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Sunday, December 11, 2005

It's a tough life

Malay Mail
Jeswan Kaur

The fear of being caught by the police, unemployment and harassment are just some of the problems faced by transsexuals, writes JESWAN KAUR.

Sulastree Ariffin wants to get married one day and have a family. Suraya Shakila yearns to buy a house and save some money.

These are seemingly normal dreams but for these two friends, they are unattainable. Yet, they never stop praying for these to happen and for society to show a little compassion and acceptance.

Like their other transsexual peers, Sulastree and Suraya face endless problems from a very judgmental society. In every aspect of their daily lives, from banking transactions to job applications, there would be the inevitable run-ins with authorities.

Although Sulastree and Suraya have not undergone sex reassignment surgery (SRS), both have been cross-dressing for many years now. They realise the life-long crisis that stares at them but then there is little they can do to improve matters.

Prior to the 1983 fatwa, the SRS was conducted at Universiti Hospital (now called Universiti Malaya Medical Centre) and transsexuals who underwent the surgery succeeded in having their gender status officially stated in their identity cards.

The dilemma faced by transsexuals recently took centrestage after newspapers reported the humiliation faced by Mumtaz, a transsexual, at the hands of the police. Mumtaz had undergone the SRS in Bangkok, Thailand, and was alleged by the police here to be involved in the sex trade. She was asked to strip naked at a police station to prove that she was really a woman. Mumtaz’s request for a policewoman to be present was also rejected and she was taunted by the policemen asking her questions about her sexual preferences.

Then there was a report of transsexual Jessie Chung who married Joshua Beh in Sarawak recently. Her marriage raised many eyebrows and whilst blessed by the couple’s churches, the marriage is not legally acknowledged.

These two developments have once again brought into focus the controversy surrounding transsexuals but more importantly, it has highlighted the myriad of problems faced by this community and the lack of support from the authorities.

Says Sulastree, a project coordinator for transsexuals at PT Foundation: “Many of us are happy with our appearances and do not want to undergo a sex change. But we want our appearances and gender status to be stated as ‘woman’ in our identity cards. Because the law does not allow this we end up facing so many hassles, be it at the hospital, Immigration Department, while travelling abroad or when we have to deal with the police.

“I remember how uneasy we felt when visiting a fellow transsexual warded in a Government hospital. It saddened us to see her placed in a male ward and the awkwardness we felt because people around were staring at us.”

Because of the persistent discomfort that surrounds them, many transsexuals have become immune to society’s perception.

“It can be very hurtful how society reacts to us, causing many of us to become depressed. The failed relationships, broken hearts and not having anyone to talk to have led to some transsexuals committing suicide. Many of us live life suppressing our feelings because of the prevailing social stigma we face.

“I used to be depressed before. When I sit at a stall to eat, other customers don’t want to share the table with me because of who I am. It is painful when people shun us but after a while, I decided not to get upset by such attitudes. Even when I use the female toilet, I act ‘normal’. I touch-up my make-up and walk out feeling good despite being stared at,” says Sulastree.

Getting a job was equally difficult.

“People don’t think we need a job to survive. It is this judgmental attitude that forces us into the sex trade. I did odd jobs before PT Foundation gave me a chance. What I earn now is enough to pay for my food and rent. I also manage to save a little,” Sulastree adds.

This former sex worker, however, has given up her dreams of getting married and raising a family.

“You can love someone so dearly but then reality sinks in and their family will not accept us. But we too have feelings and would like to love and be loved.”

For Suraya Shakila, 40, securing a job was her biggest difficulty and she had no choice but to turn to the sex industry.

“No doubt I earned more at the time but sex work was a job forced upon me by circumstances. When I was job-hunting, employers wanted me to dress like a man but I could not. I am a woman in a man’s body and I feel like a woman. I cannot imagine wearing men’s clothes. But then the employers will never want to understand this. To them, the image of their company is more important.”

She recalls the days when police raids used to terrify her.

“I would hang around a particular spot waiting to solicit customers and then all of a sudden we would hear shouts and commotion. My friends and I would run for our lives, with some of us falling into the drain. It was such a humiliating experience.”

Suraya, who now works as a sales person, says: “I am glad I got this sales job. Although I barely make enough, about RM800 or so, it is better than selling myself. I make enough to eat and pay the rent. However, like everyone else, I too dream of owning a house and have some savings. Most importantly, I want the prejudice against transsexuals to end.”

In the case of Dankerina, or whose birth name is Badrul Hisham Abdul Wahab, 42, living as a transsexual comes with a price.

“There is much to pay. I cannot cross-dress when I’m attending work-related functions because I have to keep my company’s image in mind. I opt for clothes that are gender neutral. When I’m on my own, I cross-dress, complete with make-up because that is the real me. But when I need to get official matters done, I dress like a man. It can be tough sometimes but that is how things are.

“I have to always remind myself to be strong, mentally, when I leave the house because I know my appearance will attract attention. It is a constant battle not to let the public’s opinion bother me.”

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