As far as Cayes Hong could remember, every birthday wish was spent on a singular, all-consuming desire: To wake up the next day as a boy.
Hong is a trans man — a man who was labelled female at birth, but who has always identified as a man — even when he didn’t know the exact words to describe it. “Growing up, I had no idea what I was feeling, what I was doing — I didn’t have the vocabulary to know I was trans all the way until I was 17,” says the 24-year-old. “But now, times have changed — a lot of people are coming out a lot younger, and it’s all because of people who have been brave enough to be public with their stories.”
Hong is one of those people. In 2019, Hong started a crowdfunding campaign for an upper mastectomy — an arduous process that he documented meticulously on his Instagram. He has also spoken to several online publications about his struggles.
But going public with his story also opened Hong up to a wave of online criticism, mostly from transphobic netizens. Not that it bothered the aspiring musician — Hong says that he keeps screenshots of every scathing comment he receives. “I’m planning to accumulate enough so I can make a song about it,” he laughs. “It’s more funny than distressing. I’ve yet to meet a transphobe with an actual logical, proper argument that can actually shut me down.”
Hong’s breezy Generation Z brand of insouciance belies the struggles he has endured. “I didn’t think I was going to make it past 16 or 18,” he says. “I felt that I was never going to be a real boy, so I might as well not try, and I might as well just off myself right now so that I didn’t have to go through the struggle.”
What pulled him back was seeing more trans people online and on social media. It made him realise that trans people existed — and that he could be one of them, too.
“Representation is so important,” Hong says, emphatically. “Just seeing someone deviate out of gender norms, to know that I could grow up and be like this — it was very comforting. Like, this person made it so far, so I can too. They didn’t even have to look happy, they just had to exist — and that was good enough.”
Hong acknowledges that it is a depressingly low standard, but he says that “baby steps” in representation are important: “When you aren’t doing so well mentally, any shred of hope, any scraps you can get — you’ll take it.”
Before Hong completed his top surgery, he spent eight years wearing binders and bandages to flatten his chest; he says he used to make them so tight that the metal clips frequently broke.
Completing the surgery didn’t prove to be the revelation he had anticipated, but Hong says it encouraged him all the same. “I thought it would be big — it would be a major shift or difference after my top surgery,” says Hong. “But it was more like — ‘Oh yeah, this is what it’s supposed to feel like.’ It was like getting wisdom teeth removed, or getting a tumour off. It wasn’t drastic. I still felt the same, but it felt right.”Following his mastectomy, Hong says he mulled over starting hormone replacement therapy for a long time. As Hong explains, starting testosterone has the potential to “mess up” one’s voice — for an aspiring musician, it was an unimaginable risk.
Hong’s personal dilemma wasn’t the only hurdle that awaited him. It took Hong 10 months to actually begin his hormone replacement therapy, a drawn-out process impeded by red tape and “invasive” questions.
Hong says he first had to obtain a referral letter from a polyclinic to go to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), which treats transitioning patients in its Gender Clinic. “The Gender Clinic is a fancy term for one room, one doctor, for the entirety of the trans population in Singapore,” says Hong with a derisory laugh.
“In between, I had to get interviewed by the nurses at IMH. They went: ‘How do you know you are trans? How long have you known? Why do you think you are trans?’ It was quite invasive, and I knew it was a necessary evil, but I was above 21. I am grown. It should not have been an issue.”
Hong frequently takes to his Instagram account to share anecdotes from his journey, both good and bad. “One week on [testosterone], two shots in today... Super tired, many strong emotions and not all of them good but honestly? I’m just happy to be here,” confides Hong in a recent Instagram post.
He adds: “Also, this video was initially intended for my personal voice archive but you know what, [I have] high hopes indeed.”
For many trans people, being in the public eye doesn’t just open them up to criticism, but potential harassment both online and offline. It is why some trans people choose to pass as cisgender — an act that Hong describes as “stealth”.
“It’s not that [trans people] are ashamed of being trans, but it is a lot harder to be trans than to be cis,” he says. “If they had the chance to pass [as a cisgender person], they would just do it.”
Hong admits that he has thought about doing the same — it “would make [his] life a lot easier”. But, as he explains, he is uninterested in appealing to cis people and fitting in: Rather, he wants to be the person that his younger self needed to see.
“My target audience isn’t cis people. It’s the younger trans kids, people who are on the fence about transitioning, or coming to terms with their transness,” he says.
“My target audience is me — me as a 14-year-old, growing up and not having a single trans person to look up to,” Hong adds. “If I could give one person hope that it is not so bad, then I want to try.”
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