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How life is tough for transgender people in conservative Malaysia, who face violence, religious and official bias, and abusive media

With laws passed to curtail their freedom, fatwa issued against them, little chance of reassignment surgery and no legal access to hormones, transgenders in Malaysia rely on support groups and the internet for help and guidance

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 6:15pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 11:46am

When Adam, a Chinese Malaysian, was seven years old he grappled with his masculine feelings, while family members pushed him to behave and dress like a girl, the gender he was born with. Not being able to talk to them about what he was experiencing was distressing.

When he reached puberty, Adam (not his real name) began menstruating and his breasts started to develop, exacerbating his mental health issues.

“I think that was the height of [gender] dysphoria for me. This was when I realised [my female sex and gender] were things I did not want,” says Adam, 29, who lives in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

He later discovered a local transgender community and learned about transitioning – the process of changing one’s gender presentation – and that gave him hope.

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There are no official statistics for the number of transgender people in Malaysia, but a 1998 study by HIV education and outreach organisation PT Foundation estimated there could be about 10,000 out of a total population of 31 million. The majority are ethnic Malays, while those of Chinese and Indian descent represent 27.5 per cent and 7.8 per cent, respectively, the study estimated.

Transgender people have long born the brunt of anti-LGBT sentiment in culturally conservative Malaysia. They suffer state-sanctioned discrimination, are stigmatised by the media and have inadequate access to medical care. Many seek sex reassignment surgery for the sake of their sanity.

“Mental health issues can’t be solved, but transitioning can help reduce risk factors [including] panic attacks,” says Dorian Wilde, 30, a transgender man of Indian descent. He lost his home and family when he “came out” at the age of 17 and his father gave him an ultimatum: get straight or leave.

Wilde moved to Singapore with his girlfriend of the time, and later returned to Malaysia to become an activist for the transgender community, which is often a target of violent crimes that go unresolved.

A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch included interviews with 45 transgender people in Malaysia of varying ages who had experienced harassment or assault. One transgender woman told researchers her friend had been beaten into a coma, but police did nothing beyond locating the weapons – a knife and stick.

The murder of transgender florist Sameera Krishnan in February this year shocked the community through its sheer brutality. Krishnan was repeatedly stabbed and shot, and her body mutilated. Outrage followed when police failed to classify the case as a hate crime.

Negative perceptions are reinforced by a media and entertainment landscape that portrays transgender people as “mentally ill” and objects of amusement. In 2010, a film titled Dua Alam (Two Worlds) depicted Muslim transgender people as unworthy of entering the afterlife.

Although government officials pay lip service to the plight of transgender people, they tend to offer solutions that only do more harm.

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In June, the Ministry of Health launched a National Creative Video Competition on Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health, encouraging young people to submit videos on how to “prevent, control and seek help” for “lesbian, gay, transgender (mak nyah), transvestite, [and] tomboy/pengkid” people.

Thilaga Sulathireh, founder of transgender rights advocacy group Justice for Sisters, says Malaysia’s laws have become increasingly influenced by religion in recent decades. Between 1985 and 2013, laws criminalising “men posing as women” were enacted in each of Malaysia’s 13 states. This has given authorities more leeway to harass transgender people who do not “pass” as cisgender – meaning they do not conform to accepted norms for the gender they were assigned at birth.

Thilaga says that for transgender people who undergo sex reassignment surgery, the next challenge they face is changing their personal details on official documents – although there is legal precedence.

A 2005 case presided over by Justice James Foong allowed a transgender woman the right to change her legal details after undergoing reassignment surgery in Thailand, citing Article 5 of the constitution, which guarantees the right to “personal liberty”. However, many have had their applications turned down by the National Registration Department of Malaysia.

When this happened to Aleesha Farahana in 2011, her mental and physical health declined rapidly.

She died of a heart attack two weeks after being denied the right.

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Sex reassignment surgery is a difficult and expensive option, because transgender people are often from the lowest tiers of the socioeconomic ladder, Wilde says.

“For trans women, everyone expects that you have to get the full set,” says Genevieve (not her real name), a 22-year-old Malaysian Chinese transgender woman. “You have to go on hormones, you have to grow your hair, you want to have bottom surgery, do facial feminisation, get rid of your facial hair, get breast implants.”

It’s sad to say that if you’re a non-Muslim, it’s safer for you to come out. I can sit here, talking openly about it, because I am not a Muslim, and no big repercussions can really happen to me
Adam, transgender activist

Phalloplasties – operations to reshape female genitals into male ones – can cost anywhere from US$30,000 to US$118,200, while vaginoplasties cost from US$3,500 to US$7,000.

Although sex reassignment surgery is necessary for transgender people to change their gender on official documents, such as ID cards and passports, it’s extremely difficult to undergo the operation in Malaysia.

Thilaga says two fatwa, or religious decrees – issued in 1982 and 1983 – put a stop to trans-specific health services provided by government hospitals and medical professionals. Before 1982, there were four public-sector doctors offering such services. Although fatwa are religious guidelines issued by Islamic scholars, and not part of federal government law, public hospitals tend to adhere to them, she says.

Access to hormones is another health care issue faced by transgender people, because many are listed as banned substances. Transgender women can ingest oestrogen by taking birth control pills – without information on appropriate dosages. Testosterone is found in pills doctors prescribe for men with erectile dysfunction.

Transgender people who are unable to find doctors willing to administer these drugs sometimes resort to the black market.

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“The underground scene is happening. I know a few trans men who self-administer,” says Adam, adding he doesn’t know exactly where they get their medicines.

The internet has given Malaysia’s struggling transgender community a place to vent, find support, and obtain information that is unavailable elsewhere.

Adam says that without the internet, it’s unlikely he would have found relief from the profound loneliness he felt being unable to express himself.

“It was like the floodgates had opened. I watched videos, read all the articles, and realised that I was not alone,” he says. For the past six months, Adam has been archiving his transitioning experience on social media as a form of support for younger transgender people.

Wilde launched a popular Facebook group for transgender men 10 years ago. He views himself as a community leader, guiding his younger “brothers” in their journey and offering advice he never had. The group is by invitation only.

“I am an introvert, but I decided to start this because the need [for this community] was much bigger than my own need to hide away,” Wilde says.

Malaysia’s ethnic diversity results in transgender experiences that are influenced by culture, religion and socioeconomics – and some groups have it harder than others.

“It’s sad to say that if you’re a non-Muslim, it’s safer for you to come out,” Adam says. “I can sit here, talking openly about it, because I am not a Muslim, and no big repercussions can really happen to me.”

I am an introvert, but I decided to start this because the need [for this community] was much bigger than my own need to hide away
Dorian Wilde

Muslim transgender people are far more likely to face harassment as they fall foul of the religious authorities such as Jakim, and the sharia courts. According to Human Rights Watch, arrests of transgender people usually take place under sharia law, which is only applicable to Muslims.

Transgender women are far more likely to experience harassment from both religious and civil police, and are more vulnerable to sex-related abuse. Human Rights Watch says transgender women who are arrested are placed in facilities for men, where they may face assault at the hands of wardens and other inmates.

All interviewees the rights watchdog spoke to said that although they felt increasingly in danger as transgender individuals in Malaysia, the country’s LGBT and trans activism scene is vibrant, fuelled by grass-roots community movements on- and offline.

“People [in my university] were struggling to understand, but everyone was very supportive,” Genevieve says. “I feel like now, with my peers, it’s easier to come out. People my age, my generation, are a bit more open-minded, even if they don’t accept it.”