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Saturday, November 26, 2005

OPINION: Resolving the plight of those born ‘different’

NEW STRAITS TIMES
CHOW KUM HOR

Transsexuals’ plea for legal recognition has met fierce opposition from religious groups. They stand a better chance if the appeal is made on medical grounds, writes CHOW KUM HOR.

Resolving the plight of those born ‘different’

Transsexuals’ plea for legal recognition has met fierce opposition from religious groups. They stand a better chance if the appeal is made on medical grounds, writes CHOW KUM HOR.

IT was one wedding the ulama were not ready to proclaim as holy matrimony. Just about everyone who’s ever led a prayer in a mosque, conducted a sermon in church or run a Buddhist or Hindu temple has opposed Jessie Chung and Joshua Beh’s widely-publicised wedding reception in Kuching on Oct 12.

Jessie was born a male and used to be known as Jeffery before going for a sex change in three operations over the last three years.

For the authorities, the Chung-Beh marriage is seen as a same-sex wedding — a union that breaches fundamental religious tenets and is not recognised under the country’s laws. The ensuing moral and legal controversies surrounding the wedding have given the impression that the fate of transsexuals in the country only revolves around sex change and marriage — which, as any transsexual will tell you, is not the case.

"This whole controversy about transsexuals has gone off-tangent. It is like rojak," says former sex worker-turned-activist Sulastri Ariffin.

"The public and the media focused on Jessie’s wedding but in fact, there are bigger issues affecting this group of people like equal treatment, social ills, job opportunities and educating the public. Marriage is only one small part."

Sulastri, himself a transsexual, says the biggest problem is the legal recognition of individuals he insists are simply biologically different. Transsexuals are people who perpetually identify with the gender opposite to the one assigned to them at birth.

Scientists have yet to conclusively ascertain what causes transsexuality although some say it might be due to upbringing by parents who wanted a child of a different gender.

Locally, transsexuals are estimated to number around 15,000, mostly in the Klang Valley, and they go by different names, many of which are derogatory, such mak nyah, pondan and bapuk.

The reality is that transsexuals here are deeply-marginalised, no thanks to society’s deep-rooted notions of what constitutes male and female.

The aspersions cast on this community, says Universiti Utara Malaysia associate professor Dr Teh Yik Khoon, eventually breeds discrimination.

Taunted and humiliated all their lives and, in many cases, turned down by prospective employers for being "different", the isolation eventually pushes many into vice. A sizeable number end up as prostitutes in places like Chow Kit in Kuala Lumpur, although there are also many transsexuals, or T.S. as they are known, who have decent jobs.

Sulastri, the programme co-ordinator for P.T. Foundation (formerly known as Pink Triangle), a transsexuals advocacy group, says the holy grail in resolving the plight of these people is to accord them the right to be recognised in the gender they identify with. They want to be allowed to change the details in their identification papers to reflect their new gender.

Without legal recognition, he says transsexuals are pushed to the fringes of the society. "Our identity cards say we are males but our physical attributes and mannerisms say otherwise. We face problems when getting our passports, when applying for a loan and discrimination at the workplace."

A few years ago, transsexual Wong Chiou Yoong applied for a court order to change his gender in his identity card because a bank turned down his application to open an account with them.

Last month, another transsexual, Mumtaz, was allegedly forced to strip by three policemen to prove his claim that he had undergone sex change operations in Thailand.

While advocates feel legal recognition of transsexuals may alleviate many of their problems, the proposal is fraught with religious sensitivities. In 1983, the Conference of Rulers issued a fatwa (edict) prohibiting Muslims from undergoing sex-change procedures, with the exception of khunsa or hermaphrodites.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has said that the Government does not condone same sex marriages but added that transsexuals should be treated humanely and with respect.

Perak mufti Datuk Seri Harussani Zakaria does not buy the "woman trapped in man’s body" idea, while Christian, Buddhist and Hindu groups have also condemned any attempts to desecrate the sanctity of our God-given bodies by means of a sex change. Lobby groups and religious organisations have also kept up the pressure on the Government not to recognise same sex marriages.

Teh, however, says that religion is something one practices in his or her own way. "When you persecute and push them to the fringe, isn't that worse? Can the police officers who allegedly mistreated Mumtaz say for sure that they have secured a place in heaven? They have no right to make fun of her like that."

Prof Datuk Hamdan Adnan, a member of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), says that when dealing with transsexuals, the authorities should err on the side of kindness.

"Let’s not play God. It’s a medical issue, more than a religious or political one. It’s ridiculous if a person has female private parts and possesses female characteristics but the IC still says he is male."

He says the best way to clear the air over whether one is transsexual, and whether sex change surgery is necessary, is to get a medical opinion.

The Malaysia Medical Association supports the proposal. "Transsexualism must be treated as a disease," says its president Datuk Dr Teoh Siang Chin. He proposes that a multi-disciplinary team comprising psychiatrists, surgeons, obstetricians and gynaecologists, urologists and endocrinologists examine transsexuals before they go for sex change procedures.

History has shown that when medical opinion is given adequate consideration, hardliners may soften their religious stance, especially when a person’s physical and emotional well-being is at stake.

Cases in point include Muslim fundamentalists’ earlier rejection of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and organ transplants — procedures subsequently ruled permissible by religious authorities.

As it is, transsexuals already have a sympathiser in Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of law, Datuk M. Kayveas. He is the most senior government official thus far who has called for laws to be amended to allow transsexuals to change their particulars in their MyKad.

His counterpart in the Home Ministry, Datuk Tan Chai Ho, while conceding that transsexuals appear to have grounds for their case, says that more "consultation" needs to take place.

The Government, he adds, needs to consider feedback from religious groups — the very quarter who are most staunchly opposed to allowing sex change.

So, until and unless transsexualism is treated as a medical issue rather than a religious or political one, this group of people will continue to be victimised simply for being born "different".

And this is enough reason for the Government to take an objective look at the issue.

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