Not being ‘you’ is just a mask: Celebrating Trans Visibility Week with Mitch

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Mitch Yusof (he/him) has over 29 years experience in HIV prevention, care & support with trans communities. In 2014, he co-founded SEED FOUNDATION, the first trans-led community based non-profit organization in Malaysia. Working closely with the transgender community in addressing their issues, needs and concerns by providing capacity and skills building and information, advocate on the diverse spectrum under the transgender community and increasing awareness of challenges faced by the communities.

Under his tenure as Executive Director, SEED was awarded Human Rights Award 2016 in recognition of the community’s dedication and perseverance in the fight for Human Rights and Justice by SUARAM, an NGO established to monitor and advocate for the respect of human rights in Malaysia. We’re celebrating Trans Visibility Week (13 Nov-20 Nov) by sharing interviews and experiences of trans activists around the world.

Tell me about Seed

Seed is the first transgender led organisation in Malaysia, however, we didn’t say we are transgender at first. We were in practice, but mindful of our own safety. When my colleague (and co-founder) Nisha Ayub was recognised by the Secretary of State and was awarded the 2015 Recipient of the Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism, we decided to change our website, letting everyone know we are a transgender led organisation. Seed also has a drop-in centre which is a safe space, and we also provide folks with:

  • Counselling and peer support
  • Information sharing and empowerment
  • Basic healthcare such as basic medication and treatments for wounds
  • Capacity and skill building training

During COVID-19, it has been very bad for the transgender and SOGIESC communities. Just imagine, there are lots of transgender people in Malaysia, and in this country they cannot succeed. 70% are sex working, and the others may have their own business, however, during covid shutdown, they can’t run their business, they can’t sex work, we try to help where we can. We have stores of rice, oil, sugar and flour and hand them out to people who need food.

We also have a home, it is called, T-Home. We are open to all transgender people who need our support, however, we prioritise the elderly. More recently we have been asked by an organization to house transgender refugees temporarily.

What does trans-visibility mean to you?

I identify myself as a transgender man, it means being truthful to myself and to everyone and everything around me. It is about the T – truth

I think, for me, trans-visibility is a big word. It is about being recognised for who you are, to speak up and stand up for the community. Being recognised by not only your community but by the society. But I think it is unfortunate for us in Malaysia because although some of us may be ‘out’ and able to speak ‘out’, but we are not legally recognised.

Our gender is not included in our identification. There is still stigmatisation by the general society. So, even though we may be speaking about and voicing the issues and concerns of our community, there are other things we need to take into consideration. The safety of our community.

In Malaysia, visible or not, we are still going through the danger, of being discriminated, and facing violence by our society. I think in a way, there are some truth in more visibility equals more violence.

I notice in countries that recognise transgender people, the rates of violence is pretty high. So, in my opinion, it is true, the more recognised the transgender community is in society – the more dangerous it can be. I think that the only thing that can change is peoples mentality and mindset. Allies need to continue to support by continuous sensitisation. Giving out information in regards to SOGIESC. Allies need to stand up and talk about it.

No matter how much we educate, it is up to the person to change, to accept. It is a continuous process for allies to share information and educate others in creating an accepting society.

What about the visibility of trans men? We don’t see lots of trans men in media, in public or even in the very little research there is available. Why don’t we see more images of trans men or hear their stories?

Within HIV and aids research, there are hardly any resources for transgender men. Funding opportunities, yes, for transgender persons, but most opportunities and projects are focused on transgender women.

I have been thinking about this more lately. Why there is more transgender women visible than men? This is something to think about.

One answer could be because we are living in a patriarchal world.

Perhaps it is because transgender women speak out more. They are tall and proud and beautiful and they are more targeted for violence and discrimination.

Another answer may be that transgender men pass more easily therefore it is easier to ‘blend’ in and that becomes a safety net for some of us. Maybe the safety net provides some accessibility and privilege to be a part of the society.

In regards to trans visibility across the spectrum, it is a double edge word. It is a little easier to pass in a cis-world, but I think that blending in a cis world and not being you – is just a mask. A mask to be accepted. On the other hand, being invisible, also has issues. It is a double edge sword.

What is the biggest issue that transgender people face in Malaysia?

People all over the world have different issues and priorities. In Malaysia, I would want you to know, that transgender people are just like anyone else. Legal gender identity is the big issue for transgender people in Malaysia. Here this is no legal recognition, and without recognising our gender marker, it is harder for us to access the rights that others are entitled to.

Let’s just take you through a trip to the bank. My legal identity card is not of a man. People will look at my identity, and they won’t see a man’s face, they won’t read a man’s name, so they will assume it is not me. However, I can still use that identity because they need a thumb print, and my thumb print has not changed.

If we think about medical access. We don’t have hormone replacement treatment in Malaysia, and it is hard to get medical insurance to cover us, especially, if we have gender affirmation surgery. When we go to the government hospital, we are called by our dead name – imagine me being called by my dead name.

Employment is not easy for transgender person, if you go to an interview they see your Identification, ask for education certificates and such, and they see it is someone of a different gender. Then they ask inappropriate questions like, “so have you gone for your surgery’ and they are more  interested in what is between our legs than our capabilities.

Education is so difficult. There are some universities that have anti- LGBTIQ+ groups in the universities. It is not a safe place for transgender people. Especially because it is easy to see we are not who our identification says we are. We recently supported a transgender women who was studying medicine at the university. During COVID, she moved back in with her parents, and they really saw her closely. They realised that she was transgender. They told her that she needed to behave like a man, or they would stop supporting her. She left her parents, and came to us for support and shelter. Now she can’t finish her degree.

Sometimes,  I am jealous of some of my transgender friends overseas who have the opportunities to study. They can get their Bachelors degree, they can be Dr’s and participate in all that international research. There are many more opportunities to help our communities when we have degrees, and this is a huge issue for us here.

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Mitch Yusof (he/him) has over 29 years experience in HIV prevention, care & support with trans communities. In 2014, he co-founded SEED FOUNDATION, the first trans-led community based non-profit organization in Malaysia. Working closely with the transgender community in addressing their issues, needs and concerns by providing capacity and skills building and information, advocate on the diverse spectrum under the transgender community and increasing awareness of challenges faced by the communities.

Under his tenure as Executive Director, SEED was awarded Human Rights Award 2016 in recognition of the community’s dedication and perseverance in the fight for Human Rights and Justice by SUARAM, an NGO established to monitor and advocate for the respect of human rights in Malaysia. We’re celebrating Trans Visibility Week (13 Nov-20 Nov) by sharing interviews and experiences of trans activists around the world.

Tell me about Seed

Seed is the first transgender led organisation in Malaysia, however, we didn’t say we are transgender at first. We were in practice, but mindful of our own safety. When my colleague (and co-founder) Nisha Ayub was recognised by the Secretary of State and was awarded the 2015 Recipient of the Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism, we decided to change our website, letting everyone know we are a transgender led organisation. Seed also has a drop-in centre which is a safe space, and we also provide folks with:

  • Counselling and peer support
  • Information sharing and empowerment
  • Basic healthcare such as basic medication and treatments for wounds
  • Capacity and skill building training

During COVID-19, it has been very bad for the transgender and SOGIESC communities. Just imagine, there are lots of transgender people in Malaysia, and in this country they cannot succeed. 70% are sex working, and the others may have their own business, however, during covid shutdown, they can’t run their business, they can’t sex work, we try to help where we can. We have stores of rice, oil, sugar and flour and hand them out to people who need food.

We also have a home, it is called, T-Home. We are open to all transgender people who need our support, however, we prioritise the elderly. More recently we have been asked by an organization to house transgender refugees temporarily.

What does trans-visibility mean to you?

I identify myself as a transgender man, it means being truthful to myself and to everyone and everything around me. It is about the T – truth

I think, for me, trans-visibility is a big word. It is about being recognised for who you are, to speak up and stand up for the community. Being recognised by not only your community but by the society. But I think it is unfortunate for us in Malaysia because although some of us may be ‘out’ and able to speak ‘out’, but we are not legally recognised.

Our gender is not included in our identification. There is still stigmatisation by the general society. So, even though we may be speaking about and voicing the issues and concerns of our community, there are other things we need to take into consideration. The safety of our community.

In Malaysia, visible or not, we are still going through the danger, of being discriminated, and facing violence by our society. I think in a way, there are some truth in more visibility equals more violence.

I notice in countries that recognise transgender people, the rates of violence is pretty high. So, in my opinion, it is true, the more recognised the transgender community is in society – the more dangerous it can be. I think that the only thing that can change is peoples mentality and mindset. Allies need to continue to support by continuous sensitisation. Giving out information in regards to SOGIESC. Allies need to stand up and talk about it.

No matter how much we educate, it is up to the person to change, to accept. It is a continuous process for allies to share information and educate others in creating an accepting society.

What about the visibility of trans men? We don’t see lots of trans men in media, in public or even in the very little research there is available. Why don’t we see more images of trans men or hear their stories?

Within HIV and aids research, there are hardly any resources for transgender men. Funding opportunities, yes, for transgender persons, but most opportunities and projects are focused on transgender women.

I have been thinking about this more lately. Why there is more transgender women visible than men? This is something to think about.

One answer could be because we are living in a patriarchal world.

Perhaps it is because transgender women speak out more. They are tall and proud and beautiful and they are more targeted for violence and discrimination.

Another answer may be that transgender men pass more easily therefore it is easier to ‘blend’ in and that becomes a safety net for some of us. Maybe the safety net provides some accessibility and privilege to be a part of the society.

In regards to trans visibility across the spectrum, it is a double edge word. It is a little easier to pass in a cis-world, but I think that blending in a cis world and not being you – is just a mask. A mask to be accepted. On the other hand, being invisible, also has issues. It is a double edge sword.

What is the biggest issue that transgender people face in Malaysia?

People all over the world have different issues and priorities. In Malaysia, I would want you to know, that transgender people are just like anyone else. Legal gender identity is the big issue for transgender people in Malaysia. Here this is no legal recognition, and without recognising our gender marker, it is harder for us to access the rights that others are entitled to.

Let’s just take you through a trip to the bank. My legal identity card is not of a man. People will look at my identity, and they won’t see a man’s face, they won’t read a man’s name, so they will assume it is not me. However, I can still use that identity because they need a thumb print, and my thumb print has not changed.

If we think about medical access. We don’t have hormone replacement treatment in Malaysia, and it is hard to get medical insurance to cover us, especially, if we have gender affirmation surgery. When we go to the government hospital, we are called by our dead name – imagine me being called by my dead name.

Employment is not easy for transgender person, if you go to an interview they see your Identification, ask for education certificates and such, and they see it is someone of a different gender. Then they ask inappropriate questions like, “so have you gone for your surgery’ and they are more  interested in what is between our legs than our capabilities.

Education is so difficult. There are some universities that have anti- LGBTIQ+ groups in the universities. It is not a safe place for transgender people. Especially because it is easy to see we are not who our identification says we are. We recently supported a transgender women who was studying medicine at the university. During COVID, she moved back in with her parents, and they really saw her closely. They realised that she was transgender. They told her that she needed to behave like a man, or they would stop supporting her. She left her parents, and came to us for support and shelter. Now she can’t finish her degree.

Sometimes,  I am jealous of some of my transgender friends overseas who have the opportunities to study. They can get their Bachelors degree, they can be Dr’s and participate in all that international research. There are many more opportunities to help our communities when we have degrees, and this is a huge issue for us here.