Real Talk: The Transgender and Non-Binary Experience in Malaysia

Disclaimer:

The following article discusses topics of a sensitive nature which may be disturbing and/or controversial to some readers. Hence, reader discretion is advised. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author and do not reflect Sunway University and Sunway College’s values.

Content warning: Mentions of suicide, violence and gender dysphoria.

The following article will be presented in 5 parts, representing five key points of the transgender experience in Malaysia. Instead of just focusing on the facts, I have decided to include actual stories of transgender and non-binary people, whose names have been changed to protect their identities.

Part 1: Confusion

Assigned at birth,

But I wanted a say,

Questioned was my worth,

The mind was astray,

In tears, I ran back home,

And cried myself to bed,

I thought about the syndrome,

That made me feel dread,

“I still remember the first time I felt when there was a difference between who I really was and who everyone saw me as. The timing is still quite hilarious to me, because I had just discovered that I was bisexual, which was already quite a rough time, to be totally honest. I had just spent months fighting the inner demons of religion as I harboured the thought of actually liking another guy.

It was just one of those days at school. The thought of being “different” from all the other guys was something I just accepted, you know. I didn’t really think much of it at the time, until during art class, when my deskmates talked about some LGBTQ stuff that I wasn’t really familiar with at the time. Then, the topic of transgender people and non-binary people came up. When it did, it evoked a similar emotion to when I found out that I was bisexual, actually.

Anyways, I went back home and really thought about it. Cried about it too. Then, the infamous Google search happened, and then I fell into the habit of bingeing multiple YouTube videos centering around that very topic. People talking about transgender people and what they are, that kinda inspired me to contemplate about this further. One day you think you’d never be anything but cisgender, but then you start questioning it all.”

– Adam

A common question about transgender people is how they discover their trans-ness. People can discover they are transgender at any age, and at any point in their life. Some say they have known that since birth, tracing it back to their earliest memories. But others discover it as children, teenagers, and even sometimes, as adults. The key point is to understand that these experiences often differ from person to person, and most transgender people have their own individualised journey in search of their true identity.

Some, but not all transgender people have felt gender dysphoria at some point in their lives. According to the National Health Service, gender dysphoria describes a sense of unease that a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their actual gender identity. This sense of unease or dissatisfaction can become so intense, it can lead to depression and anxiety, in turn leading to a detrimental impact on daily life. Gender dysphoria is not a mental illness, but some people may develop mental health problems because of it. Not all transgender people have gender dysphoria, as not all of them experience the same severe anxiety or stress associated with the disparity between their gender identity and their gender of birth.

Part 2: Discovery

Then came that fateful day,

Dressed different, I guess,

Assuming I’d feel less grey,

In honesty, felt more stress,

“Who am I?”  I looked at myself,

Neither felt completely right,

My thoughts concluded themselves,

“Transgender”, I said with might,

“I’m still in the process of figuring myself out but as of now, the term ‘non-binary’ seems to fit me best. I remember feeling out of place in secondary school for all sorts of reasons, perhaps with one of the main reasons being that I never quite felt like a girl. Sure, I fancy feminine clothing most days and I liked keeping my hair long then, but the word ‘girl’ never sat right with me. Neither did the word ‘boy’. So, after a couple more years of grappling with my feelings, I eventually decided that whatever I am, I’m sitting outside of the gender binary.”

– Sara

According to Planned Parenthood, assigned sex is a label that you’re given at birth based on several medical factors, including your hormones, chromosomes, and genitals. At birth, we are labelled an assigned sex, either male or female. However, this assignment may not align with a person’s gender.

Sex and gender are concepts that are often confused with each other. Sex labels the biological factors that divides humans and most other living things, with the basis of this division usually being their reproductive organs and structures. Meanwhile, gender mostly exists in the social and cultural realm, compared to the biological ones. Most cultures employ a “gender binary”, where gender is divided into two categories and people are considered either part of one or the other. Some cultures have been known to have “third genders” or “fourth genders”, namely, hijras in South Asia and fa’afafine in Polynesia.

The way we express our gender in our daily lives is commonly known as “gender identity”. Gender identity is how we describe ourselves, through clothing, appearance, behaviour, and other aspects of our lives. A person who is cisgender usually corroborates to a person whose gender is in line with their assigned sex, would typically express their gender identity following the social constructs or gender norms set in their culture or society. This is where cisgender people differ from transgender or non-binary people.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender people are people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be at birth, that is, their assigned sex. The estimated number of transgender people in Malaysia is said to be around 100,000. Some transgender people identify as neither male nor female, or as a combination of male and female. They use other terms to describe their gender identity, namely, the term “non-binary”. 

Non-binary refers to people whose gender falls outside of the traditional male-female gender binary. Non-binary people often use other labels to describe their gender more holistically, such as genderqueer, agender, bigender, demigender, as so on. These labels are often mistaken as genders, leading to assumptions of there being a given number of genders. However, it is more generally accepted in the community to think of gender as existing on a spectrum, with different positions on the spectrum being labelled.

In order to better match their desired gender identity, transgender and non-binary people undergo different intensities of transitioning. Transitioning is any combination of procedures a trans person undergoes to change the way they look in order to “transition” into another gender. The transition process can come in various forms: from coming out to friends and family as transgender, asking people to use different pronouns, going by a different name and by extension legally changing ones name, dressing in a way that matches the desired gender identity, in addition to medical transition procedures if necessary. Most importantly, not all transgender people transition, and the choice one has on whether to transition is a personal one.

Part 3: Hate

But not to my parents,

They beat me to the ends,

Of death, they threatened,

Myself to make amends,

The pillow meets my tears,

Again, my room confides,

A silent prison, my fears,

Freedom after I die,

“I’m not out to anyone besides my closest friends but it’s difficult to navigate life without running into prejudiced or bigoted people. Most incidents are subtle, like when classmates use the word ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ as dirty or snide remarks to the way you dress and carry yourself.

Then there are others where it’s almost as if they see through me like glass and speak with the intention of humiliating me. One moment that sticks out is when I was in Form 4 in my Agama class. A friend had gifted me a rainbow pencil box which I adored and used at the time. The class had been covering topics like Nabi Lut. One thing led to another, and my teacher had told the class that we should discriminate and bully queer people to get them back “on the right track”. I objected by accident because that didn’t seem right at all and once the damage was done, I tried to argue. Allah is all-loving, right? Based on that logic, we should love everyone, regardless of sexual or gender identity, no? All those arguments got thrown out the window the moment he zeroed onto my colourful pencil box, picked it up and asked me, in front of everyone; “Is there anything you’d like to tell the class?”

Even now, I still think about that day as if it occurred yesterday. I can still remember the shame and the fear that I could have been outed, right there and then, in a class where the teacher had just told everyone to bully someone like me back onto the “right track”. I didn’t know then who would be on my side and who wouldn’t.”

– Lia

“I’m Scared to Be a Woman” is a 2014 Human Rights Watch report, detailing the human rights abuses against transgender people in Malaysia. It details topics such as the criminalisation and mistreatment of transgender people under Sharia law, police harassment of transgender people and the broader discrimination faced by trans people, among other things. The summary for this report details an incident on June 9, 2014, where officials from the Islamic Religious Department in the Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan raided a wedding party being held in the yard of a private home, because guests at the party were transgender women dressed in women’s clothing. They had violated a state Sharia law that criminalises “a man posing as a woman”. At least one person had been beaten during the arrests, them having choked and kicked her to the ground. All 16 of the adults arrested were later sentenced to seven days in prison and a fine. The entire report is definitely worth a read if you want to learn more about this issue.

Another way transgender people are oppressed is through their exposure to conversion therapy against their will. Conversion therapy, according to the Human Rights Campaign, is a range of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to be capable of changing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. These practices have been rejected by every mainstream medical and mental health organisation, but due to continuing discrimination and societal bias against LGBTQ+ people, some practitioners continue to conduct conversion therapy, with transgender youth being especially vulnerable. Exposure to conversion therapy can lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide.

Part 4: Despair

“Transgenders don’t exist”

Our leaders convince us,

Even with me in their midst,

To them, it’s no fuss,

The lies they pave,

Do tear them down,

Hatred to the grave,

Please, before we drown,

“I remember being in the car with my father one day and he once brought up the tragic position queer people are forced into in Malaysia. He talked about how no matter how queer people could, hypothetically, carry out their lives but they will always have to be in hiding. His words still stick with me to this day because of how upset it made me feel and how it made me realise with a terrifying clarity that it is highly unlikely that I will be able to see any changes for queer people in my lifetime. It’s a burden that weighs heavily on me when the mere thought of such a scenario passes my mind, which is the reason why I cannot see a future for myself in this country. No matter how much I love my home, ultimately, it is still an environment that very clearly does not want me or people like me. I still want to cry when I think about it, it’s not a feeling anyone should feel.”

– Priya

According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention, transgender people are twice as likely to think about and attempt suicide than lesbian, gay or bisexual people, two thirds of trans youth report recent self-harm, and 22% to 43% of transgender people have attempted suicide in their lifetime. In order to cope with these mental issues, people in the transgender community will try to seek therapy, and more specifically, queer-affirming therapy. This is where a practitioner affirms a client’s identity, regardless of how the client might feel about it, with the understanding that their identity itself is not a mental illness.

Before we continue though, it’s important to point out that access to therapy is still largely a privilege. Many affected people will not be able to afford the cost of therapy, may not have a therapy centre near their homes, may not have enough time in their schedule to attend therapy, or may simply fear disapproval or worse, backlash from family and friends.

The existing troubles of having access to therapy is combined with the fact that many therapy centres can often become trappings for LGBTQ+ people as a whole. Queer Lapis, an NGO advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, have found in interactions with mental health practitioners who identify as “queer-affirming” , that they would still conduct conversion therapy, if the client stated that they hated being gay. While it may seem valid to conduct conversion therapy in this case, the problem is, again, conversion therapy is simply impossible and ineffective.

Part 5: Light

But, in the meantime,

The light from beyond,

Hope deep in the grime,

Non-existent, they bond,

Despite everything,

We are here and now,

Discriminate, leave nothing,

Equality, still a vow,

“I’ve been really lucky with my friends. I’m out to my close friends and they have been a great support system for me ever since. I’m free to express myself the way I want without worries and I love each and every one of them for that. They’ve been a safe space for me and I sure hope I’m one for them too.”

  – Sara

“When I first found my community, it was with my online friends,who are also from Malaysia. I’ve never met them in my life. I’ve known these people for almost six years and we’ve been supporting each other ever since, through all changes.”

 – Alex

Despite the challenges that transgender people, and by extension, LGBTQ+ people face in Malaysia, the queer community has stayed largely united in the face of such opposition. A loose connection of NGOs and prominent individuals have stepped up to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, notably: Queer Lapis, the PELANGI Campaign, and MISI: Solidariti. Other organisations such as Amnesty Malaysia, Women’s Aid Organisation and Sisters in Islam have contributed in opening up more conversations for sexual orientation and gender identity through their public health advocacy and AIDS-HIV awareness campaigns, and online movements such as #CampurLGBT on Twitter, helping to mobilize queer people and queer allies.

So long as transgender Malaysians continue to call this country home, the discussion on their treatment and acceptance by our society should be ongoing and alive for the next coming years.

By: Haikal Danial

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