Shelah, alter-ego of Edwin Sumun. As long as society relates to this element as the main public representation of transgender people, society will always associate all transgender people as a choice, and advocacy will be stagnant in Malaysia. (photo by TimeOut Kuala Lumpur.)
In the middle of last year, the American Family Association decided that they need to do away with the word “gay” because it was losing its strength in driving people to hate gays. So, they filtered out the word “gay” from all their news at their website OneNewsNow and replaced every single one of them with the word “homosexual”, a less common word used, to further sexualize the lives of same-sex couples.
The result was a comical rename of two well-known athletes. Tyson Gay became Tyson Homosexual, and so did Rudy Gay (Homosexual) in the NBA. In all of the gags that came out of that, there is a lesson to be learnt; why western countries are attempting to change their use of language in their rights fight, and how effective it is for sexual and gender minorities in their branding, on the path toward success in gaining equality.
Yes, equality. While the Christian fundamentalists were hammering on the use of the term “same-sex marriage rights”, advocates and activists have been using the word “marriage equality”, simply because the two denotes different tones; the former gives the impression that gays wanted more rights, the latter indicates a fight to have the same marriages just as anyone else, as they did with the term “job equality”.
Transgender matters are currently in the news, as conservatives are now using the term “bathroom bill” as a way to scare people on the ongoing rights for transgender people to use the washroom of their gender, with imagery of bathroom stalkers who are men dressed as women, something which the trans community in the United States have yet to formulate a counter-term to use in response. The verdict is damning on transgender people in the United States, as the majority seems to be up in arms against trans people in public bathrooms.
Representation is also important. The United States have gained so much success from the installation of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, to shaking the foundations of the Defense Of Marriage Act, and they have a strategy the rest of the world have so far done little to follow; letting society see people, even trans people, even gay people, as normal, equal, human beings. And it is hits more so closer to home in our region, when we fail to adapt to the use of terms and elements that would help our cause to assist our assimilation into society.
We severely lack the presence of proper language and social element to let the public know who we are, as the transgender rights groups here tends to be a close knitted community stuck within their own circle of transgender people and liberal friends, and are so far away from even reaching out to the grassroots, conservatives and religious fundamentalists. While they bask in the comforts of having a handful of elite supporters, a walk in the streets of Kuala Lumpur for example, tells a different story.
And what is transgender? What is transsexual? We have yet to clearly establish and separate the two in this region, but we are still using these two as the same, let alone Malay terms like bapuk, sotong, pondan, mak nyah, all which currently mean the same mix, either effeminate men or cross-dressing males, in the eyes of the public. These ignore transgender men even, other than the emergence of the word pak nyah. We pray for a day when we would be simply called, people. But until that day comes, we need to educate the public with the correct information, and not confusing them, because all of us have different needs to be met. A cross-dresser would want to change clothes. Transsexuals would need to change body mapping. So we need to have our languages, especially locally, to accommodate and reflect that.
Almost nobody knows what transgender people are, either than drag performers that double as sex workers who need to repent and change back to who they “are”. While in western countries, the human element of transgender people is successfully imprinted in the many minds of society, in this region we lack positive social elements. In many countries, the transgender population was able to generate information out to the public that not only underlines just mere statements, but also information and facts to back it up. Here, we have yet to even have a Transgender 101.
The letter by Sharan Suresh, a more outspoken trans advocate of the Indian community which I recently wrote a critique to a couple of days ago, says it all. She did not differentiate and further blur the lines, between transsexuals and transgenders. And as the writer attempted to make generalized statements that transgender people are born that way, she failed to offer any evidence to debunk what is visible in society. Some small collective of liberals may not even bother or care, because for them transgender people are “just human beings”, but for the vast majority of people in our region, the main imagery they get about transgender people, are men by day and women by night. So how are we going to tell them that there are transsexuals who are born with Gender Identity Dysphoria, when they are used to seeing drag shows, and we paint all of them as the same?
The duality of gendering by cross-dressers implies a choice. Transgender people like Edwin Sumun, a drag performer that goes by the name of Shelah, or the many cosplayers. Heterosexual women who are more comfortable in male clothing even. These are transgender people, as per defined by almost all medical and psychological books. And they have the option to dress up. Until we draw the line to separate transsexuals from transgender people, transsexuals will be considered as simple as being cross-dressers, or worse. If we cannot even begin to define properly who we are, we are far away to even begin to start debating what we are or what we want or what we need.
It is not helped with the visible social element of transgender people – sex workers. Whether one agrees with sex work or not, most of society will not see transgender people as any more than sex objects. I made this statement that was scorned by PT Mak Nyah, and I will say it again – We should discourage sex work, we should encourage all work – because if we really wish to have equal rights, especially as transgender women, we need to show that we can do more than just sex work.
Proponents of sex workers rights at PT Mak Nyah often use the excuse of a non-choice, and that they had to be in sex work. That is precisely it; sex work is negative in society’s standards. Fighting for laws to protect sex workers still brands sex workers as nothing good but sex, and transgender sex workers amplify the notion of transgender people as hypersexual cross-dressers. And when transgender people feel empowerment in sex work – the consequence is disastrous for the community as a whole.
We have to accept that many transgender people sees sex work as society sees, and give them the choice to stay away, not criticize their choices and efforts to not be related to the sex label. The activists who claim hurt when people condemn sex work, should be called out on for not paving any decent way for sex workers to get out of the sex trade. Again, it should be noted that for some sex workers, it is not a choice, however it should be a short term solution while looking for greener pastures with the help of transgender groups, not affirmed.
Because all these form public opinion. Whether we like it or not, the general public’s thoughts influence everything for every transgender person, whether it is going to the bathroom, or going for a job interview, even renting a room. If one were to ask around on the current public sentiments now on transgender people, what answer do you think you will get? It will be either 1) they are just human beings, which denotes acceptance without understanding, like an alcoholic or a drug addict, or 2) they are just a bunch of sexualized freaks, which fails us.
Personally, it feels uncomfortable when I hear business partners and potential clients tell me just how lazy transgender people are, and how transgender people are always looking for easy money. How campy, over-dressed/under-dressed and unreliable transgender people are. How limited knowledge transgender people have that counts them out of employment. That they are not society’s professionals. Sometimes, even hurtful things like transgender people should continue doing make-up and drag shows because that is their only talent.
We have to change that perception that transgender people are defined by sex and shows, and we must build a new strategy to show, that while there are some transgender people who conforms to stereotypes, many are definitely talented, gifted, hardworking transgender people who understands the values of real labour. That transgender people are actually individuals with their own set of personality and characteristics. We should no longer be set apart as mere sex and dance tools, rather to push and take our place in society as anyone’s equals.
I shall offer my thoughts to whoever wishes to listen, on how, sometime this week. Season’s greetings to all.