The transsexual community are people too and need to be treated as equals in society.
Erin started admiring boys when she was 13 and wearing make-up when she was 15. This might seem normal for a teenage girl, except Erin was born male.
In harsh and derogatory terms, Erin would be known as a pondan, bapuk or akua. In more politically correct terms, she is a Mak Nyah or a male-to-female transsexual.
Due to her effeminate ways, Erin was teased and even humiliated. Being stripped by her classmates during physical education classes was a norm. Unable to take the abuse, she stopped going to school at 16 but she did sit for her SPM examination.
Things were not good at home as well. Her father and brother would beat her up when they found her dressing as a girl. The clothes were thrown out and her hair was kept short. So when Terengganu State Education Director Razali Daud said that Mak Nyah would face problems later on in life, he did have a point.
Razali is reported to have said this to justify the department's recent boot camp for 66 secondary schoolboys with “effeminate tendencies”. The camp was meant to help them behave appropriately.
“We understand that some people end up as Mak Nyah (transsexuals) or homosexuals, but we will do our best to limit the number,” Razali was reported as saying. Mak Nyah do face discrimination, humiliation and are always a butt of people's jokes. But Razali was certainly wrong about being able to change them.
“Everyone wants to be normal but if you have the soul of a female (in her case), what can you do?” asks Erin, 33, whose family has accepted her circumstances.
Dr Teh Yik Koon of the National Defence University, who has conducted research on Mak Nyah and written a book about them, believes they are marginalised for a condition that is not their fault.
“They are born that way. It is sinful to push them away. Who are we to judge them? If our children are in that position, then maybe we will think differently,” she says.
Datuk Dr Khairuddin Yusof, former department head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at University Malaya Hospital, agrees, saying it is like “condemning someone because they have black hair or a broad nose”.
“It is a biological thing,” says Dr Khairuddin, who used to perform sex change operations. “The condition is due to a hormonal imbalance. It's not a phase that can be over in a few years.”
Nisha Ayub, coordinator of PT Foundation's Mak Nyah programme, explains that a Mak Nyah is born male but has the mind and emotions of a female.
Being a transsexual is all about gender identity and nothing to do with sexual preference, she stresses.
“A transsexual could be lesbian,” she says. “Since I was a child, everyone has been trying to correct' me. My mother was against me being a sissy boy. They said that I shouldn't be walking or talking like that.”
Her father passed away when she was young and many people even pinned the blame of his death on her, saying it was because of her “condition”, she says.
She was to find out years later that her younger “brother”, whom she met after being separated for 18 years, was in fact a sister.
“I think it is in the genes. No one encouraged me to be what I am now. Being a Mak Nyah is not a choice,” she insists. “Why would I choose a lifestyle where I face never-ending discrimination and have problems with my family?”
A sex change operation is a long and painful process, she adds.
Sex change operations were banned in Malaysia in 1983 after a religious edict was placed on them. Malaysians who want to undergo the procedure now have to go to Thailand or other countries to have it done.
Changes to gender on identity cards are not allowed either.
Dr Teh says Iran and Egypt allow transsexuals to undergo sex change operations. Even Pakistan's Supreme Court last week allowed a third gender category, apart from male or female, on their national identity card.
“If Pakistan can accept them, why can't we?” she says.
There are an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 Mak Nyah in Malaysia and they are more often than not the subject of rude stares and offhand jokes.
“People look at us as if we are apes,” says Erin.
Media potrayal of Mak Nyah doesn't help their cause at all. Tabloid headlines are always screaming about transsexuals being caught in vice raids.
Another common misconception of Mak Nyah is that they are all prostitutes.
“If I walk on the street, people ask me how much. It's as if there's a stamp on my head telling that I'm selling sex,” says Nisha.
The teasing they get is also unbearable.
Nisha was once caught by the religious authorities and was sentenced to two months in jail. She was 21 and had just had breast implants a few months earlier. She was made to strip in front of other prisoners for the warden's amusement, she says.
A veteran Mak Nyah advised her to find somebody to take care of her inside. That person happened to be a warden whom she had to please sexually.
That prison stint was a life-changing experience for Nisha. After serving her time, she started working in the nightlife scene. Even though she was earning about RM5,000 a month entertaining men, she was very unhappy, she says.
“We are not the perverts; they are. They pretend to be men but have all kinds of fantasies,” she says, adding that some of the men were married with kids and some were old enough to be her grandfather.
Then there are cases of Mak Nyah being killed or even attacked on the street for no reason.
“We have made police reports but are put in jail instead because we dress as women. They say we ask for it,” says Nisha.
Dr Teh's survey of 507 respondents in 2000 found that at least half the Mak Nyahs have been caught by the police and religious authorities for indecent behaviour and cross-dressing.
And because of their “oddities”, they find it tough to get regular jobs. Those who get jobs work in cosmetics stores or call centres.
The survey also found that 62% of Mak Nyah had difficulty finding work and 50% had resorted to the flesh trade to support themselves.
“I don't think it has changed that much (since 2000),” opines Dr Teh.
Manis, who is in her 40s, can vouch for this. The well-read Manis, who has an impeccable command of English, recalls when she went for a job interview with a big company a few years ago.
She could answer every question posed by the four panel interviewers, except the last question/comment: “I put it to you that you like men.”
She remembers it clearly because it was repeated to her four times.
Manis was dumbfounded and, not surprisingly, did not get the job.
“I didn't see the connection of that question to the job,” she says.
Manis did get another job soon after, as confidential secretary to the general manager of a GLC. She worked there for 12 years before quitting.
She wanted to be herself but was not allowed to keep long hair and be feminine, she explains.
“My commitment and professionalism on the job was not good enough for them.”
Manis, who went for further studies after that, knows of other Mak Nyah who were not given chances to move up the corporate ladder.
“One was told she could not become a leader because she was effeminate. How does it feel when your juniors are overstepping you despite your experience?”
Pepper Lim, 43, hired three Mak Nyah for telephone sales positions a few years ago.
“I didn't go out of my way to hire them. I just hired those who I thought could do the job, regardless of gender, race or appearance,” he says, adding that they were treated as ladies.
Lim, who was general manager of the company then, says the Mak Nyah were just like any staff. They worked hard for their targets and displayed the same emotions whenever they were rejected or closed a sale.
At the end of the day, they just want to be treated as equals.
> Parinya Kiatbusaba, more popularly known as Nong Thoom, is arguably the most well-known kathoey (male-to-female transgendered person) in Thailand. She is a former muay thai (Thai boxing) champion and has also worked as a model and actor. Her story was made into the 2003 movie Beautiful Boxer.
> Lynn Conway is an American computer scientist, notable for a number of pioneering achievements, including the Mead & Conway revolution in VLSI design, which incubated an emerging electronic design automation industry. She worked at IBM in the 1960s and is credited with the invention of generalised dynamic instruction handling, a key advance used in out-of-order execution, used by most modern computer processors to improve performance.
> Michelle Dumaresq is a Canadian professional downhill mountain bike competitor who competes with other professional female racers. She entered the sport in 2001, six years after completing sexual reassignment surgery, when she was discovered. The transsexual situation in some other countries:
> In Iran, transsexual rights have been recognised since 1987 when the late Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa to Maryam Khatoon Molkara granting her permission to live as a woman and have sexual reassignment surgery, which she did in 1997. Due to this fatwa transsexuals in Iran are able to live as women until they can afford surgery, have surgical reassignment, have their birth certificates and all official documents issued to them in their new gender, and get married to men.
> PC Air, a new airline in Thailand, is possibly the first in the world to hire transsexual flight attendants. The airline initially planned only to hire male and female flight attendants but changed its mind after receiving more than 100 job applications from transvestites and transsexuals. It has hired four transsexual staff.
> Pakistan's Supreme Court last week allowed a third gender category, apart from male or female, on the national identity card.
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