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New Straits Times
SpotLight: ‘Third gender’ living in legal limbo
19 Jun 2006
They are the non-entities of society. Their misery is deepened by the reluctance of the authorities to recognise them as transsexuals. Yet they cling to the hope that society will one day accept them for who they are.
NISHA gyrated with consummate grace to the hugely popular Indonesian number Goyang Bali, her every move cheered by the boisterous crowd at the Jalan Yang Kalsom dangdut lounge in Ipoh.
She was dressed in a ravishing cream-and-red kebaya, and her complexion, long silky hair and full figure would be the envy of any woman.
Seeing some unfamiliar faces among her fans, the lithe Nisha sashayed towards a table and in the most gracious manner extended a hand in welcome.
"Hello, how are you?" she asked with a dazzling smile. "I’m Nisha."
After a quick exchange of pleasantries, Nisha, who looked to be in her late 20s, waltzed back to the dance floor and picked up where she had left off as queen of the night.
"I’d bet my last ringgit she’s a woman," said Anil, refusing to believe that Nisha was actually a male transsexual.
Since I was already working on a story on the plight of transsexuals, I though it would help if I could talk to Nisha.
"Do you know that I am the Maria Menado of Ipoh?" asked Nisha, dabbing sweat off her forehead.
Later, admitting he was born male, Nisha shows me three other transsexuals on the dance floor who could easily pass off as women.
Nisha is a Mak Nyah, a term used for men who manifest femininity. Disparagingly referred to as bapuk or pondan here, ah kua across the Causeway, kathoey in Thailand, balka in the Philippines, warias in Indonesia and hijras in India, they face extreme prejudice and discrimination.
The good old days of the Indian and Chinese eunuchs died with the Mughal empire and the great Chinese dynasties.
Today, they are mocked and insulted by just about everyone.
"I feel like a woman and want to live as one," said Nisha, "but what’s the point when I won’t be able to get my sex status changed in my official documents, especially my identity card?"
Nisha said she also had problems securing employment despite holding a diploma from a private college in Ipoh.
National Registration Department (NRD) director-general Datuk Mohd Abdul Halim Muhammad says the department cannot change the sex status of an individual, even if the person has undergone sex change surgery.
The rule is simple: The sex stated in the birth certificate of the individual will only be changed if erroneously entered.
"We are not the experts to determine if a person is a male or female. That is beyond us," Halim said, adding that this responsibility rested with the legal system.
Universiti Utara Malaysia associate professor Teh Yik Koon begs to differ.
"The authorities must allow this. We cannot rob transsexuals of their fundamental rights," said Teh, a trained criminologist from a British university and a lecturer in criminology and sociology at UUM.
Last year, however, the High Court made a landmark ruling allowing a transsexual to have his gender status officially changed. And Teh has an ally in lawyer John Clark Sugumod, who fought the case.
"The department can straightaway change the status of an individual whose sex at birth is wrongly entered," said Sugumod. "Why can’t it similarly change the sex status of a person who has undergone surgery and now represents herself as a woman with supporting medical documents?"
A study by Teh in 2001 showed that between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of the estimated 15,000 transsexuals were Malay.
In a survey of 507 transsexuals, she found that 65 per cent were sex workers, 25 per cent worked in clubs, hair salons, beauty clinics and boutiques, and two per cent in small businesses. Only eight were gainfully employed in the private and public sectors.
Also, about 30 per cent lived below the poverty line of RM450 then, and most earned less than RM1,000.
"We respect the decision of the Fatwa Council banning Muslims from going under the knife," Teh said. "In the past some Muslim organisations had also objected to in-vitro fertilisation, but this was allowed later."
She added that it was unfair to leave transsexuals in limbo.
Teh said several Muslim nations allowed sex-change operations although they initially forbade it.
Cases include three sisters in Saudi Arabia who underwent gender reassignment surgery last June after tests indicated a greater amount of male hormones in their bodies.
Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s theocratic founder, also issued a fatwa that transgenderism was a disorder akin to illness, and therefore medical and surgical intervention was allowed.
(The leading sex-change surgeon in Iran is Prof Bahram Mirjalali, who has done over 320 operations in the last 12 years.)
Authorities in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt also permit this.
TransgenderASIA, a group comprising psychologists, sociologists, medical and legal experts, said transgenderism was a difference, not a disorder.
The group noted transsexuals had won a number of legal cases before the European Court of Human Rights and in Australia and New Zealand.
"These include for the purpose of civil status, marriage, discrimination in employment and pension rights," it said.
We can understand Nisha’s pain, but a review of her status may not be on the cards so soon.
In Asia, only Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong allow transsexuals who have undergone operations to have their status changed in their identity cards.
In Hong Kong, the Government actually provides funding for sex reassignments through the Gender Reassignment Programme.
However, both Singapore and Hong Kong Governments still require their citizens to have their status at the time of birth stated in their birth certificates.
Doctors in Singapore, once a world leader in sex-change operations, performed their first sex-change surgery in 1971.
Since that groundbreaking operation, more than 500 have been done in the republic.
In Thailand, the world’s capital for such operations, a kathoey would legally remain a male even after sex reassignment. This is because the predominantly Buddhist nations believes that one becomes a kathoey due to "bad karma", as "punishment" for sexual indiscretion in a previous life.
Non-Muslims benefit from landmark ruling
NON-MUSLIM male transsexuals can now have their sex status in their identity cards changed accordingly. This was enabled by a little-known landmark ruling by the Kuala Lumpur High Court in February last year.
All that is needed is medical evidence of their transformation by sex-change surgery.
Jasmine Goh, 31, a transsexual from Penang, had filed an originating summons in February 2003 seeking that he be allowed to change his sex status in the identity card following sex-change surgery in Thailand.
Goh underwent gender reassignment surgery at the Siroros Hospital in Yala in May 1996, where he was admitted for a week. The operation was performed by a licensed medical practitioner.
Goh supported her subsequent application with confirmation of her new sex status from a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at a private hospital in Kuala Lumpur.
Following this, High Court judge Datuk James Foong directed the National Registration Department to change the last digit of Goh’s identity card number from odd for male to even for female, to show that Goh was now a woman.
"Since the court decided so, we issued Goh a new identity card," said NRD director-general Datuk Mohd Abdul Halim Muhammad, adding that this was the only such case in the country so far.
The decision came three months after Ipoh High Court judge Datuk V.T. Singham dismissed an application by 33- year-old Wong Chiou Yoong, who underwent surgery to have her sex status changed from female to male.
Wong underwent the operation at a private hospital in Penang on April 8, 2002.
Singham had said that transsexuals in Malaysia were in "legal limbo" as there were no provisions in the National Registration Act allowing them to change their sex status.
Any change to their status would have to be made in Parliament, he said, as there was no specific legislation dealing with gender reassignment.
Wong failed in his application despite having two specialists confirm that he was a "functioning man".
(Muslims are not covered by this ruling as the National Fatwa Council issued a directive in 1983 prohibiting Muslims undergoing gender reassignment surgery.)
Goh’s counsel John Clark Sugumod, when contacted, said he had asked the court to consider applicants’ psychological aspects and not biological ones.
"I told the court there had been many cases in Australia and New Zealand where the courts had given precedence to the psychological aspect rather than the biological aspect of the applicant," Sugumod said. "The psychological reasoning has to override the biological one."
Sugumod told the court if doctors and psychologists could prove the individual only possessed the characteristics of the opposite sex and that he or she had undergone surgery, it was "only proper" that he or she was allowed to change his or her sex in their identity card and other documents.
"What is important is how the person feels," he said. "Yes, the person may have male chromosomes but psychologically, she is a woman."
Sugumod put forward two other conditions for the court to consider:
• Article Five of the Federal Constitution, which states that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The prejudice against transsexuals was clearly discrimination and as such could be argued against under this provision.
• The NRD had a restrictive interpretation of provisions in the Act. Claims by the director- general that he only had powers to effect a change if an error had been entered into the identity card was open to debate. Sugumod said this was a matter of interpretation as there were several clauses in the Act which gave sweeping powers to the director-general to approve a change.
Following the outcome of the Ipoh case, Deputy Home Affairs Minister Datuk Tan Chai Ho said the Government might review the Births and Deaths Act 1957 to cater for transsexuals who had undergone sex change.
What they say about the court ruling
“Many of my fellow researchers all over the world have come to a similar conclusion, that this is a biological phenomenon. You can send men who feel they are women for psychotherapy but let me assure you that they would not be changed.” - Associate Prof Teh Yik Koon, Universiti Utara Malaysia
“The sexual identity of a person is based on three biological factors: chromosomal, gonadal (ovaries and testes) and genital (internal sex organs at the time of birth of the individual). The courts have so far rejected a fourth factor: the psychological basis, which is accepted by all medical experts. This will need to be further debated by experts.” - Dr Ravindran Jegasothy, Ethics Committee, Malaysian Medical Association
“If we are to speak on moral grounds, sex-change surgery should not be allowed. But then who are we to decide this? At the end of the day, the individual must be allowed to decide what he wants.” - Datuk A Vaithilingam, President, Malaysia Hindu Sangam
“Islam forbids sex change. Since it only recognises man and woman, it is a non-issue. Yes, we understand that some men tend to be effeminate but that’s simply because they have more female hormones. In Islam, there are special provisions for them. The golden rule is that you cannot make changes to your anatomy.” - Nasharuddin Mat Isa, Pas deputy president
“There is no need to fight this out in court. If medical experts can prove this, why should this be further deliberated in the courts? The bottom line is that that all Malaysians, irrespective of creed and colour, should feel protected. There should be no room for discrimination against anyone.” - Harcharan Singh, Vice-president, Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism
“The laws must be made flexible to accommodate them. The necessary amendments must be made to the laws. If a man has undergone surgery to become a woman but is still forced to use the men’s toilet, then it is tantamount to impinging on her privacy.” - R.R. Chelvarajah, Former Bar Council president
“We are clear that when God created human beings, he created them as men and women. There is a very clear distinction between the genders. Christianity says the woman then bears the child and experiences labour pains. Again the distinction is clear. Since this has been decided by God, any alteration is unacceptable. God is perfect and any such changes would be a violation of His creation.” - Reverend Wong Kim Kong, Secretary-general, National Evangelical Christian Fellowship
Gay parade draws 2.4 million
Brazilians pack street days after even bigger rally of evangelicals
Sunday, June 18, 2006 Posted: 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP) -- More than 2 million gay men, lesbians and transvestites waving rainbow flags and dressed in lavish Carnival costumes paraded Saturday to celebrate gay pride and demand an end to homophobia.
The 10th annual Sao Paulo Gay Pride Parade saw go-go boys and drag queens dancing on the roofs of sound trucks blasting music as they rolled down the skyscraper-lined Avenida Paulista -- the financial heart of Brazil's biggest city.
It also turned into a cheering festival for Brazil's World Cup soccer team, with many paraders dressed in the country's yellow, green and blue. (Watch parade revelers in Brazil and Mexico -- 1:40)
Organizers boast Sao Paulo's pride parade is the largest of its kind on the planet. Police said the parade drew 2.4 million people, far more than last year's official crowd count of 1.8 million.
The theme of this year's event was to halt hate crimes against gays in the nation of more than 185 million people. But in typical Brazilian style, participants turned a somber topic into a huge street party, dancing, drinking beer and kissing as they marched several kilometers.
Some dressed as Batman. Others turned themselves into Elvis Presley, Cinderella, U.S. Marines, Marie Antoinette and the lead characters of the movie "Brokeback Mountain" about two gay cowboys.
Despite a certain measure of tolerance for gays, whose drag parades are major draws during Carnival celebrations, anti-homosexual discrimination is widespread across Brazil, said Nelson Matias Pereira, a spokesman with the Brazilian Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans-gender Pride Parade Association.
"The bottom line is we are citizens, citizens who pay taxes and contribute to the country," Pereira said.
Waving a Brazilian flag, Ulysses Nascimento danced along the street in a skintight, yellow and green T-shirt and a snug black bathing suit.
"This is to show that everyone's equal in this world, gays and lesbians as well," the 22-year-old salesman said.
"I just want to show that we're harmless," said Cao Ramos, a towering 36-year-old architect in a shimmery gold evening gown and high heels. "There are so many other things in the world that we should be worrying about instead of people's sexual preferences."
The march came two days after police said about 3 million people joined an evangelical Protestant rally on the same Sao Paulo avenue, demonstrating their growing influence in the world's largest Roman Catholic country.
The evangelicals and the Catholic church strongly oppose calls for a nationwide law permitting civil unions between same-sex couples. Currently, only Brazil's southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul allows such unions.
Paraders said they want organized religion to stop regarding gays as sinners.
"The traditional church doesn't want us," said Pastor Justino Luis, 42, who started a church serving 200 mostly gay and lesbian parishioners.
Waving a banner with the words, "I'm Happy, Gay and Christian," Luis said, "I know (God) loves me the way I am, and I know when he made me he planned for me to be the way I am."
Last Updated: Sunday, 18 June 2006, 03:21 GMT 04:21 UK
Crowds celebrate Brazil Gay Pride
A record 2.4m people are thought to have joined in the parade
More than a million people have taken to the streets of Sao Paulo to celebrate the Brazilian city's tenth annual Gay Pride parade.
Revellers dressed in costumes danced through one of the main avenues, as music blared out of huge loudspeakers.
One report quoted police as saying that 2.4 million people were at the parade, which organisers say has become the largest of its kind in the world.
Gay rights activists say discrimination is still widespread across Brazil.
Eighty-one Brazilians were killed last year because of their sexual orientation, campaigners say.
The theme for this year's event is "homophobia is a crime" to highlight proposed anti-discrimination laws.
World Cup costumes
When the parade was first staged, it attracted just 2,000 people.
Police estimate this year's festival has attracted 2.4m people, compared with the official crowd count of 1.8m last year, the Associated Press reports.
Revellers dressed up as Batman, Elvis Presley, Cinderella and Marie Antoinette. Some took their inspiration from the Oscar-winning movie Brokeback Mountain, whose lead characters are two gay cowboys.
Others also gave a nod to the football World Cup, dressing in the team colours of yellow, green and blue.
Floats made their way down the Avenida Paulista in the financial heart of Sao Paulo, as dance music blared out of huge loudspeakers.
But correspondents say that behind the revelry is a serious message.
Gay rights activists say they face many challenges in Brazil
One participant, Juliana, said the level of tolerance of homosexuality varied greatly across different parts of Brazil.
"Here I guess we are privileged, in Sao Paulo because here we can be open almost every day. But for most of the people, they can't be open every day at all."
New laws would allow civil unions between same-sex couples across Brazil, which are permitted only in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul.
But the Roman Catholic Church opposes gay marriage in the country, which is the world's largest Catholic nation.
Activists say they no longer want to be seen as sinners by the Church.
"The traditional church doesn't want us," said Pastor Justino Luis who started a church serving mostly gay and lesbian parishioners.
"I know [God] loves me the way I am, and I know when he made me he planned for me to be the way I am," he said.
With Bush at His Ranch, Drag Queens Reign in Waco
The proximity of the president doesn't stop a service group from its fundraising, festivities.
By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 18, 2006
WACO, Texas — On Saturday night, as President Bush prepared to celebrate Father's Day on his ranch in nearby Crawford, members of the Royal, Sovereign and Imperial Court of the Central Texas Empire gathered in downtown Waco for their annual drag queen coronation.
In its 13th year, the event was part pageant — with choreographed show tune numbers — and part fundraiser for gay and lesbian and other causes. Guests in beaded gowns, wedding dresses and nuns' habits blew bubbles, preened and speculated about who would win the vote at night's end to succeed the Crystal Dragonfly Diva Fairy, empress of them all.
The Empress of Dallas was there, a Judy Garland brunet in a gold-and-black beaded gown, as was the Reigning Empress of Austin, a redhead called Topaz with a signature faux topaz medallion.
"We really do it big in Texas," said Topaz, a.k.a. Michael Hill.
The International Imperial Court System is a community service organization with 72 chapters, seven in Texas. About 150 members turned out for the event, including 27 people from Waco, converging on the same Hilton hotel where the president's staff holed up while he was on his ranch.
Bush, who has spoken out against same-sex marriage in recent months, was fundraising for Republican congressional candidates Friday before he arrived in the area. He raised $375,000 at a stop in New Mexico — but didn't leave with a crown.
The drag queens of Waco raised $15,000 this year for abused women, HIV and AIDS patients, and groups such as Planned Parenthood and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Often, they raise money for charities that fall victim to Bush administration budget cuts, said Parker Wilson, who holds the title of "emperor" of the Waco chapter.
"They're not going to let us get married, but we're still here," said Wilson, wearing a rhinestone crown and pendant advertising his titles. "My goal is to change people's minds one person at a time."
Bush was not invited to the coronation. He spent the weekend at home with his wife, Laura, on Prairie Chapel Ranch, about 20 miles west of Waco, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. He was briefed by staff Saturday morning and spent the rest of his time visiting friends and tending the ranch, Perino said. The Bush daughters, Jenna and Barbara, were not expected to visit for Father's Day today, Perino said. Secret Service agents blocked the road two miles away from the ranch.
Although the president has not adopted Waco (population 113,000) the way he has Crawford, (population 705) Perino cited a few visits last year — for the Little League Baseball World Series and a summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox at Baylor University.
"The president loves everything about Texas," she said.
Even the drag queens?
Perino, who was staying at the Hilton, said she noticed the drag queen gathering, but was not sure whether the president was aware of it.
"I doubt it," she said.
Perino downplayed the significance of seeing the Imperial Court members parading in front of the Waco Chamber of Commerce in tiaras and stilettos.
"Every time we come here there's a convention — dog shows, tae kwon do … " Perino said. "There's other conventions at the hotel — some church group."
But the "empresses" stand out in Waco, a town painted in Texas browns and grays that exudes the traditional family values Bush so often trumpets. Baylor University, a Baptist school, anchors the skyline. Asked to name the biggest festival in town, many young people cite the Heart O'Texas Fair & Rodeo.
There is one gay bar in town, Trix, but Waco remains, as Tampa, Fla., resident turned Waco local Tracy Friedman, 37, said, "the opposite of Key West."
Jim Smith, 63, a retired glass plant worker, has lived in the Waco area all his life. He was standing outside Waco's Richland Mall on Saturday in worn black cowboy boots and jeans, waiting to buy tires when asked whether he knew what a drag show was.
"Like with cars?" he asked. After a brief explanation, Smith laughed.
"I've never seen one, and I don't care to," he said.
On her way to lunch at George's, a Waco restaurant that caters White House events in Crawford and is decorated with pictures of the president and his associates, Mindy Rendon, 22, said some residents and students would probably be shocked by the drag queens.
Probably the same residents who caused an uproar recently when a Hooters restaurant opened and blocked Marilyn Manson from stopping on his tour, she said.
Also on his way into lunch, John Pack, 56, a Republican who voted twice for Bush, said Waco was not as conservative as it might seem. Pack, a photographer, said he was hired about 10 years ago to photograph a ball held for gay couples.
Pack said he didn't think Bush would necessarily oppose the charity event.
"I know he's not for gay marriage, but I don't think he's against anyone expressing themselves," he said.
Some past coronation attendees have dressed up as the president. But no one has appeared as Laura Bush, Dr. Robert Jacobson of Dallas said Saturday, dressed as a nun with fake eyelashes and ruby-tone slippers and calling himself Sister Anita Donation.
There have been Barbara Bush impersonators, and Jacobson has just the look: white curly wig, smart suit, pearls and low, uncomfortable shoes.
"I got the outfit this weekend," he said.
It's for his new number, by a drag group from San Francisco called the Kinsey Sicks. The title? "I Wanna Be a Republican."