We are not so different

Transgender or not, all of us want to be loved and accepted

WHAT Jenny (not her real name) wants is no different from most other 28-year-old women: to marry the man she loves, and to raise a happy, healthy family with him.

However, unlike most women her age, that dream will never come true for Jenny — at least not in Malaysia because Jenny was born a male. While she has accepted this, Jenny says that she does not openly talk about how she had lived as a man until her sex-change operation at age 24. Even her boyfriend does not know, she reveals.

To be honest, if she hadn’t told me herself, I would have gone home suspecting, but not knowing for sure, if she was transgender. Being chubby in the right places, and having very naturally corrected facial features and well-practised tone of voice, there was nothing about her that really gave away her secret.

But she will have to tell him eventually, she says. It will not be fair to keep this a secret from him. Hopefully he will love her enough to accept her for who she is.

Meeting Jenny was a very strange and eye-opening experience for me. I met her when I sat at a table I thought I was sharing with a foreign woman journalist at the Miss International Queen 2013 in Pattaya recently, that was attended by many international media.

Trying to be friendly, I had asked, “Where are you from?”

I was quite delighted, as I always am when I meet Malaysians in Thailand, when she told me that she was from Johor, and that she was not a journalist, but there to support one of the contestants in the international transgender pageant whom I had interviewed earlier.

Now that I knew Jenny was a friend of my interviewee, I began to ask questions about Patricia, the leggy 26-year-old contestant from Sabah who was halfway telling me about the opposition she faced from her family and society for her decision to live as a woman before our interview got cut short by the event organisers, hoping that she would give me more to write about.

But Jenny starts telling me instead about her own struggles (which was how I found out that she was transgender): about how there are no opportunities for transgenders in Malaysia apart from working behind cosmetic counters, or as night-time entertainers, or as so many have been forced to resort to, on the streets.

She tells me that many transgenders misuse drugs and alcohol to deal with their issues, and that “the only way for a transgender to survive is to have money, but at the end of the day, family support mattered the most”.

She says that she is used to people calling her names behind her back, but cannot stand it when they say it loud enough for her to hear.

The decision to undergo a sex-change operation and start a new life as a woman is not one made on a whim, she explains. For her it took many years of considering the consequences, thinking about how her family would handle it, and then finally deciding to go for it because she could not live otherwise.

Life is hard for a transgender in Malaysia, she says with a sigh.

“We are cast aside from society, and people forget that we are also humans who have the same needs: job, family, a home, just like everyone else, and given the opportunity, we can contribute to society and the country.”

As the night progressed, our conversation moved on to other topics — Malaysian politics, beauty tips, TV shows and relationships.

She taught me how to distinguish between a natural woman and a transgender (I still can’t seem to tell many of them apart), and that transgenders in Malaysia have their own slang: “tak pecah lobang” (literally translated to English as “unbroken hole”) is used to describe another transgender who has successfully made herself indistinguishable from a natural woman, and a “fillifalla” is a transgender who is with a man just for his money (a gold-digger).

Meeting and chatting with Jenny was a significant encounter for me because unlike many of my Thai friends who have at least one transgender friend, my own background and lack of exposure had taught me that transgenders are the odd ones who are not really a part of society.

In contrast, transgenders in Thailand are very much accepted as a part of society and many have found successful careers in various sectors, including government service.

As I got to know Jenny, I started to realise that my own preconceptions about the transgender community have been wrong all along, and cruel. It is because like me, much of society views them as “abnormal” and shuns them for being different, that so many are forced into the margins and sadly, onto the streets.

But in reality, Jenny and I are not so different after all, in the sense that we are both people who want to be loved and accepted just as we are.

I cannot claim to understand all the issues concerning the transgender community in Malaysia based on this one conversation with Jenny. Nevertheless, it did leave this thought in my mind: that whatever our moral perspectives about the way other people choose to live their lives, it should not be at the cost of compassion. No one — male or female, transgender or not — deserves to be forced so far into the fringes of society that they are left with no other choice than to work in the lorong to fill their empty stomachs.

The night ended with Jenny giving the writer relationship advice, both adding each other on Facebook, and promises to meet up again whether in Bangkok or back home.

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Opinion , Tale of Two Cities


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