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The 3rd Sex

Marie Claire (Malaysia Edition. July 2000)

"Regina playing the perfect MC at the birthday bash of Syarmila, who's surrounded by her transsexual friends."

They're tall, bosomy and taut-torsoed. When they walk, everyone turns to stare. But they're not supermodels. They're women trapped in men's bodies. They been called all sorts of names; but the term they feel comfortable with is 'transsexual'. Ena Gill probes this marginalised community.

At a boutique in one of KL's bustling shopping malls, the salesgirls are chatting away amicably with each other. When a customer walks in, they stop their banter and attend to the newcomer with genuine interest and warmth. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. But under this surface of this seeming normalcy something is amiss. The salesgirls are not, in fact girls; they are transsexuals. Born with male genitals , they are in every other respect female. They think, behave and relate to others just like women.

If women have come a long way, so have transsexuals. There was a time, in the 70s and 80s, when transsexuals were nocturnal creatures who appeared only after the street lights came on, in dark alleys notorious for prostitutes and other nefarious activities. Most of them were sex workers, and being rejects of society, often indulge in drugs and petty crime as well. Today, the sex workers still haunt certain areas in the city, but transsexuals have become more visible in diurnal life as well. They are taking up jobs in shops, restaurants, beauty parlors, entertainment and even professions such as journalism and, to a lesser degree, in the more conservative domains of accountancy, medicine and engineering.

"I think society has seen transsexuals doing good things," says Regina, an attractive transsexual who sings and takes on MC (master of ceremonies) assignments. "There are a lot of nice people in this world. In my case, I have a strong sense of humor which helps. When people give me a hard time, i keep quite and don’t say anything."

Another transsexual, a prominent fashion and beauty writer, agrees society is relenting. "When I first started in journalism about 10 years a go, I used to get depressed all the time," says the soft-spoken, delicate looking journalist. "One day, my editor called me in and told me its not who I am but how well I do my job that matters. Since then, I've felt much better."

Transsexuals tend to be creative and perform well in jobs that use this talent. And because they have a burning desire to be women, they are particularly interested in women's fashion and beauty, giving them an edge in this industry. A boutique manager who has hired transsexuals says, "They provide really good customer service because they love fashion. They excellent at giving advice on what looks good on a customer, and can even suggest what accessories the customer should buy to complete the look."

The truth is, those who have contact with any of the 30,000 or so transsexuals in the country and get to know them tend to be more sympathetic. The problem is, not many people have this opportunity. As Regina puts it, "Society hasn't had the chance to get close to transsexuals. Either we're too flamboyant or too 'fast' for them." She adds many people still associate transsexuals with sex workers because, for many years, that was the only occupation open to them. "Its unfair for people to go to places like Lorong Haji Taib (where many transsexuals sex workers live and operate) and assume we're all like that."

Unfortunately, although transsexuals are gradually being assimilated into mainstream society, many are still trapped within the sordid confines of prostitution, drugs, gangsterism and clashes with the police. Its not a pretty scene, and no one would want to live in such squalid conditions. But for may transsexuals, there is little or no choice. Treated like outcasts by their own families, they find solace int he company of others like them and begin a journey of isolation from the orthodox notions of "normal" life.

.: Whose choice is it, anyway? :.

The view that transsexuals choose to be the way they are is still prevalent, and creates a barrier that shunts off transsexuals and their problems. Leena Gosh, a lawyer who provides legal counseling to transsexuals sex workers, continuosly comes up against this wall. "Even my lawyer friends say, 'Why do you want to involve yourself with them? Its their choice to be sex workers.'But they have bills to pay, just like anyone else, "she says. "Also , if they want to change their appearance, their jobs probably wouldn't be able to pay for it, so they have to revert to something that brings them money." In fact job discrimination is something transsexuals continue to face, despite pockets of industries becoming more open minded. Pat, a salesgirl at a boutique, says she has been rejected by potential employers twice before simply because of her gender anomaly. "It's very hard for me to get a job because of the way I am. Once, my company tried to transfer me to an outlet in another departmental store but the manager there said he couldn't accept me. I was so upset, I broke down and cried. But it didn't help."

As significant as it is, getting a good job is just the tip of an iceberg of problems transsexuals face. Perhaps the most stressful demand comes from within themselves. And it begins when they first realised they are different, often at a young age of six or seven. "I'm never at peace with myself," says Pat, whose calm demeanour is deceptive. "I dont want to be like this. I was born like a boy, I don't know why I have this feeling. I try to remove it but i just can't."

Many theories have been put forward to explain transsexualism, but the scientific community has yet to come up with a definitive cause. In the 70s, it was suggested that "a male gene" existed which could get detached from Y chromosome during the formation of sperm cells. And if a Y chromosome lacking in this gene went into creating a boy, he would have male genitals but not your typical male psyche.

.: Its all in the brain :.

More recently, the explanation has shifted focus to the neurones in the brain. A Canadian psychologist at the University of British Columbia suggested in 1992 transsexualism "is caused by some sort of brain damage incurred by birth. Somehow, wiring in the brain that controls gender gets changed in the birth process." Other's believe the aberrent allignment of neurones may be set during the foetal stage. Whichever is the case, the brain of a transsexual is different. Dr Dick Swaab of the Netherlands Institute for Brain Research, who studied six males ranssexuals for over 11 years, reported in 1995 that the part of the brain responsible for sexual behaviour in them matched those of women, rather than men.

All this suggests that transsexualism has a biological, maybe even genetic, cause and is not something that is "put on" for the fun of it. In normal males and females, the sex orientation are all congruent; in transsexuals, they are not. For some time, it was thought a person's sexual orientation could be manipulated. And so transsexuals were given counselling and therapy to set them right. But results of such therapy have by and large not been satisfactory, indicating transsexualism is not purely psychological. Which left two options to help transsexuals - change the wiring of their brains or change their genitals.

So far, no one has claimed to be able to re-wire a brain. But as far back as 1931 a German physician, F.Z. Abraham, made history by conducting the first sex reassignment surgery. In 1971, the feat was repeated in Singapore by Professor S.S. Ratnam, who was at the time at the National University Hospital. He had been visited by an “attractive female “ patient who shocked him by disclosing her true sex and begged him to transform her into a women. Although hesitant, Prof Ratnam eventually relented. As part of his research, he would spent hours in front of a mirror, naked, looking at his genitals to see how they could be removed with minimal trauma to the rest of the body.

.: Cutting across the gender border :.

The surgery involved removing his patient’s penis and testes and using the erogenous tissue in the genital area to create the walls of vagina. To prevent the vagina from “healing” and thus closing up, the patient had to insert a mould in the opening. The operation was so successful that between 1971 and 1991, as many as 500 transsexuals went under the knife Prof Ratnam had pioneered.

According to Dr Vincent Goh, another surgeon who later performed the surgery in Singapore, the patients including “lawyers, engineers, journalists, businesswomen, factory workers, models and masseuses”.

Because the operation is irreversible, it became imperative to ensure those who undergo it are really transsexuals as opposed to being a homosexual with psychological problems. The international medical fraternity thus came out with guidelines on the type of counselling is also given as some transsexuals who have had the operation find it difficult to cope with the changes. In general, however, transsexuals revel in their new gender status. According to a recently concluded study by Dr The Yik Koon, a sociologist and criminologist at the University Utara Malaysia, 15 out of 17 Malaysian transsexuals who have had the operation say they are happier now.

In Malaysia, the operation became available in 1974. It was first performed by Dr G.S.W. Geh at the University Hospital, However, the freedom for Malaysian transsexuals to change their sex was short-lived. Following the fatwa(Islamic religious ruling), sex change operations were banned in the country on February 24, 1983. Ever since those who desperately want the surgery tend to go either to Singapore or Bangkok. In Singapore, the operation costs S$15,000 (RM33,000). It’s much cheaper in Bangkok, but there is a risk of being butchered. “Two of my friends have had the operation in Bangkok,” said the journalist.” But one of them couldn’t pee at all afterwards. And the other friend, whenever she urinates everything goes everywhere like a fountain!”

.: Victorian morals revisited :.

The ban on the sex operation was, in fact, the beginning of a gradual shifting public attitude towards transsexuals. With growing awareness, and fear, of HIV and AIDS came a sudden return to Victorian morality globally. In Malaysia, the backlash hit high-risk groups particularly hard – intravenous drug users, homosexual men, prostitutes and transsexuals.

The Federal Territory Transvestite Association, which had been set up in 1987 to help transsexuals improve their socioeconomic status, became defunct three years later. It never managed to be registered with Registrar of Societies. “The objective was to give vocational training to the community, “says Khartini Slamah, who was secretary of the association. “The association had the blessing of the Ministry of Welfare and they would give us grants to help transsexuals set up their own business. The problem was, there was no proper guidance. So the transsexuals had the money, but not the knowledge, to run a business.

In all, the Welfare Department helped transsexuals set up about 20 projects in 1980s, disbursing about RM40,000 towards this end. Among the shops that were set up were a hairdressing salon and a tailoring unit on the ground floor of the Malaysian Cancer Society. But both ventures failed due to lack of commercial savvy, and customers.

Despite the demise of the FT Transvestite Association and its training programme, transsexuals can still approach the Welfare Department for financial aid. According to N.Mailpatanam, Director of the Social Welfare Department of Wilayah Persekutuan, a Public Assistant Scheme available to the needy – at a recently revised rate of RM250 per month for families, and for RM100 a month for the elderly, who lived below the poverty line of RM500 a month. And the scheme is open to transsexuals and others,” says Mailpatanam. “But giving public assistance is not the only way of helping them. We’d prefer to help them become financially independent. So we may give them a grant to set up their own business, or we may refer them to others who might be able to help. It’s the interest of anyone who is able-bodied to support himself.”

.:NeXT PaGe:.


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