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RIGHTS-ASIA: Transgenders Assert Identity At AIDS Meet

BALI, Aug 12 2009 (IPS) - “There has been so much confusion going around transgenders. We are not MSMs [men who have sex with men] and don’t lump us under the transvestite [category either] because we have different needs,” declared Kartini Slemeh at the 9th International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) here.

A transgender, Slemeh heads a transgender support programme in Malaysia that works under the Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) – an informal alliance of sex workers and organisations active in 40 countries.

Slemeh and other transgenders from the region said their cause was being taken for granted by many due to lack of knowledge and indifference.

A transgender identifies oneself with another gender other than what the person is biologically born into. Transgenders may identify themselves as homosexuals, transvestites or transsexuals – but some consider conventional sexual orientation labels inapplicable or inadequate for them.

“It’s a very complex thing trying to describe what a transgender is because it goes way beyond mere appearances or sexual preference,” Yuni Shara, who heads Kebaya, a non-government organisation based in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, told IPS.

Shara said that societal structures make it very difficult for transgenders to be accepted in society. “For instance, I have a difficult time deciding whether to join male or female worshippers.”

Stigma and discrimination for a transgender starts at an early age, said Luluk Surahman. “The lack of knowledge and information about reproductive health are compounded by confusion about one’s sexuality, resulting in the individual often being ostracised within the community,” said Surahman.

According to Surahman, there are about 4,500 transgenders in Jakarta and some 1,500 of them are under 25 years old. “Often they are undereducated, have no adequate skills to support themselves, which is one of the reasons why they turn to sex work,” Surahman explained.

The lack of support systems and awareness among transgenders has contributed to the rise of HIV/AIDS cases. “Almost 40 percent of transgenders in Jakarta are already infected,” added Surahman.

Zhao Jian’gang of the Yunnan-based Alliance of Chinese Transgenders disclosed that about 200 transgenders engage in sex work in the southwestern province. Like their counterparts in Jakarta, most of them have low educational background and move frequently from place to place.

Misconceptions about their clients and the low use of condoms even with their partners make their behaviour at high risk for HIV/AIDS.

Subject to arbitrary arrests and ridicule even by the media – which sensationalise their cases – transgenders often experience abuse.

“A friend of mine who got breast implants was arrested because of sex work. They cut off her hair at the detention and rehabilitation centre and placed her with male prisoners,” he said.

People Like Us (PLUS) representative Utpal Chakraborty talked about the darker and more dangerous side of being a transgender in India.

“Transgenders live under threat of rape and other forms of abuse. Many join the ‘hijra’, the eunuch community, and undergo illegal, secret and crude castration operations,” said Chakraborty, whose organisation works for the “promotion, protection and advancement” of young men’s health and rights. He said that 30 percent of those who undergo such operations die.

Support groups like Kebaya believe that even if it is a slow process, doors are opening for dialogue not only within the transgender community, but also in the wider population.

“Apart from family meetings, we conduct regular dialogues once a month with the local community and also with religious leaders,” said Shara.

Surahman and fellow advocates have also started getting in touch with religious leaders and explaining to them the facts about transgenders. Although complete acceptance may be a long time in coming, she realises that baby steps are better than nothing.

“We’ve also tried to lobby for the basic rights of the transgender in the parliament. Everything is still in the process and we don’t see any clear result as of yet,” she said. “But we’re not about to stop pursuing this.”

Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles that advocacy groups face right now is how to change the mindset of transgenders themselves.

“We often ask them about their concerns and dreams and oftentimes they would tell us their dreams, such as having a big house, a handsome boyfriend or even to be able to start a salon. No one said anything about wanting to know more HIV/AIDS, for instance,” said Surahman.

Experts say it is important that skills and educational programmes fit the needs of the transgender community and, in the process, elevate their economic status and protect them from human rights violations.

The most important thing, of course, is for them to feel empowered and accepted by society.

“We are really advocating for full inclusion of our own gender identity within the present societal framework,” agreed Zhao.

*TerraViva at ICAAP 09 (

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