Interview Challenging Assumptions - Khartini Slamah

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Right when I was 8 years old I knew there was something ‘different’ about my gender and sexuality. I used to love playing more with girls than boys. We were never taught about sexuality. It was not even talked about. It was extremely difficult growing up as a transgender person. I also had a friend who is transgender and she was teased and bullied a lot.

How about your family?

In terms of my family, my father used to work with the public department – a ‘man’s’ job. He would not allow me to grow my hair and would insist on getting my hair cut short and I just hated it. I tried but I just couldn’t fit in. My mother was quiet but supportive. Like many other women, she would not open her mouth in front of my father.

My parents had two girls and five boys (including me). I was bullied in my family. Also, a lot of people in my village would tease my parents about me. At 13, I was sent to stay with my uncle who used to work with the religious order so I could perform "good" things and be reformed. Instead, I knew about sex when I was 13 years old. I was raped by my cousin then.

How was it in your later teenage years?

In my small village, I would hide from my family to crossdress. I moved into the city to work with a hotel. When I moved into Kuala Lumpur, I would cross-dress often. After I moved to the city I was raped by my friend who was in the police. After the incident I was in trauma for two years. During the time of the economic recession I had no choice but to get into sex work. Many transgender persons were working as sex workers. There is violence within sex work but it also helped us to get a lot of money. I was into both brothel-based sex work as well as street-based sex work. I preferred street-based sex work as that would allow me more negotiating power and I could earn more money through that.

When HIV came into the picture, we were very confused because there was an automatic association of HIV with being gay. Though I prefer men, I have had sex with women when I was doing sex work and have also taken part in sex orgies, but I do not want to have sex with a woman. I have explained to my mother and my family that marriage is not in my diary. I cannot imagine getting married to a woman. 

How did you begin the work that you do now? 

I began my work in 1987 in the area of transgender issues with a project with the Ministry of Welfare. It was around the time when beauty contests and parties etc were being stopped by religious groups. For three years I worked on interventions with religious groups.

Then I started working with the Pink Triangle (PT) Foundation in 1990. My work with PT Foundation related to training work and HIV. I was the first transgender person to join PT Foundation. At the time when I joined I was quite naïve about sexuality issues. I was uncomfortable with gay men. It was unthinkable for me to see two men, moustachioed, kissing each other. It would repulse me. I found that abnormal. But now I am okay with it.

I left PT Foundation in 2000 as I felt it was time for me to move on and use the knowledge I gained there elsewhere. I still remain on the Board of Trustees for the foundation. PT Foundation was earlier known as Pink Triangle Sdn Bhd and we were forced to change the name because of compulsions of funding etc. At PT Foundation we work with drug users, sex workers, transsexuals, men who have sex with men (MSM), and people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). I work as the Chair of the Transgender Core Group and also contribute towards developing the vision and programmes of the foundation.

Tell us more about transgender people in Malaysia. 

Here, transgender persons are called Mak Nyahs which essentially means the ‘soul of a woman’. The word transgender is western. Transgender people do not want to be called gay. Mak nyahs are those who are biologically male and behave and feel like women and like wearing women’s clothes. Nowadays, there are more mak nyahs who wear their hair short, are not very rigid and also wear men’s clothes. Many of them coming from smaller towns cannot afford to wear women’s clothes for fear of being discriminated against. Many of them are also forced into heterosexual marriages and they often have to conform. They have to hide their breasts and so on. Such marriages do not last for long. 

Do all mak nyahs want to have a sex change operation? 

We feel that any person who thinks or feels like and wants to become a woman is a mak nyah. They do not have to go in for sex change operations to be called one because we realise that these operations are expensive and not everyone can afford them.

In terms of transsexuals, there are more male to female transsexuals in comparison to female to male transsexuals. There are more opportunities for the former than for the latter. I have counselled six female to male transsexuals in Malaysia, out of which two are into sex work. Female to male transsexuals are also rare because the sex change operation is more risky for them with creating a penis, tucking of breasts, hormone treatment etc. A male to female transsexual can opt to only get his penis tucked.

What does Islam say about sex change?

Earlier, in the 1970s and 80s, men could get married to men and sex change operations were allowed and they could acquire a female name. However, in 1983, there was a fatwa (edict) by a religious group because they saw sex change operations as hurting the body and also changing God’s will. However, these operations are allowed for hermaphrodites so that they can choose to be male or female. Although they can change their names in the passport or bank accounts, they are not allowed to change their name in their birth certificate.

There are also a lot of unanswered questions in religion for me which is why I have not opted for a sex change operation yet. For example the inheritance to property rights are not equal for men and women in our religion. So, if I opt for a sex change operation I will have to give up an equal share in the property. Also, the tombstones for men and women are different. For women it is a flat tombstone whereas for a man it is a round one. Also, if one is a biological male, the person would be bathed by other men as a part of the death rites and if one is a biological woman, a man cannot touch her body. These are part of the dilemmas and unresolved questions for me. Also, my mother loves me very much and has asked me not to go for a sex change operation in her lifetime. I really love and respect her and would not want to hurt her. I am also very comfortable with my body. 

Is there any focussed work with lesbians? 

Although there is no focussed work with lesbians, they are present within the group of female sex workers and cases related to them are referred to a lesbian who handles these issues. I know a transgender person – a biological man who feels like a woman. She has however, not got a sex change operation done as yet. She is in a relationship with a ‘real’ woman. They would term the relationship as a lesbian relationship. However, using the penis to have sex with the "real" woman is not acceptable in their relationship. 

Tell us more about your current work. 

I now work as the Co-ordinator for the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers. I speak about issues of transgender people in newspapers and magazines appear on the television and talk about sexuality and rights. HIV is very often the entry-point to talk about issues of sexuality. Through my work I try to challenge the assumptions and notions of psychiatrists, religious leaders etc and I think that works. However, I do not believe in confrontation. I explain to people about the stigma and discrimination one has to face as a transgender person and I ask them "Do you think I want to go through that?" I talk about how one may realise one’s sexuality at any age, be it 13 or 30. But, people do not understand easily.

I started to work as a volunteer with APNSW since a meeting held in Chiang Mai in 1995. I feel the work is very important and we need to do it. There was no funding for the network in all these years. We got some funds only about one and a half years ago after the performances put up by my performance group, Prima Donna, at the International Women’s Health Meeting in Delhi in 2005 and another performance. We now have funds from AJSW, International HIV/AIDS Alliance and from United Nation’s Population Fund. Our website has a lot of details. Interestingly, we have changed the name of APNSW from Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers to Asia Pacific Network on Sexual Health and Welfare. I feel it is very important to translate the bigger objectives of the network to different countries. 

What are your other interests?

I feel gender and sexuality are still very taboo subjects in Asia. Both are still constructed in the binary. I also feel that we need to go much beyond talking about identity politics of different groups like kothis, panthis and hijras. It is important for all of us to get together and share ideas and views. We are planning to organise a meeting/ conference in Toronto in August, 2008. 

One of my other areas of interest is to see the linkages between religion and sexuality because we cannot ignore religion in our contexts and ignoring it will not solve our problems. 

Khartini Slamah is the Co-ordinator for the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers. She is an advocate for the rights of sex workers, people living with HIV and AIDS and people who do not conform to sexual and gender norms.