Malaysian Transgender Hero: Don’t Give Up Hope
Speech by Khartini Slamah
I was born in Sarawak in 1963 into a family of 7 siblings. When I was a child, I dreamt of being air stewardess, to meet people and travel all over the world.
Growing up like other girls, I identified with stereotypes and ideas associated with being a girl—cooking, playing with doll, doing girly things, etc. When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I also showcased my acting talents in roles such as sister, mother or one of those mak-mak characters in a school play.
I moved to Peninsula Malaysia in the 80s when I was 19 to seek better job opportunities and promotions. In Sarawak at that time, job opportunities were limited, especially for trans women. In the early 80’s, trans women were hardly accepted for jobs when they expressed who they are—wearing women attires or having long hair. If they have long hair, they have to cut it short like boys’ hair.
By moving out of my home, I could also at least help to ease a bit of burden for my family, who were being subjected to people in my neighborhood talking about me. My mom whom I loved so much cried when I told her that I wanted to move and find job in Peninsula Malaysia. She was worried about my safety.
An encounter with a police officer
First, I worked in a restaurant in Johor Bahru. When I was there, I had an encounter with a police officer who used vulgar words while threatening to arrest me for ‘cross dressing’.
I was then beaten up and raped by the police officer who arrested me. I did not know what to do. I kept on asking myself, what have I done wrong? It took me years to overcome the trauma and it still hurts when I think about it. I did not take any action because I was worried and scared—if I lodged a police report, would they accept it?
At the age of 21, I moved to Kuala Lumpur, where I began my activism. I joined Pink Triangle in 1990s as a volunteer and I began to do outreach to the drug users, transgender women and cisgender women sex workers communities. I learned a lot by doing outreach.
I felt so sad seeing how the community was mistreated by health care providers, the police and the religious enforcement unit. Their rights were clearly being violated. I could also identify with these experiences.
The era of my advocacy
I experienced another arrest in the 90s in Alor Setar, Kedah. I was at the wedding of the brother of a trans woman who was a friend. The religious enforcement unit raided the wedding without any warrant. I was arrested with other 50 transgender women. I pleaded not guilty and had to fight for 2 years in court. But I lost at the end and was fined RM800.00 for ‘cross dressing’ in a public space. It was traumatising for me during the trial—I had to face a magistrate who is anti-transgender.
After the trial, the era of my advocacy on rights began.
In the early years, in 1998, we, the trans women in KL decided to form the Persatuan Mak Nyah Wilayah Persekutuan. The purpose of the group was to understand the need of the transgender community. It was also a way for us to get together to support each other as a lot of us were not accepted by our families. As jobs were difficult and limited for transgender women, we had to do sex work.
In the late 80s, we introduced the term Mak Nyah to create a distinction between gay men and trans women. There used be, and still is a lot of confusion about gender identity and trans people.
Cisgender people especially are often confused. And this confusion and lack of information can be seriously harmful and result in violence, rejection, and marginalisation of trans people.
Not spared from discrimination
Even today, being at my age and being an activist doesn’t spare one from discrimination. Recently, I was hospitalised due to heart problem. I was placed in the ward with cisgender men and every eye watched me the minute I entered the ward. The nurse who attended to my case was initially complaining and saying that I was admitted in the wrong ward. But then when they looked at my file, they smiled cynically; I realized they must have read about my gender. I felt bad and humiliated, and a mix of other emotions, but what could I do?
As a patient, I am there to seek services and the focus should be on treating me. I am sick and I just needed to rest. But all these little things make it worse for me and created such discomfort. I even felt uncomfortable when I needed to go to the toilet and or just to shower.
But the next day, the nice woman doctor who was looking at my case was a bit surprised. She asked the nurse why I was there and said that I should be placed in the women’s ward. She immediately asked one of the nurses to call the women’s ward and said that I will be transferred there. I was transferred and I felt so happy and relieved. My recovery was much faster. I had a lot of support and my friends visited me.
Trans people experience so many different types of discrimination, violence, degrading treatments throughout our lives. In the last few years, especially, we are seeing a rise in discrimination, hate speech, aggression, and violence against trans people. This year we ushered the new year with a murder of a trans woman. This is another sign of the rising hate crimes in relation to LGBT people. In my life, I have seen my own friends becoming victims of hate crimes and murder.
But discrimination can be changed and must be changed.
I hope that the younger generation of activists will not give up hope just because things are not changing the way they want it to. Activism is long journey. We need to create awareness about our rights to empower our communities and for our people to take control of our own lives and know what to do. We need to build allyship with people who believe that every person has the same rights. When rights are violated, we need to stand together to voice out and fight back. A real rights advocate will always speak out whenever rights are violated regardless of gender, race, religion, or ethnicity.
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Khartini Slamah is trans woman. She has been involved in HIV/AIDS for the last 25 years. She is an advocate for Transgender and sex workers rights. She is also a board member of Asia Pacific Transgender Network (APTN), Board member of MSMGF Trans Ref Group, Program Advisory Committee of Red Umbrella Fund and Executive Board Member of Global Network Of Sex Worker (NSWP).
The above speech was delivered on 23 Jan 2019 at launch of the Status of Women’s Human Rights: 24 Years of CEDAW in Malaysia, held at the KL and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall. CEDAW stands for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms Discrimination against Women.