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The Transgender Subculture in Malaysia

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 3903 words Published: 3rd Jul 2018

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1. Introduction

According to a privately-sponsored survey conducted in 2001, there were estimated at least 50,000 transgender people in Malaysia. Other than that, the number of transgendered people in Kuala Lumpur alone was estimated to be 50,000 which show 200 individuals in Malaysia is transgender (Wong, 2005). The study of the transgender subculture mentioned here is an explorative inquiry into the existence and the intricacies of the subject. The objectives of this study is to provide an in-depth look into the transgender subculture usually described by the term ‘Pondan or Mak Nyah’, which is much commonly used in Malaysia.

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Beforehand, “pondan” is actually a derogatory term for shemales and trangenders, whereas the term “May Nyah” is from the word “mak”, which means “mother” in Malay language. Both terms is used to describe a man who wants to act or dress like woman. Due to people’s limited understanding and misconceptions, some slang is publicly used to tease transgender individuals. In fact, it may cause a lot of negative impacts on them such as decreasing their self-esteem and self-efficacy. Likewise, transgender is defined as a state of an individual gender identity not matching their actual sex which they were assigned at birth, and also takes in cross dressers and transsexuals. Cross dressers are hetero males who like to dress as women on occasion whereas transsexuals is people who are born in one gender but identify with the other. The cause of transgender ideals can be both nature and nurture factors. Biologically, the factors includes differences in how the human brain functions, neurochemical pathways, and the endocrine glands. However, the nurture factor does play an important role to active the inert gene of an individual to become transgender. Sociologist strongly believes that there are influences from cultural and environmental of the local community on transgender (Zhou, Hofman, Gooren, & Swaab, 1995).

Moreover, transgender had been practiced long ago before it was being identified in 19th century which is 1880s in Germany. During 1886, Richard von Krafft-Ebing which is a German doctor began studying the occurrence of gender divergence. At first, transgender was coined “gynandry” and later he described it as “metamorphosis sexualis paranoia’ in 1902 which mean a homosexual that truly believed him or herself to be the different from his or her “assigned sex”. Furthermore, Krafft-Ebing believed that homosexuality was a mental illness and delusion (Hunnicutt, 2004). In fact, the first true pioneer that involve in the field of transgender was Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld which is a gay physician that dedicate himself to the studies on the fields of sex and gender. He was the first to coin the most two popular terms to describe transgender which is transvestism and transexualism (Melville, 2004). In addition, “transvestite” has become kind of archaic expression and one many transgender people take the exception to. Transgender is the popular expression of the day.

The main problem that transgender face in Malaysia is that they are unable to change his or her sex identity in their identification card after they undergo sex reassignment surgery (SRS) or gender reassignment therapy (GRT) although SRS and GRT is legal in Malaysia. This occurrence shows that government are still not being recognized nor accepted. In religion aspect, Islam strictly not recognized or accepted transgender because they do not allow males to wear women’s clothing and they were normally isolated. There are a significant number of transgender individuals who have been treated unfairly simply because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. (this also check see got link or not) According to a recent survey done by National Center for Transgender Equality, fully 42 percent of gay individuals say they have experienced some form of employment discrimination at some point in their lives. However, transgender workers face even higher rates of workplace discrimination and harassment. An astonishing 90 percent of transgender individuals report experiencing some form of harassment, mistreatment, discrimination on the job, or hiding from who they are to avoid it (Burns, 2003). Moreover, activists have estimated there are at least 50,000 transgender in Malaysia, many of whom face widespread prejudice and often cannot find employment (Eileen, 2011). 

According to Wong (2005), a journalist from The Malaysian Bar, reported that transgender in Malaysia is still being heavily discriminated, understated and misjudged. They face many obstacles and challenges since community of Malaysia was mired in a mindset that transgender is abnormal and should somehow be “treated”. There are still many bias and stereotyped toward transgender in Malaysia. One of the ways to decrease and prevent bias and stereotype is through education and help more people understand about transgender. To arrive at a deeper understanding of the transgender subculture, we would discover their social relationship such as their socialization with family, peers, education and workplace. In this study, we have collected our data using questionnaires and face-to-face interview.

2. Results/ Findings

2.1 Participant 1

She is Fazura, this is the name after she decided to become a transgender. Her original name was Faiz, she was a normal male during her high school period and there is a personal reason that she decided to become a part of the transgender. During the interview, she explained that during the age of fourteen to fifteen, one of the vital reasons that she becomes a transgender is that she was hurt so deeply by one of the female during her high school years, till the point she decided to become part of it.

She was from an average family which consists of four siblings, and she had two sisters that passed away far early before she was born. After years, she found out that her mother wishes to have a daughter but sadly all of her sisters were not fortunate enough to stay longer. The issue made him to think deeply and give him the encouragement to move further into the world of transgender. Family members could not accept the fact of her being a transgender, but slowly getting used to it and being comfortable around her. And from the family background of her that we know, she is the only transgender individual in among her family and relatives. Fazura would not feel concern about how other looks at her being a transgender or planning to go overseas where people would be more open-minded on transgender. She intends to stay here with her family and overcome her problems.

Furthermore, being a transgender, Fazura is being very specific on her daily diet, and will go for jogging mostly everyday to keep healthy and fit. Also, she starts to consume contraceptive pills after she decided to become a transgender when she was twenty. She has to keep this as a daily routine in order to have a feminine outlook on her body. She is also planning on a plastic surgery if her financial condition can support her to do so, but she claims that she will not undergo sex reassignment surgery (SRS) because in the later years, she might wish to become straight as a normal male again.

As a minority group of the society, Fazura explained that she will only hang out in place like Sunway Pyramid shopping centre and café only with her group of friends. Most of her friends were transgender and ‘PLU’ (which means people like us), she felt comfortable around them other than walking alone and face conspicuous sight from the public. Sometimes she might join her friends to have a small picnic gathering in Port Dickson once awhile. And as a transgender, finding a partner is not an issue for her because once in awhile she will meet someone who is similar to her or someone who is interested with her, but keeping a relationship to last long is the difficult part. Fazura mentioned that she had six partners before and were not as faithful as seems. She further explained that in the society of transgender, partners were usually come and goes, they never last long because everyone is seeking for something new and exciting rather than staying with an individual. She sees herself as an open-minded, tolerance and patience person. As a transgender Malay, she prefers to meet a partner that is smart, high moral and can financially support her. It is because they can take her equally in every decision and will not be bias just because she is a transgender. For now, she would not concern about any relationship problem at the moment because she has to focus on her work, she need to support her family and moreover a mother who is falling ill.

As a twenty six years old Malay transgender, she now works in the company of Sunway Lagoon as a marketing clerk. She has a stable financial income and a flexible lifestyle, as a transgender it does not have any major negative effect on her career. She is also a part time makeup artist for wedding couple.

2.2 Participant 2

Danny is 28 years old from Malaysia. His behaviors are feminine, fashionable, gentle, and well-mannered. He was raised in Perak and moved to Klang in order to further his study in “Pengajian Islam” at a local university. He stopped his study after 2 weeks because he felt uncomfortable to continue his study due to his shemale identity which is against his religion (Muslim). Currently, he is working as a makeup artist in an international makeup company in Shah Alam.

From his past experiences, Danny explained that he changed himself to shemale because of the external environment he was raised and influenced. During that time, the people around him often said his appearance look like a girl. She also used to play makeup and girl thingy when he was young. This is why he wanted to transform into shemale. But, when he decided to become a shemale, his family members could not accept his decision however, as time passes his family slowly accepts who he is.

At the age of 25, he decided to transform himself from shemale to gay by stop consuming hormone pills and stop dressing up like a woman. The reason why he transforms himself is because: Firstly, after his mother passed away, he does not want his brother feel embarrassed about his identity. Secondly, his company does not accept him as a shemale due to any clients which is Muslim religion will refuse or reject his makeup services to them.

Besides, Danny is currently in a relationship with his partner. In fact, he actually had a thought of forming his family by adopting children and raise them. His ideal partner type must be a Chinese, handsome, and has stable income. In contrast, he never expects that his love relationship could last longer. Thus, he does not treat his relationship with every partner seriously. Additionally, he keeps his identity in a low profile whenever he goes out with his partner because he does not want to expose his identity to others. In the meantime, he enjoys hanging out with his clique that consists of gay and shemale to shopping and picnic. He takes his career seriously as a professional makeup artist whereby he does not mix his personal things with his job. However, he still had the thought of transforming back to a normal guy when he becomes old.

2.3 Participant 3

Renee James is 66 years old from Chicago, USA. He was married with a woman, and had three children and seven grandchildren. He became transgender in his 40s and came out to his wife about ten years ago. He did not tell his family about his transgender orientation, only his wife knows. This is because he thinks that it would be a burden for them to carry. He believes that most of his family, relatives and friends would accept him, but he does not want to go there. He frequently stays at home. Renee’s personality is somewhat introverted, quiet and shy. He will try to avoid conflict with others. Besides that, he likes to write, take long walks with his dog and canoe. He usually spends most of his time with his wife and occasionally has lunch with some transgender friends. Additionally, he has been active in the Chicago trans community ever since. He will attend two or three transgender community meetings monthly and visit with family once a week.

Renee is financially secured. Currently, he is a free-lance writer and a magazine editor. His magazine career was not being affected because he never came out as transgender in his professional life. He wrote a novel “Coming Out Can Be Murder” as a trans woman. He had encountered many barriers to success because he is a transgender and the book is about a transsexual woman. Until now, Renee still lives in two different identities, because it is illegal to change the name. He also feels conspicuous when he presents his female persona. Although he knows that he should not be bother with what others think about him, but still, he is.

After he proclaims that he is a transgender, he felt a sense of euphoria and relief. However, that does not last very long because reality sets in for most transgender, transgender is a very difficult struggle for acceptance. The most challenging and difficult part that Renee faced is acceptance. This is because many Caucasian and African male-to-female transgender don’t look right. For example, they are too big, too broad-shouldered and others. Renee said that,

“Male-to-female transgenders in Asia have a different experience that we in the US. In some Asian countries-notably Thailand-the difference in size between men and women is not as great as in Caucasian and African gene pools, so more trans women are able to pass as women. From what I’ve read, though, they are just as stigmatized as we are here in the US.”

Hence, it is hard even for kind people to accept them. Within a marriage, acceptance is also very difficult because his wife feels threatened by his identity. She fears he will transition to full time female, become attracted to himself, have an affair with another person, or somehow embarrass the family. At first, it was very difficult for his wife, but at last she supports him and they go on.

About five years ago, Renee began taking small doses of estrogen. It doesn’t affect his body because he does not take testosterone blockers. Nevertheless, the estrogen seems to soothe some of the mental conflicts he had. The result is that he had a milder disposition which he don’t get mad as often, and don’t get as mad as he once did. He liked both boy and girl things as a child and still today. He is comfortable in a male presentation, even though much of the time he would prefer to be a woman. He claimed that he has a man’s body and a bi-gender mind.

3. Discussion

There are interplay of nature and nurture in transgender. Previously mentioned, there are biological effects in transgender. James (2012) stated that transgender is not a decision they make, it is how their brain develops. In the womb, we all start out female, but our bodies and brains evolve and some of us become male. The brain, including the parts that determine gender orientation, continues to develop after birth. What can “decide” is what to do about that? Some who born in male don’t have the same brain chemistry as other males and end up identifying as female or, in some cases, identifying as both male and female. Some decide to hide their identity, but as time goes on it become impossible (James, 2012). Moreover, in our findings, the participants become transgender due to the influence of family, peers, and society.

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Besides, transgender concerned about their appearance. They will exercise and diet in order to keep their body fit. They also learn how to makeup from magazine, friends and television shows. Additionally, they consumed contraceptive or birth-control pills such as Marvelon, Levora, and Camilla which contains estrogens to decrease male hormone and increase female hormone. According to Cross (2012), men may experience larger breasts, less facial hair and smaller testicles if they consume the pills. Furthermore, they are materialistic and like branded things such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Prada.

The major struggle for transgender is acceptance. Transgender like to seek for acceptance from society. In family viewpoint, transgender was not easily being accepted by their parents and siblings where they will tend to feel embarrass and confuse. As time flies, family would gradually accept them as who they are. Mostly relatives and peers could accept them as transgender. In societal perspective, the communities are still stereotyping transgender yet they are not easily bothered on how the communities look on them. One way or another, they are more concern on family’s view than others on them. Likewise, transgender are not being accepted by most of the religion.

In terms of relationship partner, our findings illustrated that transgender relationship usually would not last long. Transgender would not take their relationship seriously because their main concern for both sides is to satisfy their own sexual instincts. So, they will easily feel bored with their partner and always seek to change for another. Nonetheless, there is minority who able to marry (heterosexual) and involve in a long-lasting relationship (homosexual). In addition, transgender also hope to have their own family.

According to our results, participants are financially secure and stable in their work. They tend to work professionally in their job and are not easily affected by personal matter. However, there are exceptions. Wong (2005) stated that there are approximately 80% of the transgender in Malaysia become commercial sex workers because of discrimination by prospective employers. Wong (2005) also declared that:

“Many are academically qualified to hold professional positions but are denied the opportunity for employment. Many end up in the sex industry as well as ‘stereotyped’ professions such as hairdressing and entertainment. One must question how genuinely free the ‘choice’ of being a sex worker can be if opportunities for other kinds of employment remain limited. One must also understand and acknowledge the way transsexuals have been [socialized] into seeing themselves and the insidious barriers set up by corporations and prospective employers.”

From our findings, transgender characteristics are open-minded, soft, tolerate, and non-aggressive. They are more introverts whereby they prefer to stay at home often. In addition to that, transgender usually go out with their clique or with someone who is close with them instead of go out alone. However, being a well-mannered citizen does not mean that they are free from the disturbance of the authorities. In one of the annual events, “Seksualiti Merdeka”, was being held to represent a coalition of Malaysian Non Government Organizations (NGOs) including Malaysian Bar Council, SUARAM, Empower, PT Foundation, United Nations, Amnesty International and individuals. Through the event, it has disclosed the Malaysian government was unwilling to provide equal rights to transgender and therefore transgender faced difficulties in accessing health care, education, housing, employment, and other rights that shared by Malaysian. For example, the transgender community has reported that they are being discriminated on attempting to open bank account and applying passport. Moreover, 70% of the transgender reported that they are being caught by the police raids and have been treated brutally such as striped their clothes in front of others in the police station. (this also see is what link de)

Overall, this study could not be generalized due to the lack of participants and the reliability of our resources. This is because our study only involved three participants. In order to generalize the study, we need a wider population. More participants should be recruited from different culture, races, ethnic and nationality. Moreover, this study was conducted in three weeks. The duration was considered short whereby there are limited time and resources for us to collect our data. More time should be provided in order to collect more dependable and valid information as well as to increase the degree of consistency and reliability of the study. Therefore, further research need to be conducted to obtain more significant and reliable results.

In a nutshell, the transgender experiences vary across the region. Some area could accept transgender whereby they do not have to endure a lot of rudeness from others. In other areas, people tend to be very conservative and religiously dogmatic, where transgender individuals live secret lives. Yet, everyone deserves to be free from discrimination, violence, harassment and for their sexual orientations as well as their gender identities. Lastly, we should educate our young generation to be knowledgeable and understanding so that they would not easily discriminate, blames, and judges others without knowing the truth.



Burns, C. (2003). The costly business of discrimination: The economic costs of discrimination and the financial benefits of gay and transgender equality in the workplace. Retrieved September 29, 2012, from http://www.americanprogressaction.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2012/03/pdf/lgbt_biz_discrimination.pdf

Cross, C. (2012). The effect of birth control pills on male. Retrieved from eHow: http://www.ehow.com/facts_5634953_effect-birth-control-pills-males.html

Ee Lynn, Wong. (2005, February 1). Neither Here Nor There: The Legal Dilemma of the Transsexual Community in Malaysia. Retrieved from The Malaysian Bar Web: http://www.malaysianbar.org.my/gender_issues/neither_here_nor_there_the_legal_dilemma_of_the_transsexual_community_in_malaysia.html (How about this? All need big letter? The title I mean..)

Eileen, Ng. (2011, July 19). Malaysian transsexual loses court bid to officially change gender despite sex-change surgery. The Associated Press. Retrieved from http://www.macleans.ca/article.jsp?content=w7542884 (What mean The Associated Press? Retrieved from The Associated Press: then add?)

Hunnicutt, A. (2004). Krafft-Ebing, Richard von (1840-1902). Retrieved from http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/krafft_ebing_r.html

James, R. (2012). Coming out can be murder. United States: Windy City Publishers.

Melville, R. (2004). Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. Retrieved from StoneWall Society: http://www.stonewallsociety.com/famouspeople/magnus.htm

United Nations Country Team. (2011). Malaysia: The millennium development goals at 2010. Retrieved from http://www.undp.org.my/files/editor_files/files/Malaysia%20MDGs%20report%20clean%200419.pdf

Zhou, J.N., Hofman, M. A., Gooren, L.J.G., & Swaab, D. F. (1995). A sex difference in the human brain and its relation to transsexuality. Nature 378: 68-70.


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