By Teng Yong Ping
SINGAPORE — The school in the case of a transgender student has allegedly barred her from attending classes again over its dress code.
On Tuesday (19 January), the 18-year-old student – a male-to-female transgender person who wants to be known only as Ashlee and prefers to be identified by she/her pronouns – had claimed in a statement issued by a group of LGBTQ organisations that her school, Millennia Institute, told her she can attend classes if she cuts her hair and wears the uniform for male students. Ashlee’s experience with her school has gone viral on social media in recent days.
While Ashlee’s name was not among the signatories in the statement, she has confirmed with Yahoo News Singapore that she had given permission to the organisations that prepared the statement to disclose her encounters with her school and the Ministry of Education (MOE).
Millennia Institute offers a three-year A-level programme similar to that offered by junior colleges.
Responding to queries by Yahoo News Singapore, the MOE and the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) said in a joint statement on Thursday that “the school is committed to providing the education support the student needs to graduate, including via home-based learning”.
“The school will continue to work with the parents and IMH medical professionals to support the student's education journey and well-being,” the MOE and IMH added. “We urge all parties to respect the privacy of the family, so that the parents can have the space to decide what is in their child’s best interest.”
The statement also said, “In treating individuals who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria, IMH clinicians will typically seek inputs from a wide range of stakeholders. The final medical treatment decisions involving the use of hormonal therapy rest with clinicians and their patients. Such treatments also require the written consent from parents (where minors are concerned).”
The statement was also posted on the MOE Facebook page.
Ashlee’s story went viral online after she first wrote about her experience with her school in an anonymous Reddit post on 14 January – she has also confirmed with Yahoo News Singapore that she authored the post.
She had then accused Millennia Institute of attempting to prevent her from receiving proper medical treatment and banning her from school unless she cuts her hair in a “male” style and wears the male school uniform. She was also threatened with expulsion if she wore the female uniform in school, Ashlee said.
Ashlee added that she had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria by a doctor from the IMH.
In the statement by the LGBTQ groups, she provided more details of her allegations. “Despite having parental consent to medically transition, Ashlee was informed by her doctor in August 2020 that MOE needs him to consult and work with schools before referring any student for HRT (hormonal replacement therapy),” the statement said.
Hormonal therapy is a medically recognised treatment for gender dysphoria, a mental condition often suffered by transgender individuals in which they experience distress due to their gender identity not matching their sex assigned at birth. Gender dysphoria may lead to other mental conditions such as anxiety and depression.
MOE had earlier released a statement on 16 January, denying that it had interfered with Ashlee’s medical treatment. The ministry received criticism from netizens for misgendering Ashlee in this statement by referring to her by the male pronoun “his”. In the MOE-IMH statement, MOE did not respond specifically to a question by Yahoo News Singapore about the misgendering.
Option for home-based learning
Speaking to Yahoo News Singapore, Ashlee said of the home-based learning option, “I am still considering between home-based lessons or polytechnic. There are still some discussions to be had with the school. Not everything can be done through home-based learning, such as science practicals and project work.”
According to a timeline of Ashlee’s account provided by the LGBTQ civil society groups, “On 23 October 2020, Ashlee’s school leaders and administrators met with her and her father to inform them that should Ashlee choose to receive hormone replacement therapy, it would have to be at a reduced dosage. They told Ashlee that she would be expelled if physical changes from the hormones made her no longer able to fit into the boys’ uniform”.
On 5 November 2020, Ashlee said she was pulled out of class and reprimanded for her hair length. After returning home, the school called her father to inform him that Ashlee was not to return to school until she cut her hair, she added. The school then reportedly declined her request for home-based learning.
According to the timeline, Ashlee did not return to school for the rest of the school year from 6 November 2020 to 27 November 2020. On 11 January 2021, the first day of the new school year, Ashlee said she went to school but was called up by the school administration within an hour and thrown out of the school compound because her hair length did not comply with the male dress code.
On 18 January 2021, the school reportedly met with Ashlee and informed her that it would not allow her to attend classroom lessons unless she complies with the hair and uniform requirements for male students. An allowance was made for her to wear track pants and a polo shirt instead of the boy’s uniform, on the condition that she agreed to cut her hair.
The statement by the civil society groups said that Millenia Institute’s actions denied Ashlee her right to education on the basis of her gender expression.
“Millennia Institute’s ultimatum for Ashlee to choose between receiving an education or receiving medically necessary treatment violates her basic human rights to self-determination, privacy, personal autonomy and bodily integrity, as well as her right to education and the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” said the statement.
In response to the latest MOE-IMH statement, a spokesperson for advocacy group TransgenderSG, who has been in touch with Ashlee, said, “We are supportive of the clinical-led approach that MOE and IMH have shared in their statement, and affirm that in cases of transgender minors, parental support is critical. However, there remain gaps in how schools can create a supportive environment for transgender students or address the unique challenges that come with transitioning at school.
"TransgenderSG would be keen to engage MOE for a public-private dialogue on how schools can accommodate trans students and work towards creating inclusive educational spaces for all."
Activists have previously called for an end to discrimination against LGBTQ people in Singapore.
A survey commissioned by Yahoo News Singapore in 2019 found that four in five Singaporeans (80 per cent) agree that discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community exists here.