Call Me A Boy, part 3: Being an out trans man in a queer band
By FARIS SAAD.
I turned 33 last year. According to myth, you become a completely different person every seven to ten years, literally. Your cells die off and get replaced and you regenerate into a whole new person. That might not be accurate, but I feel like I’ve at least shed an outer skin.
I’m happy I’m not dead, although I might have come close a few times. Twice from failed suicide attempts, and more than once from drinking and drugs (and often a combination of both).
My girlfriend of four years had decided she wanted to be “normal” and to marry a nice man, who would be sort-of-religious but also liked cool things like music and art, and they’d do things like have kids and go on holidays abroad. No one was gay forever, right? This isn’t America.
SEASICK, YET STILL DOCKED
After she left, I would spend ages listening to sad, pasty-white emo songs, wondering where I went wrong. I thought I would die alone and no one would ever love me. My housemate Kak Hani would find me unconscious, Morrissey’s “Seasick, Yet Still Docked” playing on repeat. She would wail hysterically and try to revive me with minyak angin (medicated oil made of eucalyptus oil, used for all sorts of ailments from headaches to demon possession).
I am a poor freezingly cold soul
So far from where I intended to go
Scavenging through life’s very constant lulls
So far from where I’m determined to go
I got into a cycle of drinking, partying, drugs, and work. I put aside my dreams of being in a band.
Sometime around the Asian Economic Crisis, I lost my job at a call centre. I was young, sad as fuck, and broke. I barely had money to eat, let alone party. I was still emo, listening to a lot of queer music, like Tegan and Sara, Boyskout, and The Organ (L Word shout out). My MP3 player was full of lesbian music. I was so gay, thanks to Myspace. I discovered a lot of new music there. If I was going to be gay, I would be the gayest gay ever. I also discovered my first trans man, the rapper Rocco Katastrophe, through Myspace and its queer music network (clicking on your fave bands’ top friends). Thank you, arwah Myspace.
After years of being in the closet, I came out (as a lesbian) to my friends and my brother. Their immediate and unquestioning acceptance gave me the confidence to throw myself into lesbian culture and make some very questionable fashion choices. The L Word was all the rage, and I can blame some of my earlier regrettable fashion choices on season 2 Shane.
I started hanging out again with Diyz, my close friend from school and first jamming buddy. It felt good to reconnect with that part of my life. Now that she was around I thought it would be a good idea to revive our childhood dream. I started writing little tunes about girls and drugs. My friends encouraged me to play solo in public. This place in Hartamas, Lepaq Café, had an open mic, so we went there to check it out. I wasn’t planning on playing but my friends made me go up on the stage. I might have peed a little. I fucked up the song but the owner of the café liked what I played so he asked me to be a regular. That night changed my life. It’s amazing to have friends who have such blind faith in you. They let me be a lesbian and a musician.
JULIE, DON’T LISTEN TO THEM
I started playing regularly, but I was always nervous as hell up there alone. If I fucked up (and I did, a lot), everyone in the audience would know. If I was in a band, I could get drunk and make mistakes and no one would ever know. I would also be excused from making eye contact with people.
Then I was asked if I would play with a band at a queer party. I didn’t exactly have a band but that was besides the point. Why yes! I replied, of course my band would love to play!
I had been in bands before, but it was more of a one-off kind of thing, like the college battle of the bands or a work-related event. This was different. I asked Diyz to play bass. She would have to learn how, but that’s ok because she’s a musical genius. I rang up a former colleague and asked her to play drums. We had played together in a company battle of the bands thing some years ago, and she was up for it. She said she knew a girl, Yon, who could play guitar.
Shh…Diam! was born. We had two weeks to get our shit together and played on borrowed instruments. We played “Linger” by The Cranberries (fate!) and a bunch of other covers. We sucked, but that did it for me. I was hooked.
Soon we were singled out as one of the few all-girl bands in the independent scene, and people came to our shows to see us swear and sing songs about making out, things nice Malaysian girl bands weren’t supposed to do. They came for the novelty factor, then stayed for the music.
Although we hadn’t originally set out to be a queer band, we started gaining a following among the KL queer network because of our very lesbian song, “Julie, Don’t Listen To Them” and also because of our new drummer, Jellene, who knew people in the queer activist network. It was through this network of activists and artists that I met Dorian. He was the first out Malaysian trans man I had ever met. I did not know that there were trans men in Malaysia. I thought FTM transitioning was something that only happened in America, like country music.
Throughout all this, the thought of transitioning remained in a little KIV folder at the back of my mind, right next to my band dream. However, ever since I first saw Rocco Katastrophe on Myspace, I started seriously considering transitioning. I read up on other transmen and stalked them on social media. I asked questions on forums and watched videos of other transmen who were documenting their transition.
Being in Shh…Diam! really opened my eyes. Before that I didn’t know there was such a strong network of queer folk, wonderful people in this country fighting for our right to belong. The possibility of transitioning started to become more real to me.
LIVE LIKE A WARRIOR
I remember that “Live Like A Warrior” by Matisyahu was the song that made me want to go ahead with my transition. I still get choked up listening to it.
But I still worried that if I transitioned, I would lose everything. I began preparing myself mentally to lose my band, my job, and my family. The band’s identity was all-girl, and we played to a mainly straight cis-male audience. How would they react? I told my bandmates and close friends, and they were not surprised at all. Jellene is MTF (male-to-female) and none of the shows at which we played has ever given us shit for it. But was it because they didn’t know? She had begun transitioning before joining the band. I wouldn’t be able to hide my transition. I saw how brave Jellene was and told myself I have to be like that. Thirty is too old to keep giving a fuck about what other people thought, anyway.
We have a shared principle: Always angkat bakul sendiri (‘carry your own basket’. The equivalent of ‘to blow one’s own trumpet’). We shouldn’t wait for people to say we’re handsome, because we already know we are. It’s a long-running joke, but it seriously made me appreciate myself more. Self-praise and self-love is our philosophy.
My bandmates assured me that no one in the straight cis-male crowd would care, and if they did, fuck them, selamba je. Even if I lost everything else, I would still have my core group of friends who accept me as my handsome self.
Without them, and without music, I wouldn’t have had the courage to transition.
Listening to our earlier recorded material I can hear how my voice has changed. It’s sort of like those “this is my voice, 6 months on Testosterone” videos on Youtube. Our photos and videos are all a form of documentation, I guess. It’s a good thing our songs are mainly lots of yelling and some cartoon voices, so I didn’t lose much in terms of singing ability. In the early months of transitioning my voice was breaking so badly I just rapped my way through the songs.
The band is no longer all-girl, obviously, but that hasn’t been an issue at all. We’re more vocal about being queer now.
Being an out trans man in a queer band, while having its own disadvantages, can be a platform for helping those who can’t be out, or are confused, or just discovering themselves.
A friend told us that he met a Shh…Diam! fan while he was in Sarawak for a holiday. They were staying at the same longhouse. The fan was really happy to find out that our friend knew us (he lived in our studio). She told him that she could relate to what we were singing, and it made her feel like she wasn’t alone. We’ve also played to makciks in malls and little babies and we love to see the smiles on their faces. We love sharing our love with people and we hope they share that love with others. This is what we were meant to do.
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Faris Saad is a business journalist and member of queer band Shh…Diam! He is in his early 30s and is still not a rich rock star.
Animated gif by Shika.
Shh…Diam! are performing on a tour in the EU and the UK. Find out more from the Shh…Diam! Facebook page.