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Sunday September 14, 2008

If one of us ain’t free ...

An anthropologist reports on a very different Merdeka event he attended that dealt with a subject often swept under the carpet: alternative sexualities.

IN August last year, malaysiakini.com reported that a transsexual woman in Malacca had been brutally assaulted, allegedly by state religious officers, who also detained her because she was a man dressed as a woman, and that is an offence.

Sexual identities and behaviours attract a great deal of attention in Malaysia, and those who are seen to fall outside heterosexual norms are the subject of official punishments as well as vigilantism.

And yet, as a presenter at an unusual symposium held during the Merdeka weekend pointed out, alternative sexualities actually have a long history in this region. The crowd-pulling political scientist Dr Farish Noor (from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) hosted a session at which he delivered a lecture entitled From Panji to the Present: A Short History of Sexuality in Malaysia and South-East Asia.

Through engaging tales of his travels in Indonesia and a retelling of the story of Panji (or Prince) Semarang, Dr Farish made the point that non-heterosexual practices and relationships are far from being a modern Western import. Instead, they are an intrinsic part of this region’s history.

He noted that in the ancient stories set in the time of Prince Panji (c. 13th to 17th century), it was clear that men enchanted by and having relationships with each other was not something that raised so much as an eyebrow in our region’s past. In fact, far from being a negative force, such a relationship was able to bring a war to an end, it seems!

Vision of freedom

The three-day event (Aug 29-31), called Seksualiti Merdeka and held at The Annexe Gallery in Central Market, Kuala Lumpur, was full of such surprising tales, as well as spirited talks and discussions.

The event was organised to help make Malaysia’s national celebrations meaningful for members of sexually diverse communities and their friends. Its motto, “If one of us ain’t free, none of us are”, was reflected in the broad support it sought.

It was the first event of its kind in the country, claimed Jerome Kugan, media manager at The Annexe Gallery. Kugan and Pang Khee Teik, The Annexe Gallery’s arts programme director, initiated the idea for the event and provided the location and logistical support for the talks, workshops and forums, which were organised by various NGOs and academicians.

It was held on the Merdeka weekend to make a link between the Merdeka spirit and a vision of marginalised sexualities being able to live more freely in Malaysia.

Also worthy of note was the calibre of the supporters of the event, with everyone from activists and scholars to actors, a Parliamentarian, and other high-profile persons attending to either listen or give talks and participate in panel discussions.

Pang noted that an event such as this was needed in Malaysia because sexually different individuals are frequently subject to discrimination and the consequences of misconceptions, which includes abuse.

“The problems of other marginalised communities have been highlighted by various groups, but those of minority sexual identities are not usually highlighted,” he noted.

The main anchor of the event was a series of seminars and a workshop at which issues pertaining to sexuality in Malaysia were discussed among experts and the general public.

Engaging talks

The first of these seminars, To Live Without Fear: Dealing with Violence Against Transsexuals, dealt with the experiences of transsexual Malaysians, their difficulties and the discrimination they face.

Transsexual individuals generally regard themselves as being born into the wrong body – they feel like a woman in a man’s body, or a man in a woman’s body – and would usually take a variety of steps (some bigger than others; for instance, sex change operations) to try to be in the body that they feel is right for them.

However, on top of their own personal turmoil, they face discrimination and harassment from members of the public and official bodies.

The panel addressing this issue was composed of a stellar cast of advocates for transsexual rights, including Subang MP and human rights lawyer Sivarasa Rasiah, Prof Datuk Wan Halim Othman (Universiti Sains Malaysia), Nisha (HIV/AIDS education NGO, PT Foundation), Assoc Prof Teh Yik Koon (Universiti Utara Malaysia). It was moderated by singer/songwriter/social activist Shanon Shah.

What was clear from this panel was that transsexuals face enormous social hurdles in making their way in life, and that these are owing to unjustified but common prejudices.

These hurdles include significant difficulties in finding regular employment. Nisha described many of these difficulties and the work of PT Foundation in addressing them.

Among other points, Assoc Prof Teh and Prof Wan Halim emphasised that the way transsexuals feel, like they are trapped in the wrong body, is fundamentally biological, and that most people do not understand how deep and unchangeable the feeling is.

Sivarasa looked at these issues from the perspective of a human rights lawyer, pointing out that these sexual minorities are entitled to the same freedoms as everyone else but that they are too often denied these freedoms.

On Saturday afternoon (Aug 30), any notions that the world of academia could not generate public interest with its research were thoroughly dispelled.

To a full auditorium, Benjamin McKay, Dr Sharon Bong, both of Monash University, and former Universiti Malaya lecturer Wong Yuen Mei presented findings from research they had conducted into sexuality issues at the Probing Sexualities session.

From selected interview transcripts, Dr Bong showed the ways in which the resilience of the family unit is challenged when a family member declares him or herself non-heterosexual.

Resistance to such declarations often appears as blaming, chastisement, and even hate speech that not only criminalises but also, in some faith communities, demonises them.

These are perhaps the coping strategies of families or communities that attempt to regulate sexual norms.

McKay humorously described his research into the way gay men make use of various places including shopping malls, and Wong discussed her research into “pengkids” – a localisation of the term “punk kids” – which is an identity among some homosexual women in various parts of Malaysia, but in particular the Klang Valley.

Show of support

In another session, Heartbreakers Anonymous, audiences heard amusing and moving stories from Malaysians about growing up different and finding strength to be who they are.

And in Malaysian Artists For Diversity, well known names like former Malaysian Idol contestant Nikki, 3R TV host Rafidah Abdullah, and singer-activist Shanon Shah spoke up in support of equality.

The overall atmosphere was festive, and it was clear that there was significant public support for Seksualiti Merdeka from both inside as well as outside of Malaysia’s sexually diverse communities.

As Pang noted, “One of our aims, besides empowering the marginalised, is also to empower our straight friends to speak up, for us and for themselves.

“After all, as long as the authorities and the public feel it is their right to regulate what is essentially private and personal, the sexuality rights of every Malaysian, heterosexual or non-heterosexual, are threatened.”

While the issues are serious, and the difficulties faced by members of minority sexual identities sometimes very grave, for a few days these were dealt with in both seriousness as well as fun and a strong sense of camaraderie.

Despite the significant difficulties that non-heterosexual people face in Malaysia, many people left the event with a sense of hope and optimism.

While celebrating Malaysia’s independence from colonialism and reclaiming possession of our own nation, at The Annexe Gallery that weekend, some Malaysians were making the case for the next form of merdeka: the reclaiming of the rightful place of sexual diversity in Malaysia and freedom from discrimination and abuse, and towards an accepting, informed and understanding rakyat.

Julian C.H. Lee, PhD, is an anthropologist at Monash University, Malaysia.

For more information about events at The Annexe Gallery, go to annexegallery.com.

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