Transition: The painful journeys of two transgenders

Finding work and experiencing daily routines of life for the trans community can be difficult — some face discrimination and humiliation even from doing simple tasks.  We spoke to a transman and a transwoman about life and employment in Malaysia.

Words by Susan Tam
Photos by Kamal Sellehuddin

Vivienne Yuki Choe and Dorian Wilde have one thing in common: at a very young age, they both realised that they were ‘different’ from their friends.

How? All from a simple act of using the washroom.

“My first memory, would be that of my granny whacking me to tell me to pee like a girl cos I was peeing standing up. I don’t know where I picked that up from,” 27-year-old Dorian shared. For Vivienne, or fondly known as Yuki, the experience was similar.  “I think I was four or five years old, I can still recall my mother’s concern on what position I used when I took a leak.

They had already known that they did not fit into their gender assigned bodies at that time.  And it took many years of struggling through their teenage years and early adulthood to learn about their true identities.

Dorian, born to a Penang family as a female, he left home after his father gave him an ultimatum —  either behave like a girl, or else. Those were the threats.   So Dorian left home with only RM50 in his wallet heading to Singapore to find work and to be with his then partner.

“When I used the washroom some colleagues would throw water over the door towards me, peep and even bang the door to disturb me.  Some male mechanics also challenged me to take of my shirt to show how ‘man’ I am.” — Dorian Wilde

His first job was as a barista and then a job at a 24-hour convenience store. But both ended badly as Dorian felt his was discriminated against because of his choice to dress and behave like a man.

He said employers would ask him for reasons for ‘becoming a man’, when it had nothing to do with his skills and qualification.

READ: Laws to stereotypes: Obstacles faced by transgenders in Malaysia

“It was really dehumanising. The interview should only be about the work but because there are so few anti-discrimination laws and anti-sexual harassment rules, many employers feel like they are god,” he explained.

The question of washrooms always came up, with a few of Dorian’s transmale friends having to use toilets in car parks so their bosses could ‘hide’ them from the public eye. Often, transmen and transwomen do not know why they don’t land a job after being subjected such interviews. They would then be told that the position was not available to them anymore.

Years later, Dorian secured a job at a heavy vehicles workshop, but it wasn’t without pain. “When I used the washroom some colleagues would throw water over the door towards me, peep and even bang the door to disturb me.  Some male mechanics also challenged me to take of my shirt to show how ‘man’ I am.”

Worse still, some men wanted to ‘fix’ Dorian by offering to have sex with him.

“They were making a move on me, as I was still interested in men (at the time). But at the same time it felt so dirty, wrong and horrible, to think that their penis could cure me.​

He stayed strong and decided to transition in 2010; he began taking hormone shots to alter his physical appearance. These shots cost him nearly RM80 a month for life. His voice dropped, and facial hair started to grow. He was happy with the ‘side effects’ and people started calling him sir.  “I felt liberated.   That feeling to be finally recognised as the person you are is ecstatic, it is liberating.”

Today, Dorian is back in Malaysia pursuing a psychology degree, while working as a freelance consultant.  He is active in the social sector, having formed the TransMen of Malaysia to raise awareness about transgenders.

Yuki shared the same complexities as Dorian but her employment experiences are slightly different. Only nine years has passed since she ‘came out’ in 2006.  Her first job working as a guest relations officer in a karaoke pub had been discriminating.  “We as women were objectified. We have our own number which the mama-san will call to entertain clients and we were forced to allow heavy petting by the men.”

This 39-year-old shared that clients manhandled her, forcing her and the other girls to do things they didn’t want to do. “But we had to accept it because it was part of our work.”

Yuki, born a male in Ipoh, wanted a different life.  “As soon as I started my first corporate job, I learnt pretty fast to disassociate myself from a trans identity and present myself more of another person, being capable to earn my stripes in society.”

Initially, she felt that she was in the ‘shadow’ of the products and services she sold, having to deal with major clients.  “But, I learnt to overcome that and many people began to concentrate on what I was selling, rather than who I am.”

Yuki’s confidence grew, and so did her people skills and negotiation strategies.

“One of the most important lesson I learnt is to never be a victim. To be responsible for my actions and consequences and to do my best with no regrets and no excuses.” — Yuki Choe

It wasn’t this smooth sailing of course, she said, as she faced difficulties finding work. “When I do get a few job interviews, I never get a second interview.”

“It was easy for me to work in pubs and bars around my area because I am well known and have neighbourhood friends.” Her strength in socialising made her expand her network, and landed herself freelance writing jobs with the clients she’s met in the past. Today she is a manager in a production house.

“One of the most important lesson I learnt is to never be a victim. To be responsible for my actions and consequences and to do my best with no regrets and no excuses.”

She finds that with human resource departments — if there are those which choose to not hire trans individuals — it’s because of a perceived threat to their corporate image. This stems from gender stereotyping of the trans community.

The stereotyping, she said, cannot end unless members of the trans community step away from ‘typical’ jobs in non-governmental organisations, the sex industry and as make-up artistes or at call centres.

But Yuki understands that many trans individuals may lack the knowledge to compete in the job market.  “For example, most trans people only have basic knowledge in computing, writing and social media, and lack knowledge in writing official documents and minutes of meetings, let alone business or sponsorship proposals.”

In Yuki’s case, she is grateful for the guidance from her mentors to break out of this cycle.

“Most trans people are not accustomed to take part in society, and choose to mingle with their own or their empathisers in the NGOs. So, communicating with others, let alone having any knowledge in marketing themselves or products and services, is beyond them.”

Despite such a successful career, life at home isn’t that rosy for Yuki, as her mother refuses to accept her true self, while her father tries to.  She is told to dress and act like a boy during every Chinese New Year, in order to appease her mother and relatives.

“I am just happy that I am able to float above their worst fears, though I really need to achieve something meaningful in their lives and hope to one day have them accept me wholeheartedly and make them happy.”

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