Will we give them ‘a little tolerance’?

Posted on 10 October 2012 – 09:10pm
Petra Gimbad
the sun

TODAY, a difficult decision faces a judge in the High Court. The constitutionality of the arrest of four transwomen – apprehended previously for cross-dressing under syariah law – will be decided as reported in “Seeking the right to be female in Malaysia” (The New York Times, Oct 5).

With regards to the case, one can only imagine how the judge must feel: burdened with the legal responsibility to interpret the Constitution, while wishing to give due respect to one’s personal beliefs, no matter how irrelevant they may be to the proceedings.

It is my guess that it is no easy task for any judge to legally decide a case that will determine the fate of persecuted and marginalised individuals, under the pressure of a society that discriminates against transgenders.

Given that the judge will deliver a judgment – not in a syariah court, but in the High Court that is bound by both the Federal Court and the Federal Constitution – it is hoped that the right courage will be exercised.

It is my belief that regardless of whether the law is man-made or God-given, this is a case where the decision is clear – to do justice to the laws of the land, we must practice compassion with those who need it the most.

Having attended the case hearing a month ago, I was fortunate to observe that the judge appeared sympathetic to the applicants’ suffering, while experiencing great pressure to make the correct legal decision.

These transwomen have experienced immense physical, mental and sexual cruelty. Often, they serve as prisoners within their own homes – trapped inside by an outside world that believes they are less than human and therefore, should not exist.

In preparation for this article, I interviewed and read the works of those involved in transgender rights advocacy, which included transgender men and women, academic activists and writers concerned with the way transgenders are treated in this country.

A transwoman requested, “Hopefully your articles will open many more eyes and hearts… not to support us, but just to give a little tolerance.”

Hauntingly, this dignified transwoman did not ask for sympathy or even acceptance. All she asked for was tolerance, despite many in the community being driven to sex work with abusive clients and under cruel circumstances because they cannot obtain work elsewhere.

Within the context of a Malaysia that is supposed to celebrate diversity – how is it possible that all a transwoman can expect is “a little tolerance”? Why should a transgender be accepted as anything less than a human being deserving of the right to not only live free of the fear of persecution, but also with the expectation that he or she will be accepted and loved?

As pointed out earlier in my article “The right to be” (Freespace, Sept 13), one’s gender is not a choice. Women who are born biologically male and dress in female clothing, invite public ridicule, physical violence and sexual assault. Many men think nothing of sexually assaulting transwomen, thinking it is their right to do so and because they know that they can get away with it.

If ‘choosing’ one’s gender were a choice, it would be as simple as saying no. Given the choice, the physical and sexual assaults, monetary costs, surgical pain and suffering induced by familial rejection are just not worth it.

Hormones, to aid the transition from being biologically male to female, are expensive. Surgery, to construct breasts and to remove or reconstruct sexual organs, is a highly expensive, invasive, painful and time-consuming process that spans the period of months or even years.

Additionally, many are rejected by their families who love them still, but are unable to practice acceptance because of society’s inability to do so. As a result, many of them are unable to return home.

For the most part, society has neither aid nor sympathy to offer.

The decisions we make or decide not to make, impact those around us regardless of whether we are able to recognise ourselves as political actors with vital parts to play. Aside from one’s legal duties, we each have a role in deciding whether we will participate collectively in decisions that affect our most vulnerable.

Therefore, what will we choose? And what shall the outcome be?

The writer, a student completing her thesis, thanks all interviewees and writers who provided generously in time. All opinions here, unless expressedly stated, are her own. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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