Transphobic Reporting in the Media - A Singaporean Case Study

Note: In the aftermath of the incident we reached out to community worker Vanessa Ho, who spoke on her friends’ behalf. We refrained from contacting Fadli or Fifi directly, as there was concern for their recovery post-deportation.

Things weren’t expected to go awry when Fadli and Fifi climbed into a taxi bound for Abu Dhabi’s Yas Mall. It never occurred to them that later that same day they would be sitting in a jail cell, unaware of their “crimes.”

Travel companions, Muhammad Fadli Abdul Rahman and Nur Qistina Fitriah Ibrahim, A.K.A. Fadli and Fifi respectively, were on a perfectly normal outing to find food. They had recently arrived in the UAE for one of Fadli’s freelance fashion photography jobs, Fifi had tagged along for fun. Fifi had visited to the UAE a number of times and was aware of the dangers faced by transgender women who travel to religiously conservative countries—but she never thought her actions (or lack thereof) would elicit a yearlong prison sentence.

Dressed plainly in sneakers, jeans, and white shirts, Fadli and Fifi tried their best not to attract attention. Enroute to Yas Island, their taxi driver pulled over to supposedly refuel. They waited what seemed like a suspicious amount of time for someone to just be pumping gas. When he returned, the taxi driver carried on with no apparent issues.

The pair were dropped off at the mall and all seemed normal. Fadli and Fifi would later revisit this memory, trying to understand what had gone horribly wrong.

Within minutes of setting foot in the mall Fadli and Fifi were seized by tourism police—who are tasked with “protecting” public spaces from indecent behavior. They were whisked away, uncertain of why, to the Al Wathba prison and detained for almost two weeks. Their alleged crimes: dressing femininely and indecent behavior.

Friend and housemate Vanessa Ho was the first to hear about the arrest. Fadli was able to send Ho a short string of messages—the gist of which was ‘arrested in Abu Dhabi, please send help’—before going totally silent for the next few weeks.

Falsely accused of cross-dressing and indecency, the pair were detained without having consciously broken any laws. They were kept from contacting friends and family. At times, they were even withheld information and translators.

Fadli and Fifi later told Ho that they didn’t understand how the law had been broken, when they had been at the mall for less than a few minutes. Logically, there wasn’t enough time for anyone to spot them let alone make a complaint. The pair had also chosen to wear fairly masculine clothes, aware of the strict gendered laws in the UAE.

Fadli and Fifi later speculated that it must have been the taxi driver, who lingered at the gas station. In the time he disappeared, they told Ho, the driver may have snuck off to report them for supposed crimes they commited. Fadli and Fifi felt it was the only explanation—based on the timeframe they recalled. Ultimately, an unprovoked aggressor may have been the reason they were sentenced to prison without formal evidence.

But this wasn’t the story that made headlines around the world.

After their arrest, on Aug. 9, Fadli and Fifi’s story remained in relative obscurity until Aug. 20—when a judge held a closed hearing and privately sentenced the accused to a year in prison. Over the next few days, media outlets around the world began reproducing the same set of information over and over again:

  • UAE jails 2 Singaporean men for wearing women's clothes”—The Straits Times (Aug. 23)

  • The pre-op transgender woman who was jailed visited the UAE many times in the past…Cross-dressing is illegal in the UAE.”—BBC News (Aug. 24)

  • A transgender woman who has not undergone a sex-change operation…”—Associated Press (Aug. 24)

  • UAE Court Sentences Two Singaporeans to Jail for Cross-Dressing…Singaporean men were caught for wearing women's clothes in public."—The National (Aug. 25)

  • Singaporean duo jailed in Abu Dhabi for cross-dressing to return to Singapore—Channel News Asia (Aug. 28)

Coverage of this incident was saturated with transphobic and gender-confused language. Each of these reports painted a scene in which Fadli and Fifi both behaved in ways that actively broke UAE laws—despite having never provoked the arrest. It wasn’t until speaking with Ho, who took to social media , rallying LGBTIQ allies to help free the accused, that we learned background details which contradicted global reports.

While raising Fadli and Fifi’s legal fees, Ho, and partner Jocelyn Teo, criticised reporters for misgendering and inaccurately reporting the circumstances of the arrest. In an interview with OutRight, they were quick to point out that no actual cross-dressing took place. Second, they were clear in their condemnation of reports that referred to Fifi as a man.

Ho and Teo were the first to contact both the media and embassy officials after hearing a sentence had been passed. Both advocates and family of the accused initially believed the arrest would amount to a simple fine or deportation. They panicked when lawyers informed them of the 1 year sentence. Immediately, they began fundraising and calling media outlets, hoping to pressure the UAE into releasing Fadli and Fifi.

The Singapore Straits Times was the first publication they called. With consent from Fadli and Fifi’s family, Ho spoke with a reporter whom she felt was “trans-affirming.” When the article surfaced Ho was shocked that the reporter had published what she feels was “basically hate speech.”

The headlines brazenly read “2 Singaporean men,” despite Ho’s clear depiction of Fifi as a woman. When Ho confronted reporters, she was told that editors had amended gender terms and details in the initial report. Ho felt this excuse, while realistic, was a “cop-out.”

The same issue emerged from a press release published by advocacy group Detained in Dubai. Ho was clear about how appreciative both she and the family were for Detained in Dubai’s assistance throughout the emergency. But, she added, these same representatives had unintentionally provided the media with misinformation.

Ho recalled that, while “instrumental” in freeing Fadli and Fifi, these representatives were not as attuned to LGBTIQ issues as members of the community would have been. She had explained to a representative that Fifi was a woman. But Ho felt it was necessary to parse out the nuances of Fifi’s identity.

In Singapore, Ho elaborated, trans individuals cannot reflect their proper gender identity in birth certificates or official I.D.’s without completing sexual reassignment surgeries. She provided this information hoping the representative would comprehend that Fifi’s gender—while complicated—is still that of a woman’s.

Soon after, Detained in Dubai released a statement which referred to Fifi as “Pre-operative” and the crime as cross-dressing. Their miswording went on to inflame the situation with the media, compelling them to expose Fifi’s private medical details.

Ho was sorely disappointed. This was "the difference," she noted, "between an ally and a LGBTIQ [person’s ability]...to effectively advocate” on behalf of gay and trans individuals. Without the “lived experience or knowledge,” Ho said, it’s hard to represent the complexity.

Ho suspects these two incidents lead some of the most influential publications to reproduce misinformation about Fadli and Fifi. She added that reporters should have paused to fact-check and consider the language in their reports before publishing.

This incident highlights how susceptible even the most reputable publications are to ignorant practices. It implies that reporters and editors could benefit from training specific to the nuances of gender and LGBTIQ language.

OutRight encounters this issue regularly in monitoring LGBTIQ stories in the media. Over the past few years we have tracked the disturbing frequency of homophobic and transphobic language used by media in the Commonwealth Caribbean and in Iran. In the worst cases we find LGBTIQ people violently degraded by hate speech. But even a simple case of misused or omitted gender pronouns can trivialize the lives of LGBTIQ individuals.

On Aug. 28, following the efforts of friends and advocates to raise awareness, Fadli and Fifi were released from prison and deported to Singapore. The sad consequence of media insensitivity is that reports overlooked heroic actions taken by the LGBTIQ community.

While officials fumbled to free the accused, four family members and friends took to Facebook to rally some 1,329 LGBTIQ supporters. In just four days they caught the world’s attention, starting a “guerilla” fundraising initiative to hire legal council. Almost 160 donors contributed to an astonishing SGD $25,600, in less than 48 hours. The same community had elicited so much global attention that they were likely responsible for pressuring the UAE into dropping the sentence.

The ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, a collective of LGBTIQ activists from around the Southeast Asian region, also provided strategic support for Fadli and Fifi’s cause. The ASC worked with family of the accused, to draft official letters of concern. They were poised to address the AICHR, ASEAN Secretariat, and OHCHR. Luckily, Fadli and Fifi were freed in time.

Though largely unrecognized in reports, it was the determination of the surrounding LGBTIQ community that set Fadli and Fifi on a course to freedom. Within Southeast Asia, it’s likely that this small group of individuals set a precedent for how quickly and enthusiastically the LGBTIQ community can be rallied in response to a human rights emergency.

Watch the video of their homecoming: Fadli and Fifi’s return to Singapore, Aug. 28