The International Transgender Day of Visibility falls on March 31. In Malaysia, the rights of transgenders are often ignored and they feel safe only in society’s shadows.
She is known as Roja to her customers. She is 36 years old, and a maven in Penang’s escort industry. “I’ve been in business for 17 years now, ever since I was 19,” she says, her voice husky from the many cigarettes she smokes every day.
The third child in the family, Roja opted out of school at 14 to help put food on the table. Money was hard to come by; her father worked as a security guard while her mother was a housewife. Roja took a job at a breadmaking factory.
After fully embracing her female self, however, Roja was confronted with an uphill struggle in gaining and retaining employment. “I tried to find jobs at factories and in the cleaning sector, but none of the employers wanted to risk their businesses’ reputation by hiring someone like me,” she says, gesturing to her face and chest. “So I turned to sex work for the money instead.”
Indeed, often marginalised by society, some in the transgender community in Malaysia, especially trans women, turn to sex work. Mounting discrimination from the public and the government makes it impossible for them to make a living.
Roja’s parents became upset after learning what she did for a living: “They were very angry when they found out that I was a sex worker. My father told me to stop doing it. My brother said he was malu, ashamed of what I did for a living,” she says. “I asked him, ‘You are malu? What about me? Do you think I like doing this?’ I don’t like it. I had no choice, I had to work. If I didn’t, who was going to support the family? But they eventually accepted it.
Roja turns to God in times of need
“On good days, I can make up to RM500, from around five to six customers. My customers are of different nationalities; I have entertained Malaysians, Westerners, Bangladeshis and Nepalese. But the Westerners are more generous with their payments; they would fork out RM150 for a 20-minute session. Malaysians pay less than half that.”
The money she earned was subsequently used to finance her sex reassignment surgery in Bangkok. “I made the decision to go under the knife in 2012. The surgery lasted four hours and cost me RM13,000, but it was one step closer to becoming a woman for me,” Roja says.
Roja’s desire to embrace womanhood began when she was 11 years old. Active participation in a classical Indian dance class triggered her quiescent femininity to life: “The grace and fluidity in the dance movements had a hypnotic effect on me; it made me curious about womanly elegance.”
Roja did not explore her sexuality until she turned 19. By then, she was plagued with inner conflicts, and ignoring them proved pointless. “I could try to act like a man for two minutes. But by the third minute, I would have unconsciously switched back to my natural ‘female’ self. At the time, I remember just wanting to become female, to have long hair, the freedom to put make-up on and to have breasts,” she explains.
Even so, when Roja dresses as a female in public, she faces the risk of police arrest due to an “overly vague provision of the secular federal criminal code that prohibits ‘public indecency’ and applies to people of all religious backgrounds”. In October 2015 the Federal Court reversed a lower court’s landmark ruling that one state’s prohibition on “cross-dressing” was unconstitutional.
The reversal was promptly perceived as a direct violation of the trans community’s “rights to life and personal liberty, equality, freedom from gender discrimination, freedom of movement and freedom of speech, assembly and association, all of which are protected under Malaysia’s constitution.”
In addition, the National Registration Department forbids transgender people, Muslim or non-Muslim, to change the sex marker (“female” or “male”) on their identity cards to match their gender identity, “forcing them to live in a legal limbo,” and leaving the community vulnerable to potential hate crimes.
Roja's skin bears scars of hate crime.
“I’ve been called ah gua and pondan (lady boy). I’ve also had eggs and sticks thrown at me. Once, I was cornered by a group of seven men. They were locals and they had knives. They slashed my right arm before taking off,” Roja says, showing the twin streaks of scars on her arm. “How was I supposed to fight them off? It was one of me against seven of them. I couldn’t defend myself.
“They hurt me because of the way I look and how I act. I feel that I’m a woman trapped inside a man’s body. But to them, I’m just a man pretending to be a woman. They can’t understand that and knowing that they can attack me because of my appearance makes me fear for my safety.
“It’s a hard life to live if you embrace transgenderism in Malaysia. You’re not treated with respect here; you’re not welcomed into society. You can’t get proper jobs at companies or have your meals in kopitiams.
“I pray every day that God will help people like me, especially the young ones – if they are strong enough, they might be able to go on living even if they are suffering in silence. But if they are not strong enough, they might just end their lives because of the bullying,” Roja says.
Social acceptance of transgenders in Malaysia is still a long time coming, despite the continuous efforts of individuals and NGOs. Until then, their segregation and stigmatisation mean that their rights and welfare will continue to be disregarded – and many like Roja will have no choice but to live on the fringes of society.
Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton. She has a mania for alliteration and Oscar Wilde.