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‘Right’ of choice still elusive

 | September 16, 2011

The battle for the right to happiness is most stark in the gay, lesbian and transgender communities in Malaysia.

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“Liberty” is often described as the “inalienable right” of a person. In the past weeks FMT has discovered that “liberty” as spoken of by Malaysians is simply “freedom and the right to choose” .

Fifty-four years on, the pursuit of this “inalienable right” to life and happiness is perhaps most stark in the country’s gay, lesbian and transgender communities.

Ignored and “persecuted” by society, depending on how you look at it, the communities are viewed as a “discomfort” in almost all aspects of “acceptable” society, jobs included.

They are generally perceived as non-enities at least until the general elections come along when their votes count, said Melati Osman ruefully.

Melati (not her real name) is a transgender.

Armed with a honours degree in Business and Finance from an international university, she returned to Malaysia four years ago confident that she would find a job in the banking industry.

“I thought that with the qualifications and recommendations given by my lecturers, it would be so easy for me to get the job I wanted… I was naïve,” she said, smiling ruefully.

At the job interviews, transgender Melati was consistently told that she was too effeminate for the staid and serious banking industry and that her demeanour would make the customers uncomfortable.

Eventually, Melati gave up on the industry and turned to multi-level marketing to support herself.

“Growing up ‘different’ and often bullied by the other children, I was determined to make a better life for myself by studying hard and getting a good job so that I could be ‘someone’ as my father would say,” Melati said.

But it’s a hard, lonely climb to become that “someone” in discriminating Malaysia.

No statistics, real stories

Melati is not alone in this battle for industrial acceptance.

Transgenders are harassed, discriminated against, sacked and denied job promotions and opportunities despite being qualified for the position just because they are lesbians, gay, bisexuals or transgenders (LGBT).

Behind the unavailable statistics of the discrimination against them, are the stories of everyday people losing their jobs based on characteristics that have nothing to do with their academic qualifications, skill and ability to carry out a given job.

There is no federal law that consistently protects LGBT individuals from employment discrimination.

Take, Glenda Marie (not her real name). She lost her job when her boss fired her because she was transgender.

“My boss told me I would make other people uncomfortable, just by being myself.

“He told me that my transition was unacceptable. And over and over, he told me it was inappropriate.

“Then he fired me. I was escorted back to my desk and told to clean it out, then marched out of the building… I was devastated,” she said.

Glenda also shared another insight.

Recalling an experience she once had with an ex-boss who looked her over for a promotion, she said: “Her response to my query about why I was overlooked was mind-boggling… in fact it still bothers me.

“She told me that people think they don’t bring their sexuality into the workplace, but they do – whether they wear their wedding ring or put a photo of their partner on their desk.

“I did none of those things…”

Work discrimination

Another victim was Delia Ahmad (not her real name). Delia is not a transgender. She is a lesbian.

Delia was gainfully employed as an accountant until her manager fired her immediately after she saw a picture on Delia’s phone of her and her girlfriend kissing on New Year’s Eve.

“I didn’t lose my job because I was lazy, incompetent, or unprofessional.

“Quite the contrary, I worked hard and did my job very well. However, that was all discarded when my boss discovered I am a lesbian.

“In a single afternoon, I went from being a highly praised employee, to out of a job,” she shared.

Freelance designer Michael Chua (not his real name) was denied a lucrative design project when his client found out about his homosexuality.

“I’m a good design artist. But I’ve lost two and a half years of employment fighting to get that job back because I’m gay.

“If only we could all celebrate the freedom of being able to live the life we want to live,” he mused.

Misguided notions and social perceptions have been the bane of the lesbian, gay and transgender’s life.

Societal fears and the authorities have stolen their “right” to life and liberty, according to lawyer Mohana Rajen.

No honesty

Rajen feels that in many workplaces, men and women will not be considered as people but “something else whisperable”.

“Moreover, you will not be considered for a managerial or any decisive position.

“You will be teased by your colleagues and will be the subject of their gossips.You will not be able to have a direct and honest face-to-face conversation.

“Your instincts to touch and to be physically close (to people/to your friends) will also be limited.

“Some of my female colleagues who know I am gay, keep me at arm’s length although they are cordial and polite.

“There was once when I had won a case I was working on and impulsively hugged a co-worker, she backed off… I felt like I was infected with the plague or something,” said Rajen, who is 36 years old.

According to Rajen, such discriminative reactions have spawned numerous activist groups in every industry.

“Do you wonder why there are various activist groups in every industry? Do you wonder why we have gay/lesbian writings and a feminist approach to so and so?

“Well, the answer is simple – there is a wide range of discrimination in gender, race and whatever else.

“As long as there is discrimination, people in these groups will continue to fight for their rights and will not stop until we have arrived at the stage where we are not seen as the ‘gay community’ but as people who deserve the same platform as others to celebrate the freedom to be who we are and do the jobs we love without fearing if we’re going to lose it just because we prefer dating people of the same gender.

“That is as close to liberty for me as it can possibly get – to just be a person, no more, no less.”

Illogical perceptions

Delia summed it up when she said people were just plain “illogical and blinded by tradition” when it came to lesbians, gays and transgenders.

“It is perfectly clear that there is no connection between gender preferences or sexual orientation and the individual’s overall work performance.

“People are not illogical about this issue, they are blinded by the tradition that has taught them that there are only two existing genders – male and female.

“So far, I guess gay people have only gained half acceptance within the society.

“They are only accepted as long as they keep their sexual practices among themselves,” said Delia.


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