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It’s no wonder that Singapore-based, 24-year-old transgender performance artist, painter and activist Mara Bendini developed a show entitled "Conversations Between Father and Son."
As she explained, “I grew up with an elder brother and a younger sister. My dad was a pathological gambler and drug abuser and was hardly around. He spent much of his time in rehabilitation and prison. We looked forward to him coming home of course—we treasured whatever time we had with our father, knowing that it would not be long before he would succumb to his weaknesses and be forced to leave us again.”
She continued, “My mom was doing her best to take good care of us during these tough times, working night-shifts in factories, domestic cleaning for expatriates’ homes, and selling Tupperware and health products freelance on the side. We were mostly left in our maternal grandmother’s care. She took care of our meals and made sure we were safe.”
Surprisingly, for me anyway, Marla realized she was transgender at age 7.
“I was a rather active but effeminate boy and my family never made it a point that I’m a boy and I have to BE like ‘boy’. I was given freedom to express myself. I would sit in a corner for hours, drawing fantastic creatures and alternate worlds, play with dolls, dance in my favorite loafers, Mary-Jane’s and denim hot-pants as well as play soccer and catch spiders with the neighborhood boys,” she said.
“I was enrolled in a public school at six,” Marla added. “I realized that I was more comfortable with jumping rope and playing hopscotch with the girls. Boys started calling me names and for the first time, I realized that I am ‘different’ and that I am transgender—not that I was born in the wrong body, but rather, my gender expression was different from the traditional norms.”
About her process, she explained, “I came out as a gay man at 17 in college. There were already questions about my sexuality and I was tired of evading questions and rumors. On top of that, I am a terrible liar! I came out first to a few friends who were gay and decided to come out to everybody knowing that I would have the support if I needed them.”
“As transgender, I definitely saw myself as boy,” she revealed, “but having gone through the school system for ten years, I experienced and understood the social stigma attached to how I lived my life and was labeled a deviant in society. Sexuality aside, I tried my best to fit in with the boys in school, going through fads of hairstyles that were cool for guys at that time, playing sports and being more ‘butch’ in my dressing. I explored the possibility of embracing a ‘gay’ identity and keeping my appearance and general demeanor ‘male’.”
“After college, I was enlisted in the military,” Marla continued (military service is compulsory for male Singaporeans). Ironically, she revealed, “With the physical, emotional and intellectual maturity that was crucial during military training and lifestyle, I found confidence and strength to become who I really was. That’s when I started ‘gender-fucking’. It wasn’t about becoming a girl. In fact, it was almost revisiting the freedom I had in childhood and also, questioning social norms. I put on my first pair of denim hot pants in twelve years and went out. The response from people was exhilarating, because I’m 5 foot 10, I was bald, and I was wearing these pants, and everyone was just freaking out on the streets. I felt like I was finally back to the state of mind when I was just a boy and nothing else mattered except being yourself.”
“People started to compliment me,” Mara expressed. “They told me that I have nice legs. I progressed to using makeup and wearing high heels in public. I wasn’t doing ‘drag’. I was gender-fucking. When my gay relationships started to fail, I realized that the men I was with wanted a ‘girl’ in bed but wanted me to look like a boy. I found myself trying to ‘butch-up’ again and I started concealing my true identity again. I decided to cut myself off from gay relationships then and fully explore my identity as transgender.”
“I was working as a stage manager in a production, ‘Fight Club—A Chorus’, a live art theatre piece. It was largely a social commentary loosely based on Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Fight Club’ and the director and associate performers wanted me to perform as well. After a decision to live full-time as a transgender woman in 2007, I took on the name ‘Marla’ after the female protagonist in the novel and went by Marla Bendini.” She added, “This decision was largely fueled by the realization that I was not attracted to gay, but straight men, or rather, straight men are more likely to be attracted to me than gay men!”
“When I first came out to my family as gay, they were upset,” Marla said. “More because they realized the emotional struggles I have gone through my life. My family accepted my gay identity but had difficulty adjusting to my gender expression at first. My gender expression was inviting social scrutiny and judgment and in turn, my family and friends had to deal with the stress as well. Also, my extended family and friends who got word about my transitioning were questioning my family and friends who knew, and not me, so I have to say it was a difficult journey for everybody.”
“The lowest point was when I was asked to leave the orchestra I was playing with for almost three years. The more conservative members of the orchestra had a discussion about my transitioning and came to the conclusion that my appearance was a distraction and possibly a disgrace to the orchestra and my choices were conform or leave. I chose to leave,” she said resolutely.
In contrast, she explained, “My highest point was however the saddest point in my transition. In March 2009, I had to send my dad, who had been sick for years due to drug and alcohol abuse, to the hospital for an unknown infection. The doctors said his vital signs were normal and that they would have to run some tests to see what was going on.
My dad wanted me to stay and accompany him in the ward. We started talking about my transitioning and he said he would support me if I choose to undergo sexual reassignment surgery in future. I explained to him that I do not intend to do so and I am happy the way I am now. However, he highlighted the fact that I will constantly be at a disadvantage because I am legally not a woman. He reminded me of the rejection I have faced but said that he understands my stand as a transgender but hopes I take SRS into consideration.”
She continued, “We left it as that and I went home that night. The next morning, my dad went into a coma and never spoke again. He passed away on 26th March 2009.”
In her amazing journey evolved the show, "Conversations Between Father and Son," which is, as she explained, “a multimedia installation performance with paintings, paying tribute to my late father. It is my first solo exhibition in Singapore. The paintings ‘Marla’ were a celebration of my identity, my struggles, as well as the love and acceptance from family and friends. An important aspect of my exhibition is my performance. In my art, I always seek to communicate and to express. Through my performance, I hope to inspire the audiences to initiation conversations with their loved ones, just like I’ve done so with mine.”
“My mom, my brother and his wife and even my grandmother came down to support my exhibition and performance,” Marla shared triumphantly. “Even my sister, who was reluctant to attend initially because she thought the subject matter would be too emotional for her, came down on the last night to support my show. I think the presence of my family members gave the audiences a sense of love and acceptance that I thank for and treasure and my intention to extend this love through my art.”
As to what’s ahead, she concluded, “I want to create more works of art and be able to show and perform internationally as a visual/performance artist. Watch out for Marla Bendini!”
OK. I will! And you can to at MarlaBendini.com, for this story is truly just the tip of Marla’s iceberg.
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