Trans Lives Matter

by Emily Shahira, Farhira Farudin and Hana

Trigger warning: Violence

We have chosen to raise awareness on the issue of violence towards trans women, in light of Pride Month and the murder of black trans women in the US. The number of killings of these women are too high to be happenstance. In this article, we touch on the intersections between black and trans people, Malaysian queer history and modern transphobia, the economic and health impacts of leaving these issues unaddressed. We have also compiled a variety of resources for further learning. To honour the diversity and intersectionality of the black community, we need more trans inclusivity in our revolution.

Black LGBTQ+ History

The battle against queerphobia and transphobia is a never ending one. In the light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, people are demanding justice for the violence against black trans women. The most recent incident is Iyanna Dior, who was viciously attacked by a group of men in Minneapolis. The incident was caught on camera and went viral. Iyanna’s attack raised the question on how much longer the black community could remain silent amongst themselves after seeing women becoming victims of both racial and transphobic violence.

In 2016, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey results showed high rates of arrest and incarceration among black trans women in comparison to other groups. Even more horrifying, out of the 26 trans people brutally murdered in America in 2019, at least 91% were black trans women1. The American Medical Association stated that the violence against the trans community is an epidemic that harms black trans women more than any other groups. The cause for this epidemic? Our continuous silence.  

The Black LGBTQ+ community has long been excluded in the fight against white supremacy and racial injustice, not only by white people themselves but within the black community. Somehow, the media has made it seem as if the fight against police brutality against black people is strictly reserved for black cisgender people. Being both trans and black is rarely accepted within the society – they are often pressured to choose either one and embracing both would only make them feel further excluded from their community.

The Black Lives Matter movement has been condemned for its silence towards transphobia2. It’s ironic, considering the movement itself was founded by queer black women. As we celebrate Pride Month while simultaneously protesting for justice towards black lives, it’s disheartening to see that Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells and Riah Milton, two black trans women were recently murdered. Amidst the relentless fights and protests, the silence on their murders can’t be any more deafening.

Who should we remember when we discuss transphobic attacks against black women? Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha was a black trans woman from New Jersey whose life was dedicated towards helping trans individuals facing discrimination from the community2, especially among their own family. In a decade where being gay was considered a mental illness, Marsha became the face of gay rights activists, as she was one of the key figures involved in the Stonewall uprising in 1969. Marsha was proud and embraced both her transness and blackness, both considered taboo in the black community.

Decades later, what Marsha fought for her entire life – the discrimination against black LGBTQ+ people – is still as prominent as ever. If there’s anything we can learn from Marsha, we cannot champion the justice for black lives without including the black trans lives. The movement that we protested for so tirelessly can no longer suppress the voices of black trans women who demanded better treatment. They have to be included in this revolution now more than ever.

The brutality perpetuated among the community towards black trans women feels like an endless conversation – and it will continue to be one for as long as those who have the privilege to speak up against the violence and be a better ally for black trans women simply choose not to do so. 

For Malaysians to fully support black lives, we must also support LGBT lives including trans women. This past month, Malaysians have been educating themselves and others on the anti-blackness in our own society. It is now time for us to extend our compassion towards transphobia in Malaysia.

Mak Nyah, and diverse sexuality and genders in Malaysian history. 

The local term for trans women and female-presenting individuals, mak nyah, originated in the 1980’s. Khartini Slamah, Malaysian trans rights activist, explained the desire for creating a term to distinguish trans women from other “sexual minority” groups3. Additionally, mak nyah was created to be a marker for identity, providing trans women a “vantage point of dignity” away from the derogative views of society3. The community also includes individuals who present as feminine, who may be fluid in gender identity and sexual orientation4

The mak nyah community in Malaysia is a unified one that fights to challenge the systemic abuse and exclusion of LGBTI people. The 1980’s was the decade when organised trans activism really gained momentum. The Persatuan Mak Nyah Wilayah Persekutuan, (Federal Territory Mak Nyah Association) was the first association of trans women across the country. Mimie Zarina was the chosen President of the association4. The goal of this unification was for trans women to discuss their needs and concerns, and make their voices heard5

During their short existence, the Association received support from the government. Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat (Welfare Department) and the Association had an alliance for the empowerment of trans women. The Welfare Department provided a grant of RM 50,000 for mak nyahs to start their own businesses5. Mak nyahs were able to report incidences of violence and extortion to the police, leading to arrests. More than anything, the Association demonstrated mak nyahs were active and compassionate members of society. The Association would host fundraisers for senior citizens, disabled groups, and others. Sadly, after a three year run, religious officials put an end to the Association and the alliance, on the grounds that they were allegedly encouraging mak nyahs to do sex work5.

Although Malaysia’s trans activism began in the 80’s, the existence of trans women and queer people in our country goes centuries back. They had respectable roles in royal society and spiritual practices. Historically queer people included sida-sida, pawang, manang bali, and mak yong dancers to name a few6,7,8,9. Researchers suggest that the identities and sexualities of such esteemed individuals were central to the roles they played in society; that they weren’t tolerant in spite of who they were, but because of it8,9

Today, mak nyahs are fighting hard to challenge stigma and violence. The government put an end to sex reassignment surgery (SRS) and issuing updated myKads (ID cards) for transitioning people in the 80’s10,11. SRS was originally prohibited for Muslims trans people only, under Sharia law, then in 1992 this ban extended to non-Muslims as well 10,11. Sections 66, 377A, 377B in the Malaysian constitution outlaw ‘men posing as women’ and ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’11,12. This legitimizes raids, arrests, imprisonment of trans women, and invalidates their womanhood and  these penal codes were implemented by the British during colonial rule. As a postcolonial consequence, other Commonwealth countries including us criminalise queer people and queer relationships.

Mimie Zarina (1st from right)

Transphobia in Malaysia, what goes on? 

Police brutality is cited as the prevailing form of violence towards trans women. Whippings, sexual assault in prison or upon arrest, battery, extortion, violation of privacy, and humiliation are among the violent acts that trans women endure all too often4,12,13. Trans women are sentenced to male wards in Malaysia, and may be subject to being misgendered, having their hair shaved, and to strip naked in front of men4,12,13. According to observations by Human Rights Watch, all arrests for violation of anti-transgender laws have targeted trans women disproportionately11,12

There have been one too many hate crimes reported in Malaysian news. In 2014, 17 individuals, including a child, were arrested at a raid on a wedding in a private home15. The raid was conducted by JHEAINS (Jabatan Hal Ehwal Agama Islam Negeri Sembilan)15. Some of them were choked and kicked to the ground, had their clothes torn off. Out of the 17 arrested, the 16 adults were convicted for “crossdressing”, and the child sent to religious counselling.  

Other forms of violence, structural violence, affect the employability, healthcare, and housing of trans women. Stigma and a lack of legislation protecting trans workers’ rights make it exceedingly difficult for them to find jobs in the formal sector. Their choices are usually limited to services in retail or hotels4. The overwhelming majority do sex work since they can’t make a living in most places4. Sex work makes them easy targets for police and religious officials, puts them in a position where they are vulnerable to assault and extortion. 

There is a distrust between mak nyahs and the public health system. But for good reason. There is a lack of trans-inclusivity in health and medicine, this makes it unwelcoming for trans women to come forth with their concerns. Health practitioners aren’t equipped to help them with SRS, hormone therapy, sexual health and sexual organs, mental health problems like gender dysphoria, HIV, and so forth4. Trans women can be turned away or insufficiently treated by doctors and nurses because of stigma4. Thus, they are inclined to go private instead, where they may be taken more seriously for a price. 

Why should Malaysians care? 

Discrimination and violence towards minorities such as the LGBT community can be linked to negative impacts on our country overall. In the aspect of health impacts, Dr Etienne Krug, director of the WHO’s Department for Injury and Violence Prevention, Geneva, considered that violence was clearly a major issue for public health. He said, “The physical effects of violence are obvious—with millions of deaths and injuries each year. There are also major psychological effects. In some countries up to 5% of the gross domestic product is spent on treating the effects of violence”16. The violence and stigma inflicted upon the community could impact the economy by reducing our productivity overall and instead increasing costs of sponsoring prisons where LGBT people are abused for their unjust arrests. 

Violence is often predictable and preventable even in our country’s case. We should move towards creating a safe and healthy environment for trans women in our country. The discrimination and criminalisation of people’s gender and sexual identities does nothing to benefit our country in terms of our socioeconomic status. Trans women face discrimination in schools, families, and workplaces. These factors have given rise to health problems that trans women are especially vulnerable to.

Psychological impacts of transphobia include depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation or attempts. There haven’t been many studies on health issues pertaining to mak nyah, but there is evidence of high rates of HIV transmission amongst mak nyah sex workers, who have to prioritise their own security over the health implications of unsafe sex work17.  As Malaysians who claim to celebrate the diversity and harmony of our country, we need to better and move towards making sure that statement includes everyone no matter what their gender identity is. 

Helpful Resources

Organisations and Support Groups

  1. SEED Foundation
  2. Justice For Sisters
  3. Queer Lapis
  4. Human Rights Watch
  5. LGBT Youth Malaysia

Podcasts

1. Making Gay History

Bringing the voices of LGBTQ history to life through intimate conversations with champions, heroes and witnesses to history.

2. One From the Vaults 

Bringing you all of the dirt, gossip and glamour from trans history.

3. Hoodrat to Headwrap 

A decolonised podcast with hosts that dismantles white supremacy, black queer love ethics, pop culture and more.

4. Nancy 

Stories and conversations about the queer experience today. Prepare to laugh and cry and laugh again.

Books

1. Feminist Queer Crip by Alison Kafer 

Alison Kafer imagines a different future for disability and disabled bodies. Challenging the ways in which ideas about the future and time have been deployed in the service of compulsory able-bodiedness and able-mindedness, Kafer rejects the idea of disability as a pre-determined limit. She juxtaposes theories, movements, and identities such as environmental justice, reproductive justice, cyborg theory, transgender politics, and disability that are typically discussed in isolation and envisions new possibilities for crip futures and feminist/queer/crip alliances.

2. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

A collection of essential essays and speeches written by Audre Lorde, a woman who wrote from the particulars of her identity: Black woman, lesbian, poet, activist, cancer survivor, mother, and feminist writer.

3. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson 

A brave, fascinating memoir about love, gender, gender theory, having children, death, writing, and the modern family.

4. Queer: A Graphic History by Dr. Meg-John Barker 

From identity politics and gender roles to privilege and exclusion, Queer explores how we came to view sex, gender and sexuality in the ways that we do; how these ideas get tangled up with our culture and our understanding of biology, psychology and sexology; and how these views have been disputed and challenged.

5. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History Of Trans Identity by C. Riley Snorton

In Black on Both Sides, C. Riley Snorton identifies multiple intersections between blackness and transness from the mid-nineteenth century to present-day anti-black and anti-trans legislation and violence.

6. Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldua 

A semi-autobiographical work by Gloria E. Anzaldúa that examines the Chicano and Latino experience through the lens of issues such as gender, identity, race, and colonialism.

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