGO relocated to a new place which is unsuitable for residence. Around the same time, my sister, who was also a transgender sex worker, passed away. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to fully retire from the sex work industry or keep doing The T Project in her memory. That year, I raised 136,000 SGD through an online fundraising campaign for the transgender community to support a new shelter. Every year since, we’ve had to do a new fundraising campaign. We are not funded by anyone. We don’t have government grants or subsidies. We survive through the generosity of the public. When fundraising, I talk about this marginalized group that needs a safe space. This marginalized group that’s currently homeless and receives no support.
Can you tell me about some of the specific projects, initiatives, or general costs that people’s donations will support?
You need a physical space in order to have a homeless shelter; our rent is the biggest thing. When you give us funding, you’re saving lives by providing the homeless community with a safe space. Though they may need some support in terms of a safe place to stay, they are all very capable persons. I’ve never seen them need any help from me besides the shelter. During their six month stay at my shelter, I try to get accommodations and subsidized rentals from the government applied to them. We’ve had quite a few successful cases in which I managed to get people permanent rental flats. And when you get them rental flats, oh my god! They are so in charge! Once they’ve got stability in their lives and a place to call their own, they don’t need any help from me. They don’t need extensive programs about financial literacy or how to write resumes. They’re able to take care of themselves once their feet are on the ground.
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