Malaisea media in the 80s (edited by Dorian)
Every country has got its own socio-political history and background thus shaping its citizen mind and behaviour. Malaysia, has a race-based system, thus transwomen are also divided by race, class, interests and also between who are beautiful, which is usually defined by the categories of very passable, barely pass and non-passable. Transwomen who barely pass or are non-passable are usually those who have experienced fully the male puberty and have developed secondary male sex characteristics like the brow bone, Adam’s apple, broad shoulder, bigger bones and feet, facial and bodily hair, etc experience more discrimination from society and from within the community itself.
Malaysian Indian transwomen, who are mostly Tamil, call themselves Thirunangais and follow the familial system as practiced in Tamil Nadu, India. Malaysian Chinese transwomen either form communities that are closely linked to Malaysian Chinese crossdressers or become stealth and do not acknowledge their transgender past. Most transwomen groups or organizations begin to cater to economically-challenged or poor transwomen who mostly do sex work. Most of these transwomen were either disowned or ran away from home at a young age and are forced to survive on the street.
Since the early 80s, the government-owned media machinery has spread a lot of fear and prejudice towards transwomen. Some local Malay dramas imply that transwomen are heavily-laden with sin due to transitioning or sex reassignment surgery by portraying the bodies of transgender characters in death as being too heavy to be carried by the pallbearers. Other examples of these negative connotations include portraying the flooding of the graves of transwomen characters, signifying that even the earth will not accept these “tainted” bodies. These ideas from popular media permeated the Malay culture so deeply that some Malay transwomen are afraid to transition or undergo sex reassignment surgery for fear that their bodies might not be accepted by their graves, which is a sign of grave sin to Muslims. Some who do undergo hormone replacement therapy opt to stop taking hormones later in their lives in order to avoid this “fate”, causing them to become depressed in an increasingly masculinising exterior that they no longer recognise or love.
One story I have personally encounter when I was published by a local magazine called 'Gila-Gila', which featured comics from popular Malay cartoonists at that time. I cannot recall who the cartoonist of this particular story was. It was about a seemingly effeminate man who was always mocked and made fun of by the people living in the same village. One day, she leaves the village for Kuala Lumpur to work and begins transitioning there. After some time, she returns to the village as a sexy woman. After peeping at her in the shower (most bathrooms in villages at that time were placed outside the house and sometimes do not have roofs), one of the guys in the village fell madly in love with her. She leaves again for Kuala Lumpur but returns soon after. Her admirer, wanting to propose for her hand in marriage, runs to her house as soon as he hears that she is back from Kuala Lumpur. He was greeted by a man who eventually informs him that he was the girl that he was looking for. She de-transitioned in order to conform to society’s expectations.
I resolved then that this was not the end that I wanted for myself, that I would live and die as a woman. According to Kak Su, a senior transwoman community leader (known locally as a mak ayam besar), she has attended many burials of Malay transwomen, a majority of whom are Muslim, and have never witnessed any superstitions such as graves flooding, thunderstorms and others manifesting in these burials. However, most Malay transwomen come from conservative family backgrounds and still perform their prayers as male for fear that their prayers will not be accepted by god. As such, these superstitions involving transwomen remain almost unquestioned in Malay society, even by Malay transwomen themselves.
An issue that cropped up recently was a directive by the Ministry of Information that banned local productions from producing anything with homosexual or transsexual characters. An unspoken rule in the local media community is to ensure that characters that were sexual or gender identity minorities had to die before the end of the movie or drama, or repent and return to the “straight and narrow” in order to not be taken off-air or be heavily censored. One such movie that was not banned despite this directive is “Dalam Botol”, which depicted a Malay transwoman who underwent sex reassignment surgery for her boyfriend. Later she regrets this surgery as her boyfriend leaves her, and she de-transitions and marries a woman who is committed to keeping her to the “right path”. This movie was a hit locally and further reinforced the stereotype that transwomen transition to fulfil the desires of their boyfriends, and can be “converted” to cisgender with enough persistence and god’s grace.
With such a toxic environment towards transpeople, it is no wonder that Malaysian transpeople are leaving the country for greener pastures, mostly in the West, where they might live their lives to the fullest. This is also one of the reasons why I am doing this project; to tell and create an island of positive stories of happy, successful local transwomen in a sea of negativity.
The Philippines is a country where the high majority of its citizens are conservative Catholics. However, it has a long history of sexual and gender identity minorities being well-integrated into society as they are. There is a blurring of boundaries between sexual orientation and gender identity, especially between gay men and transwomen, where it is commonplace to call both “Bakla”. There was also the influence of their American colonisers, where the introduction of the English language into Filipino society made it easier for information from the west about sexual orientation and gender identity minorities to be communicated to the people. Also, especially towards the end of their occupation, the gay civil rights movement was stirring in that Western superpower country, which further enabled Pinoy LGBTs to come out and form their own movements.
There is a vast economic disparity in the Philippines, where the majority of the people are desperately poor while the very few in power are ultra-rich. However, there seems to be a great deal of tolerance and freedom of expression for sexual orientation and gender identity minorities in society. There is a long tradition of beauty pageants, held on a weekly or monthly basis in different boracays or districts in Manila and other large cities. There is a great diversity and visibility of sexual orientation and gender identity minorities. This includes the transwomen which come in many stages of transition or those that do not feel the need to transition but still identify themselves as transwomen.
So far, I have not found any NGOs or NPOs (non-profit organisations) in Japan that specifically cater to transwomen or transmen. Most organisations that cater to the trans* community also deal with issues of other sexual orientation and gender identity minorities. The LGBTIQ here are called SekMai, which is an abbreviation of “sexual minority”.
Some people that I have interviewed say that there are gaps between the SekMai and the straight cisgender people in Japan. I wonder if the term “SekMai” was coined by the straight cisgender community to draw the line between them as the majority and the SekMai; much like how males who are neither straight nor cisgender are defined in the Philippines as “bakla” and in Malaysia with the derogatory term “pondan”.
Flow of information-SOGIE/TRANS101
- From my observation, countries who use English as a main language often adopt information about sexual orientation and gender identity minorities more easily compared to countries that do not, as most of these information are in English. For example in the Philippines, community leaders can disseminate information to members as is without having to translate the contents. This information is presented in a format known as “Trans 101” or SOGI/E (sexual orientation and gender identity/expression), where the distinction is made between effeminate men and transwomen. In this format, transwomen make it clear that they are neither effeminate men nor bakla, but are women who are trans*.
- In Japan, the medical term 'GID' (Gender Identity Disorder) has been adopted and used to diagnose MTF transwomen, FTM transmen and also 'X-jenda'. It is then easier for transpeople to come out to their families as it is a medical condition. The doctors would then advise their parents to not attempt to try to change the child into something they are not.
So far there are no specific NGOs that are fighting for transwomen rights, probably because of the strong culture of conforming to gender stereotype. Most transwomen who have completed their transition live in stealth and are happy identifying only as women. In 2003 a law has passed that made it possible for transwomen and transmen to change their legal documents after their sex reassignment surgery. However, those who have transitioned after being married and having children cannot change their legal documents. Homosexual marriages are not allowed legally but there are some priests and other religious officials who offer special services for gay and lesbian people to be married.
- In Malaysia, a majority of the Malay Muslim transwomen are not fluent or cannot converse at all in English. However, community leaders and activists spread the information about SOGI/E to the community through human rights workshops and trainings, and at community meetings. The Malay derogatory term used against transwomen is “pondan” or “bapok”, which is equivalent to “bakla” in Tagalog and “okama” in Japanese.
The more where gender binary are enforced for example like a muslim country like malaisea and Catholic Christian country like in Philippines and also Japan, the higher the awareness in transwomen community to spread the knowledge about SOGIE, to tell the society that we're not crossdressers or transvestite which is only part time, but for transwomen we're going through what the medical term called GID (Gender Identity Disorder) or gender dysphoria, and intense hatred towards ones body because of the opposite inner feelings or the core that made the person a transgender person hence the separation from sexual orientation and gender identity. I've been through so suicidal phases in my earlier life and sadly my body went through make puberty and i felt i want to kill myself so badly. I even hold a knife in the kitchen wanted to cut the genital off. Nearly everyday, every night i cried in bed because there's no one to talk to and i wouldn 't imagine if i too, my life earlier i would't have this journey and be where i am at this moment.
The more gender binaries are enforced in Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines, the higher the awareness that exists in transwomen communities about SOGI/E; and these communities feel a greater need to highlight to their societies the differences between sexual orientation and gender identity, and to differentiate ourselves from crossdressers or transvestites. This is because while crossdressers and transvestites practice a form of gender expression, transsexuals experience an altogether different gender identity – which is coined in the DSM-IV-TR as Gender Identity Disorder. The more current medical term, which is found in the DSM-V as Gender Dysphoria, describes an intense hatred towards a certain part or all characteristics of the assigned gender that are incongruent with the experienced gender. Taking myself as an example, I have experienced many suicidal phases in my life due to Gender Dysphoria, especially after going through puberty. I have even held a kitchen knife intending to cut my genitals off as I could not accept that I had to live with something that feels so alien to me.
- What I have learned from the Philippines and Japan in terms of trans* and wider LGBT movements is that both these countries have had a long history of queer people which is documented in movements, written records, oral histories and stories. These movements usually begin as a singular entity, then branch out into other organisations or groups as it reaches maturity in having different ideologies and positions on matters.
- For examples in the Philippines, transwomen only had a single group called STRAP. Many other groups later formed like Ganda Filipina, ATP (Association of Transsexuals in the Philippines), Colors and Transpinay. Even transmen communities have branched out into a few groups. These communities are there to cater to the same interests of its members, job opportunities and giving out information about their rights as citizens of the Philippines. The trans* movement in the Philippines seems to be very strong because it has a stronger union movement compared to Malaysia and Japan.
- Transwomen in Malaysia are divided by race, class or socioeconomic status, interests, looks and experience of transitioning. It is hard to tackle the various problems as we are not as united as the transwomen in the Philippines. It is especially hard when in Malaysia, Malays and Muslims tend to feel more superior than the other races as they are considered the Bumiputera, or the Sons of the Soil and are accorded more benefits compared to the other “immigrant” races. As such, Malay transwomen tend to feel the same way and only feel comfortable being around other Malay transwomen. Ironically, the Syariah law, which prosecutes any Muslim transwoman for supposedly being a man dressed in women’s clothes, is implemented by these same so-called “champions” of the “superiority” of the Malay race. Another hurdle is also the moral policing and peer pressure within the trans* groups in Malaysia, preventing members from questioning issues about religion and politics as they are seen to be “sensitive topics”
- The similarities between Philippines and Japan is that the people there are not afraid to protest or have open demonstrations for whatever reason. From what I see, it is more prevalent in Japan where many issues are protested daily. One such example is the “Genpatsu” protest, which protests nuclear plants, which happens every Friday outside the Gokkaigijidomae train station, by the roadside and at the National Diet Building.
- I cannot help but to feel jealous as the sexual orientation and gender identity minority histories of Japan and the Philippines have paved the way for them to be where they are at now, and how this is not reflected in Malaysia despite our own rich heritage of gender and sexual fluidity – which has been lost beginning from the oppression of our British colonisers who tried to enforce their Victorian morality on us, to the current vigorous Islamicisation by our government which tries to enforce more and more radical and conservative Muslim values on our society. However sexual and gender minorities in the Japan and the Philippines, despite their repressive religious majorities, still manage to defend their existence and live proudly in society.