From transgender sex worker to activist, Maya wears many hats
Maya is only 21 years old, but she has already had more life experiences than many people double her age. The transgender sex worker from Singapore is full of life and the picture of positive energy, so it’s hard to believe that she has experienced a lot of pain including abuse, rape and homelessness. Despite all the hardships, Maya thinks of herself as a fighter who has overcome everything that has been thrown her way. Today, she is a program coordinator for Project X, the only organization in Singapore that advocates for sex-worker rights. UNAIDS spoke to Maya about her extraordinary journey.
UNAIDS: When did you discover your gender identity?
Maya: Call it fate or call it something else, I feel like a particular incident in my life may have brought out the woman in me. My parents got divorced when I was young, I lived with my Mom and during the weekends I went to stay with my grandparents at their flat. One such weekend when I was around 9 years old, I went downstairs to play in the park. Wrestling cards used to be very popular at that time. In the park, I met a man. He told me that he would give me wrestling cards. He said he would also give me whatever I wanted whether it was gifts or candy. I was very excited. He told me to go home and shower and come back downstairs to meet him.
I did as he said and went to meet him. I asked him “where are my wrestling cards?” He said he didn’t have any right now, but we could just have some fun. He asked me about my hobbies and I told him that I loved to sing. He told me he could teach me how to sing and I was so excited. He then took me to a nearby canal and that’s where he raped me. I didn’t realise what was happening, when he inserted himself into my mouth I was being forced but I did not resist because I didn’t know something wrong was happening. It was not as though I liked it, but I did not want to risk getting hurt.
I was only 9, I did not know anything about sex, which for me was a man and woman hugging. This is why I say, I’m not too sure if it was fate or something that made me who I am. The incident made me think, if such acts were performed between men and women then what did that make me?
I began transitioning when I was around 14-15 years old. I suffered discrimination throughout my childhood. I was always bullied in school for being a soft and sensitive boy. I began questioning myself and my sexual orientation. I went through a phase at 14 thinking that I was gay. I tried to be straight and act manly like I was supposed to but I just couldn’t. I then made some gay and transgender friends on Facebook. I thought at first that I was gay, but as a gay person I was portraying myself very effeminately, I loved make up and dancing. I then decided at 16 that I was a woman. My transgender friends told me that transitioning did not happen in a single day, I had to embrace my gender identity and slowly grow into who I am.
UNAIDS: What was it like coming out for you?
Maya: I used to go out at night and dress up as a girl and when I came home in the morning, I’d dress like a man to hide from my family. Both of my parents remarried and I went to live with my Dad but my step-mother kicked me out. Then, I went to live with my Mom. My step-dad used to beat me up. By this time I had already come out as gay to my family. After my Mom passed away from Leukemia, I moved in with my grandmother, that’s where I really grew up. After initial scoldings, she began to be supportive of me. I began eating hormones and wearing a little bit of makeup in front of her. She was even there when I had breast surgery. She protected me against nasty comments from my extended family. At that point in time I had already started doing sex work. After she passed away, my step-grandfather threw me out of the house.
UNAIDS: How did you become homeless at 18?
Maya: I had very little money when I was thrown out of the house. I used it to pay the deposit for a room. I started doing sex-work online. I used the money I earned to buy necessities for the house. It was not a legal contract, and on the fourth month of my stay there, the landlord told me to get out of the house. I had no money on me and nowhere else to go. It was very difficult for me. I didn’t know what to do. I was only 18.
I became a full-time sex worker. I spent everyday trying to find the money to pay the rent for the room. It was very difficult.
UNAIDS: You went into sex work full-time because of financial problems but you mentioned having done sex work before too, what is the difference?
Maya: Before, sex work was a choice. It was a tool for me to make some extra money to buy things that could help me be a woman such as makeup, wigs etc. After my grandmother started supporting me, I held a normal job. I was a waitress. Later on, my circumstances forced me into full time sex work, I had nowhere to go to. My body was the only tool I had to earn a living. When it was a choice, I got to choose my clients and do it only when I wanted to but when I went to work in the red-light district I had no life. My life was money and sex and I had to force myself to do it. I became a heavy smoker, had a daily rent to pay, most of the time I had no money to eat and would survive on instant noodles. Put yourself in my position. Imagine what I went through.
UNAIDS: How did you turn your life around?
Maya: Slowly things started getting better for me. I found support from a local NGO called T-Project which provides shelter and support for transgender people. I stayed there for six months and that’s where I started to plan what to do next with my life. During the six months that I stayed there, I saved up a bit of money, rented a room and I got an opportunity to work with Project X which works on sex-worker rights and decided it was what I wanted to do. I am a good talker and a sex-worker so that’s why I thought I’d make a good activist. I haven’t looked back since then. I’ve continued to advocate for transgender and sex-worker rights ever since. I attend many conferences and workshops to improve my advocacy and leadership skills. I still continue to do sex-work by choice part-time on my terms.
UNAIDS: What kinds of stigma and discrimination have you faced?
Maya: I have experienced a lot. As a transgender woman, I was discriminated against by society and even my own Dad refused to have anything to do with me. To make things worse, I’m a sex-worker. I’ve always been criticized for who I am and what I do. Stigma and discrimination has taken a big toll on me. I may look approachable and bubbly but deep down inside I’m still scared. It has made me an insecure person and I have to work extra hard to gain that security and be accepted in the society. For example, I need to put in an extra effort to look and act like a woman just to avoid stigma and discrimination.
UNAIDS: What are some of the challenges transgender sex workers face in Singapore?
Maya: I’m blessed with some education, but most transgender sex-workers in Singapore lack education. This is why they come into sex work in the first place. It is the only work they can do. Because of that, they are judged and discriminated against. As for transgender women, there is a stereotype that if you are transgender you are a sex-worker. That is not entirely true. There are transgender people who hold normal jobs. On the other hand, some transgender women actually choose to go into sex-work. Sex-work is work too. There is a lack of information that the society has about transgender people. People think that the transgender topic is a hot issue, but still transgender people are not safe and accepted in society. There is a need for information and to educate society about LGBT people.
UNAIDS: What more do you think needs to be done to increase the acceptance of LGBT people in Singapore?
Maya: In Singapore, once you’ve fully transitioned you are able to legally change your gender identity. This is both positive and negative. Although it is a good thing, it is unfair for the majority of the population of transgender people who cannot afford the sex reassignment surgery. This is something I would like to see change. I’d like for our legal system to allow us to legally identify ourselves the way we’d like to be.
UNAIDS: How has this experience affected you personally?
Maya: I’m a stronger person now. I’m a fighter. I can deal with whatever comes my way but at the same time the wall has been built high and it’s hard for me to let people in now. I work daily to bring down this wall. I’ve always been nice, soft and happy but this experience has made me so tough that sometimes I feel like it’s not me. When bad things happen,I’ve learnt to forgive and forget. I have learnt to let things go and choose to be happy.I don’t let things affect me so much anymore. I want to be happy so I make people around me happy.
UNAIDS: You mentioned that you’d like to complete your surgery and some day pursue your education. If you had the choice, which one would you choose to do first?
Maya: This is such a difficult question. I want to do both so badly but if I really had to choose I’d choose to complete my surgery first. Once I do that, I’d be able to start fresh. I’d be identifying myself as a complete woman and then continue my education. I’d be recognised as a female in school. If I go back to school without completing the surgery, they would always recognise me as a male as per my legal identification. If I complete my surgery I’d be able to completely identify as a woman.
UNAIDS: When did you decide that you wanted to do something for the community?
Maya: I didn’t want anyone else to go through what I did, I felt like there was a need for me to bring the community together and advocate for the cause. Hopefully one day, transgender women will become more visible. Once they are, the issues that we face will come to light. Only when they come to light can we begin to talk about it and work on solving the problems that are faced by us. I want to be able to help make people realise that we are human too. I cannot do this alone, but I can certainly try to bring everyone together.
UNAIDS: Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
Maya: The only real relationship I ever had was when I was 16 with a guy older than me. He supported me through my transition and even supported me monetarily to undergo breast surgery. It ended mutually. So I do hope to have someone by my side someday. I also hope to complete my sex reassignment surgery and have a career as a visual merchandiser. I also want to continue working as an activist and empower as many people as I can.
UNAIDS: Is there anything you want to say to the people out there who are reading your story?
Maya: I want to spread the message to everyone out there. I know there’s a majority of you out there who are surviving alone and bad things keep happening to you. I believe that if you don’t give up and you have faith, keep yourself positive one day you will see the light. Your life will get better, just don’t lose hope.