A Filipino Chinese “gender illusionist” won gold at the 2017 Pacific Coast Adult Sectionals ice skating competition earlier this month in Burbank, Calif.
Serafine “Chinky” Ong, 38, made the sectionals her first competition ever, and is using the moment to come out as a “gender illusionist,” rather than as transgender, a title she finds difficult accepting. In her view, people in that spectrum often don’t like their appearance or physical attributes, feeling that they are trapped in the wrong body, which causes them to alter their features.
“I just grew my hair, grew my eyebrows, stayed fit, that’s pretty much it, whereas most transgender [people] use surgery to look more feminine. I am not doing that because I am still the same person.”
Born in the Philippines, she’s the youngest of 10 siblings and was raised by an older sister after her father died. Her sister, unable to care for her, placed her in a boarding school where she says she was physically abused by the high school boys. She ran away several times only to return. Ong internalized the abuse, not knowing how to vocalize her suffering to family members who, she said, had personal issues of their own.
“It was rough growing up being different but I stayed silent,” Ong said. “Not having any role model affected my relationship with family and peer groups.”
Her other siblings were either married, in college, or working in the family business. As a young boy, she spent most of her time with her sisters, but she never let anyone know about the confusion she was experiencing. The abuse from her school put her in survival mode. She became an introvert to family but allowed herself to be an extrovert elsewhere. When her mother moved to the United States and remarried, she sent for her youngest child to join her in San Diego.
Years went by before Ong could tell her mom about her situation.
“I didn’t know how to discuss my situation with my mom so I had to figure things out by myself, because I didn’t trust anybody. She knew already. She was just hurt because she felt she wasn’t an adequate mom.”
While time was spent adjusting to American culture and dealing with her personal transformation, she attended college, picked up recreational ice skating, and worked in the hospitality industry. Years later, she left home to pursue her personal journey. With the challenges of her new identity, she had the opportunity to experiment with her alter ego, “Chinky,” a female. This brought on a whole new set of complications while looking for employment.
“In the Los Angeles fine dining business, they would sometimes ask for headshots. I saw the difference when you came in wearing a suit and tie, compared to when I styled my long hair looking feminine, like an exotic Asian beauty. You get more attention.”
Although she never withheld information about her gender, Ong wouldn’t volunteer it, either. She said she’s been fired from jobs by managers who looked into her background.
“I believe I lost my jobs because I don’t think they really worked with anyone in the trans community except with those that are flamboyantly gay…that’s why I call myself a ‘gender illusionist’ because I just kind of blended in.”
She left San Diego for more self-discovery. Following her passion of becoming a professional ice skater, she moved to Venice, but later became homeless and unemployed. When a Good Samaritan gave her an opportunity for shelter, she resumed working in the restaurant industry. She used this new freedom of keeping her gender choice anonymous and to blend into society as a female. It’s also where she renewed her love for ice skating. Working various jobs, she managed to take lessons and test up to the highest levels, but she never competed because of her indecision indicating gender.
“Men didn’t compete with women and vice versa so the thought of filling out the application brought on too much anxiety.”
Even though she’s adopted a typically female appearance, she signed up as a male competitor in this, her first, competition. She sought guidance from other elite skaters and coaches hoping to create less controversy signing up competitively with men.
“Competitively, I don’t want to skate with women because I logically feel that it’s not the right thing to do. Professionally, I want to have the flexibility to skate both.”
Her coach told her that if she was going to compete, she better be ready. She wasn’t. Ong decided not to compete until this month, at the Adult Sectionals, where she won first place in the gold category, the highest level of the adult skating track. “I decided to skate because I wanted to make my coach and my club proud.”
She has felt comfortable in ice skating appearing feminine while in practice, while registering as a male in competition.
Her family and friends have accepted who she is. When asked what she would say to those that hurt her, she replied, “I’m standing here with a first-place trophy.”