Venice figure skater Serafine Ong was born male but lets the world see her as a woman
By Melody Mundy
After winning gold at the Pacific Coast Adult Sectionals in Burbank, Venice figure skater Serafine Ong heads to North Carolina next week to compete in the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships. She hopes her talent will speak for itself, but she is also using this moment in the national spotlight to reveal herself publicly as a self-described “gender illusionist.”
Ong, 38, was born male but engages with the world as a female. Rather, she allows the world to see her this way. Ong doesn’t take hormones and hasn’t altered her body through surgery, and she doesn’t feel like she’s trapped in the wrong one; this is just who she is.
“I grew my hair, plucked my eyebrows and stayed fit — that’s pretty much it,” Ong says of maintaining her naturally androgynous figure, though she does add a little extra padding up top occasionally. “I call them chicken cutlets,” she adds candidly. “It’s like having little anorexic Asian boobs.”
Because of cultural associations with labels like transgender, transvestite and transsexual, Ong feels more confident identifying personally as a gender illusionist and presenting herself publicly as a straight woman.
“In the few instances I’ve developed friendships with other trans women, some of them wanted me to change my physical look — to have a boob job, to get hip implants, to make myself look more like Barbie,” says Ong. “I’m just trying to be me.”
But to compete in North Carolina — home of the notorious bathroom bill, which eliminated protections for transgender people and forced them to use restroom facilities according to the gender on their birth certificates — Ong had to choose: man or woman. As in Burbank, she’ll compete with the men, a decision she reached partially because of her physical anatomy, and partly because
she hopes it will provoke less criticism than competing against athletes who were born female.
“I held back from competing the past three years because I didn’t know how to debut myself,” says Ong, who teaches figure skating at an ice rink in the San Fernando Valley. “My career and reputation are also at stake, and not all my clients know about my situation. This year, with the new president, it made me even more scared to debut, but I decided to skate because I wanted to make my coach and my club proud.”
As for where Ong will go to the bathroom in North Carolina, “I still haven’t figured that one out,” she says. “I’m very passable as a woman, so that’s not going to send up red flags around the city, but in the ice rink it only takes one competitor to complain, and I don’t know what would happen then.”
Ong wasn’t always a gender illusionist, and she says facing gender-related discrimination in the United States may have accelerated a personal evolution that she also traces back to her childhood in the Philippines.
Sent to boarding school after her father died when she was six and her mother and much-older siblings were unable to care for her, Ong — who was often mistaken for a girl child — faced physical abuse at the hands of older boys that she says crippled her ability to forge friendships with boys. At home, her adult sisters gave her Barbies to play with even though she was a boy child.
Ong was 17 when she joined her estranged and newly remarried mother in the United States. They initially bonded over watching ice skating, which is when Ong began to imagine herself as a competitive figure skater, she says.
Years later in Portland, she adopted the playful nickname “Chinky” (Ong is of Filipino-Chinese descent) while working at a luxury restaurant with an overwhelmingly Caucasian staff. After work she sang in nightclubs, where others guided her to embrace her androgynous look.
In late 2012 she moved back to Los Angeles to stay with estranged family members. When that didn’t work out, she found herself homeless in Venice — a regular around Windward Circle until a new acquaintance offered her a cheap room. But finding steady employment in the restaurant industry while checking a box that said “male” but looking like a woman, Ong said, was nearly impossible.
“It was here [in L.A.] that ‘Chinky’ became a person instead of a persona,” she said. “To get a job, I had to apply as ‘Chinky.’”
“Chinky” wound up working at a high-end Santa Monica restaurant — wearing the standard female uniform of skirt-shorts, fishnets and knee-high boots — until one day the IRS called the restaurant to confirm her gender. Ong says she hadn’t told the restaurant she was born male; they just assumed ‘Chinky’ was born a woman, and she didn’t correct them.
“A [female] supervisor reacted negatively,” she recalls, and “made my work environment slightly a living hell.”
But Ong has also found friendship and understanding here. Not only did losing that job allow her to begin teaching others to skate, it also allowed her to begin competing.
Ong used to hang out near Muscle Beach when she was homeless, and a group of Muscle Beach regulars raised $900 to fund travel and lodging expenses for her April 19 to 22 journey to North Carolina.
Those friends and members of her skating team, she says, have been accepting and supportive. It’s thanks to them that Ong will be able to test her mettle in the mid-level adult men’s bracket.
“Win or lose,” she says, “I’m just hoping to have a good competition and maybe get some positive feedback for other people going through something like my situation.”
Managing Editor Joe Piasecki also contributed to this story.