Boris Dittric, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights programme said back in 2014, “Malaysia is actually one of the worst countries to be a transgender because of the laws, the state-organised arrests and the hate speech by politicians.” The most recent reported crime was in February, when a transgendered woman was found dead with a gunshot wound and her body mutilated (the police however, have determined that it was not a hate crime).
Gays and lesbians are only just beginning to enter mainstream acceptance. But that still leaves a broad spectrum of LGBTs whose issues are barely understood. We reach out to Adam (not his real name), who is transitioning, for an interview, to shed light on his struggle with his gender identity.
Adam picks a café near his workplace, from where he had just clocked out. He sported a new tattoo – but then again he had quite a few – and there was something different about him that one couldn’t specifically point out if asked. Perhaps it was the broader shoulders, or the posture. But simply put, it is the intended effect of the testosterone treatment that he’s currently undergoing.
His earliest memory was when he was 7. He had always been interested in what people would label ‘boy’s clothes’ or ‘boy’s toys’. He didn’t really understand why he wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things; even the way he sat. People frequently commented on the way he dressed, but his parents dismissed it as ‘tomboy’ behaviour. And he did believe for a while that he was indeed a tomboy.
But when puberty hit at 12, he started developing breasts and menstruating. “That’s when I realised that it wasn’t about me, a girl, liking boy’s things. I felt genuinely uncomfortable in this body,” he says, “I started hunching a lot to hide my chest.”
Reaching out to his family didn’t seem like a viable option then. He says that regardless of where in the world you’re born in, bringing up gender issues in the family is very difficult.
Self-discovery via the Internet supported him through his teens. That’s where he learned terms like ‘dysphoria’ and ‘boy trapped in a girl’s body’. The wealth of information available online assured him that he wasn’t alone, and provided a space to rely on other than his parents. He did, however, confess to his sister: “I told her that I’m not the same as her. I’m not attracted to men, and I wanted to be one. But at that age she didn’t really understand, so for a long time she just thought I was a lesbian.”
Things were no easier at church, where LGBT issues were largely taboo. “I felt very conflicted and condemned. I always felt like I was sinning. I thought, if this isn’t what God intended, why do I feel this way? Is this temptation? Is this the work of the devil?” He says that he developed a lot of anger – some of it towards God. He believes that if he weren’t so religious, he wouldn’t have struggled so much with self-hatred.
He confided in his then youth leader, but stopped short of using the word ‘transgender’. Her response was: “Although this isn’t something we can condone, we’re not going to hate you or ostracise you because of this.” He says he felt a glimmer of hope. A hope that he, and others like him, could be accepted. But now, he says that it isn’t good enough for him. He calls this ‘hate the sin, not the sinner’ stance “patronising and condescending”. He argues that the very fact that it is viewed as a sin, is a problem in itself.
Adam eventually quit the church at 21. There was no long-drawn contemplation or a ‘pros and cons’ list. He was very active in the church community and assumed many leadership roles, so he couldn’t continue lying to everyone. “I felt like I had to ostracise myself from the community before I felt safe to come out. Which is really weird because church is meant to be a safe place,” he smiles wanly. “I can’t continue to believe in something that makes me hate myself. Religion is not for spreading hate, even to yourself.”
The coming out
Adam had to come out to his parents twice. “The first time I came out, I didn’t say I was trans. I just said that I was in a relationship with a girl,” he explains.
He tends to leave people to assume that he is a lesbian, which, in his own admission, makes him uncomfortable. He explains that it’s a “double whammy” – to be attracted to someone of the same gender, and to want to be identified as the other. Just another reason why transgendered people are not well understood.
Adam says that he came out again when he wanted to start testosterone treatment. His mother was devastated, who told him, “You can do whatever you want and change however you want, but you’ll always be my daughter.” That really hurt, he says. He pauses to take a deep breath.
Things took a brighter turn with his father. At that point, he had already started treatment, and his voice had begun to deepen. His dad made a comment about his voice, to which he responded that it was ‘cracking’. He laughs at the account of his dad’s reaction.
“Cracking!? Why is it cracking only now? But your sister’s voice didn’t crack!” his dad exclaimed.
When Adam finally explained that he’s on testosterone, all he said was, “No wonder lah.”
He goes further back and recounts the first time he came out to his father. Adam says that he cried while telling his father, who was playing Candy Crush on his phone. His father looked up and said, “You think I don’t know? I’ve always known. I knew it the moment you cried when someone forced you to put on a dress.”
Adam beams and says that he felt very touched. “He’s a Chinaman, and he gets it. If he gets it, then why can’t the rest of the world?”
“Once,” he says, “I walked into the women’s toilet and this lady said loudly, “I thought this is a girl’s toilet!” There was a long queue and everyone looked at me. I felt so scared that I ran out.” This was pre-testosterone, and he explains that he felt safer going to the ladies’ then because he didn’t ‘pass’ enough as a man. Moreover, he thinks that a man might get aggressive if a confrontation were to ever happen.
Just going to a public toilet attracted a lot of unnecessary attention. Women do a double take and check if they’re in the right toilet, or they call out to him to tell him that he’s in the ladies. “Going to the toilet is the worst for trans people. It’s an ordeal,” he says. “Sometimes, I avoid using the toilet altogether. If I want to go out, I have to plan; like not to drink so much water, or get female friends to accompany me to the toilet.” Just more of those little things we take for granted.
Adam offers something to chew on: “Gender identity and sexual orientation are two completely separate things.” He says that your organs don’t define who you are, and continues with an analogy, “Just because your body can digest meat, it doesn’t mean you have to eat meat. You can be vegetarian. You get to decide what to eat. So why isn’t it the same for gender?”
Is there anything that a cisgendered, heterosexual person (i.e. a person who identifies with the assigned gender and is attracted to the opposite sex) should not say to a transgendered person? Adam laughs. A lot, apparently! But his top item would be not to assume pronouns and genders, even if it appears to be glaringly obvious. One might feel that it’s rude to ask, but he says it is better to ask than to assume.
Adam started binding at 20, and before that, he constantly wore a sports bra, and a T-shirt over it, so it could get very hot. “It’s uncomfortable,” he says, “Like someone is constantly sitting on my chest.”
Now, he’s aiming to get a mastectomy once he’s saved up enough. It would cost anything from RM4,000 to RM6,000 in Malaysia, but he says that doing it locally is not advisable for those with C-cup breasts and above as our technology isn’t up to par yet. Other options include Thailand (approx. RM10,000) or Taiwan (RM15,000 to RM20,000). For a full sex change, it would have to be done overseas. His current treatment of testosterone jabs cost RM200 per monthly visit, and the treatment is lifelong, with the effects irreversible.
“It was very straightforward,” he says, “The moment I found out I could do it via legal means, I did it. If I had any doubts, I would question my gender identity all over again.” Before embarking on the testosterone treatment, he had to obtain a letter from a therapist to clear him of any severe mental health issues and to confirm that he is not being coerced to do it. However, it appears that the legality of such procedures stop at mastectomies, and the law has been inconsistently applied when it comes to legally changing one’s status. There are cases of three individuals who failed in their bid, but in 2005, a transwoman was legally declared as female.
He says he is privileged. Transgendered individuals often experience discrimination from their own family members as well as sexual, physical, and mental abuse. He also elaborates: it is much easier for a woman who wants to be a man than vice versa. And he was right. Victims are overwhelmingly transwomen.
Would he eventually want to be identified as simply a ‘man’ rather than a ‘transman’? He responds ‘no’ quite quickly, and explains that transvisibility is important to him. “I don’t want to erase that fact about me because it is an important part of my life and experiences … If I say I am a man, then people will just assume that I am a typical male person along with stereotypically male experiences and social standing … But the truth remains that I am not and that would make a huge difference in the person that I am. If one day the world learns to be more open, then yeah, sure I’ll go with male. But as of now, I don’t see this happening anytime soon. And I have to be visible in order for this future world I speak of to eventually happen, whether or not in my time.”
Read next: Sexuality: Pop vs. KPop
Cross-dressing and exchange of gender roles make up a large part of their fan service. Read our exploration of sexuality in Kpop here.