Dear Dana, it’s OK if you don’t understand trans issues (Opinion)

Alexander Teh in an undated photo. Photo: Alexander Teh
Alexander Teh in an undated photo. Photo: Alexander Teh

Editor’s Note: Coconuts is committed to publishing a variety of viewpoints, particularly those underrepresented in Singaporean media. This op-ed was submitted by a transgender Chinese-Singapore resident in response to the recent publication of an opinion piece that assailed transgenderism as a way to attack Singapore’s supposed ‘woke cancel mobs.’

Dear Dana, 

When I read your recent contribution to the Gen Y Speaks column, in which you attempted to “cancel” the so-called “cancel culture,” I thought, hey, I agree.

I know what it’s like to be canceled. In my case, it was when my best friend expressed his utter disdain for my illiteracy in the Pokemon universe; and when I confessed to some other friends that I didn’t like the vegan cupcakes they thought were the best thing ever.

I get what you were trying to say. Sometimes, we can be too quick to “cancel” a person who expresses their ignorance or doesn’t agree with our views. We don’t give them the freedom to explain why they haven’t educated themselves or refuse to agree with us. We write them off for not being on the same level as us, and we refuse to engage. 

That being said, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t disappointed at the way you had illustrated your views about the “woke” movement using the trans community as an example. Along with the many hurtful comments in past articles and videos featuring trans people in Singapore, this was another reminder that there are people my age who also believe that issues regarding the marginalized community, in this case, trans people, can be used to prove a point. 

It’s OK if you, as a non-trans person, don’t understand trans issues. I mean, how can you? Just like I, as a man, will never understand what it’s like to be a woman, I also don’t expect you to be able to fully comprehend my “trans experience.” 

But a part of what makes us unique as humans is our ability to express respect and compassion to others. Just because you don’t know or understand certain issues, it doesn’t mean that you should blame the people who experience them. 

Perhaps, part of the reason why you feel that you can’t even ask questions about trans people and what we go through is that you know, in some way or another, that there are other ways to find out. Maybe you don’t feel like you can express your ignorance online because you know that there are frustrated trans people and allies out there, and the reason for our frustration is being treated like we should be solely responsible for non-trans people’s learning. 

We are not that different, you and I. I am also a Gen Y person who grew up with the Internet. I’ve used it for many frivolous things, like researching the evolution of Charmander and how to make the ultimate non-vegan baked goods. But I’ve also used it to educate myself on issues that I don’t know much about. Search engines were invented for a reason, so why not use them to our advantage? 

You are right – not all of us are “woke,” according to the way you define the term. Let’s reframe the way we see it, then! “Woke-ness” shouldn’t be determined just by how much a person knows or whether they agree on certain issues, but also how willing someone is to admit their ignorance and to take the initiative to fix that – whether it’s by doing their own research or by asking respectful questions. 

Speaking of respectful questions, I also read that you’d like to hear from a trans person about what they think about trans rights and transphobia. If you’d like, I’ll be happy to chat with you about my personal experience living as a trans person in Singapore. As a Chinese trans man, I hold a certain privilege and definitely don’t represent the whole community, but I can also reach out to fellow trans community members and leaders who may also be willing to have a conversation with you, sans pitchforks. 

So, Dana, I hope you know that you aren’t being “canceled.” Nobody expects you to be “hella woke,” but we do encourage you to take charge of your own education. The trans community will not be your human encyclopedia, but if or when you decide to start your learning journey, some of us will be happy to guide you. 

And don’t worry — if we ever meet, I’ll leave photos of my post-op body at home. 


Alex (he/him)

Alexander Teh is a 25-year-old employee at Oogachaga, a community-based nonprofit working with LGBTQ+ individuals, couples, and families in Singapore since 1999.

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