Since 1998, candles are lit throughout the world every 20th November in memory of the violence done to trans* people all over the globe.
2015 happens to be the year of Fallon Fox, Laverne Cox and of course Caitlyn Jenner in the United States — and also a year where transgender related deaths there doubled compared to last year.
With such frequent murders, one would think there is an open season upon transgender America. We are already facing massacres throughout South America, along with many deaths recorded even in Europe.
Each country has a point person or a group related to the International Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) movement who rallies everyone ranging from the LGBT community to the general public to come together, and reflect on a year of transgender murders, with the hope that one day it will all stop.
A prominent feature of every TDOR would be the tiring yet necessary practice of reading out the list of names of the dead to remember. These are people who’ve hurt no one, yet in many countries there is a consensus that they deserve death.
In previous TDORs, we shared about the young transgender girl who got hit repeatedly by her boyfriend and his friends with shovels until she died. We shared about this transgender girl from the Philippines whose body was cut into pieces and parts were left to boil on the stove by her Caucasian boyfriend.
We even shared about an eight-month old baby who was shaken to death by his father because the father felt the baby looked more like a girl than a boy.
This year’s commemoration list is no different. There’s been a total of 271 reported deaths worldwide, and countless more unreported or unaddressed due to gender status. The details are still gruesome. Stab wounds. Strangulation. Multiple gunshot wounds. Beaten to death. Run over repeatedly by a vehicle.
There was one found with a knife stuck in her neck, and even one who had transphobic slurs shouted at her before the knife struck. Many bodies were dismembered. The violence worldwide is real and brutal.
Malaysia, on the other hand, is actually at a crossroads. Yes, things are not really so bad here. Transgender people who get arrested by religious authorities ended up having their hair shaved off and sent to prison. Some complained of sexual abuse. Yet this is nothing as bad as what is happening overseas. Thank moderation!
However, there have been growing reports of some transgender people being beaten and attacked, though these cases are isolated to rural areas and the causes may not be transgender hate related.
While the nine deaths from 2008 to 2013 within the transgender population in Malaysia may or may not be due to transgender related violence, there is an uncomfortable feeling of what may come and impact the transgender population in our country, due to the increasing Islamisation and religious extremism.
Circus acts, cheap comedy
The ruling coalition leaders make regular declarations pitting gender non-conforming people (in most cases people born transsexual) against the official religion of this country, calling their gender an enemy of Islam or incompatible with Asian culture. This summarises how badly treated transgender people are by a democracy which is supposed to protect them.
In fact, such hate speech gives ammunition, and tacit approval for some backward and paranoid individuals to instigate potentially life-threatening circumstances upon an already misunderstood minority.
Coupled with the popularity contests and victim mentality from the transgender groups of the community, along with the total lack of information to the grassroots on their plight, the population is worryingly marginalising themselves away from society into a very vulnerable state.
It does not help that most Malaysian transgender people are socio-politically weak and economically unstable, and many are being enrolled by their only friends into sex work believing it is the only way for them to survive, without being presented with other alternatives which would help them leave the dangerous streets of red-light districts around the city, and secure better futures.
To this day, the Malaysian general public still refuses to discuss and be informed about what transgenderism is about, let alone understand the implications if one is born transsexual. They are contented with just viewing transgender people as human beings, without realising that such ignorance breeds contempt at the presence of transgender people, from the habit of misgendering to equal but separate treatment.
Postings on social media, especially on Facebook, continue to project transgender people as circus acts or cheap comedy, serving up small doses of bias and prejudice that would further alienate the general public from seeing the person in a transgender individual.
Videos making fun of transgender people are seen as normal, with the largely cisgender population expecting acceptance of such as a small matter to them, without realising how one sided the power dynamics can be; as often said, satire is for the weak against the strong. When it is used by the strong against the weak, it is ultimately cruel.
Bridges need to be built for transgender people to finally take part in society, as it is fundamental in fostering acceptance and understanding of a community of people mostly born different.
It is problematic enough that the medical fraternity in this country has chosen to ignore the scientific evidence and clinical treatment for a medical condition that has no cure, and instead allow propagation of long unproven “rehabilitation,” using religious means.
It will not be the first time in history of mankind that medical conditions which the uninformed do not understand are met with religious treatment.
There is an impending cultural warfare against transgender people, initiated by those who cannot accept a medical condition that entails gender transition and sex reassignment. This is due to the sensitivity of an Asian region obsessed with sexual and gender presentation and assigning rigid roles as to what a female and male should look and behave like, further constricted by religious laws which fail to address who they really are.
And sadly, transgender groups here continue to fail in their ways to educate the general public. They even recently attempted to use an incorrectly formulated argument during a highly publicised court case against religious laws that accidentally assumed transgender people as mentally insane, adding fuel to fire at the grassroots condemning transgender existence.
Most transgender people in Malaysia are being further discriminated to the fringes, at a level much lesser than foreign labourers. They are trapped in the cycle of sex work, and affirmative action has been concentrated on sex workers’ rights and HIV prevention, rather than improving their quality of life and taking part in civil society.
Transgender people will be the first to become collateral damage to any excuse for violence. It is very easy to do so, when one can claim the authority of God that transgender existence is the sign of the end of the world. It is so easy to pick on the weak when the world cannot give them what they want.
Transgender people need as much help as they can to escape the faux comfort zones given to them by their peers, but they are still out of touch with most of the world around them.
Malaysia is still a country that is moderate and friendly to all, but with the rise of xenophobia, racism, and now religious discrimination, we are fast regressing to an intolerant and hateful society, especially at the grassroots.
This is a plea to Malaysians, please give transgender people the opportunity to have more than the life they know, to have the same meaningful and beneficial friendships, and the equality to achieve the same dreams like the rest of Malaysians could, instead of leaving them uncared for and at risk of potential violence.
We need to stand united in the face of threats by religious fundamentalism. Why not start with encouraging the ones who face the most problems from it?
If we believe that as minorities in Malaysia we have a place and rights, then we must also afford the same for those who are treated lesser than us. Give them the chance to share more and speak about their lives, and give ourselves a chance to really know and understand them, so that we can all move forward, together.
There have been no reported deaths of Malaysian transgender people for the past two years, and hopefully none that are unreported. Let us keep it that way.
*A version of this article originally appeared at Malaysian news portal Malaysiakini (www.malaysiakini.com)
Photo Credit: Chris Rayan, malaysianguy.com