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The Right to Be

Posted on 12 September 2012
An article by Petra Gimbad (The Sun)

RECENTLY, cases involving minors purportedly giving consent to sexual intercourse have challenged Malaysian law, which clearly states that statutory rape is a crime. One would think that common sense dictates our values. With the recent case of the four transwomen who were arrested for wearing women’s clothing, any right-thinking taxpayer would agree that upholding children’s rights and respecting girls and women should take precedence over arresting transwomen simply for their choice of dress.

Currently, transgender rights stand practically non-existent in Malaysia. In relation to a case awaiting judgment in the Negri Sembilan High Court as reported in “Our right to cross-dress” (Aug 31) where four transwomen were criminalised for cross-dressing, this is shocking in a country that prides itself for holding Asian values.

Following the case, a few friends and I had a chat about transgender rights.

“How is it that being a transgender is a choice, when these ‘men’ choose to wear dresses and eat hormones?” a friend asked. She was sympathetic and genuinely confused.

One of us was a transwoman. She responded with gentleness. “If it were a choice, I would not have to wear a dress or make-up. I could choose not to, because society discriminates against me. When I walk home, I am bullied by men when they realise I am a transwoman. Some of my friends are molested frequently or were raped.

“It is expensive for me to buy hormones. Surgery is expensive and painful. Some of my friends do it to the point of removing their genitalia, because their boyfriends want them to. They then suffer when their boyfriends leave – despite the fact that they went through all that pain because their boyfriends asked them to in the first place.”

Colleagues and I have been fortunate to work and build friendships with inspiring transgender individuals through human rights activism, journalism and volunteer work. These contributing members pose no threat compared to abusers who commit domestic violence and marital rape. Such offenders get away because society insists on thinking of these issues as private matters instead of public ones: a crime may happen within a person’s four walls. If it is a crime, it should be and is, in fact, a public concern.

In contrast, how a person chooses to dress – a private matter – has become a public matter that is criminalised. Society needs to get its priorities straight, given that dealing with physical and sexual abuse with limited resources, is a real problem in this country. One cannot but feel some empathy for the police in relation to their workload and even despair at the thought that institutionally, there are fewer hands than what is needed to bring the real criminals to justice.

A couple of the transgenders whom colleagues and I worked with are trained scientists and academics with opportunities to make a living without turning to illegal and life-threatening work, provided that they do not experience the sort of discrimination that bars them from working in professions of choice through meritocracy. Every human being, regardless of identity or sexual orientation, wants the freedom to be able to choose the work they love.

The four transwomen awaiting a decision in the Negri Sembilan courts are make-up artists. Given opportunities, it is possible for transgenders to legitimately maintain some financial independence, but it is met with general disbelief as all transgenders tend to be tarred with the same brush and portrayed in the media as immoral, lusty and suspicious for engaging in illegal activities. This is a perspective that is sadly perpetuated both inside and outside of Malaysia.

It is unfair and undeserving when transgenders are portrayed in such a negative light. Not only does this attract further discrimination, but it also negates the best of what Malaysian society is. Where transwomen in some kampongs are embraced by their communities and are therefore able to run restaurants and make brides beautiful for their wedding day, these villages offer proof that true acceptance and diversity still exists in Malaysia. Such practised diversity should unite, rather than create conflict and opportunities for antagonism in this country.

Many transgenders I know pray five times a day or according to their faith, in order to become better people, even when suffering is inflicted by the people around them, including the people they love. Many who have lost their faith because of abuse, continue finding hope in practising patience and kindness in their everyday lives or by working in transgender activism as a practical means of caring for their friends in the same community.

With the next hearing in October, much rests on the public. How much do we care about our identity as Malaysians, if we pride ourselves on our tolerance, diversity and intelligence? Are we willing to support our judges and public servants in ensuring a compassionate and just society for all? Only time will tell.

The writer is completing her masters thesis on street children. Comment: letters@thesundaily.com