Religion and being transgender

Religion and being transgender - Civic Space

Is the existence of transgendered people wrong from the perspective of religion?

Topics relating to transgenders are seldom discussed positively, fairly and with dignity. Indeed it has always been portrayed in the most degrading manner by the mainstream media in Malaysia.

It is my belief that minorities should not only be referred to ‘small groups’ based on race and religion, but it should also refer to politics, ideologies, denominations, social statues, languages spoken, sexuality and other identities that have led such groups into losing their freedom of speech; as well as being oppressed by the majority in power.

In seeking to provide the space and opportunity for transgender groups to speak out, I arranged a meeting with Sharan Suresh at her office in Kuala Lumpur.

Sharan is not only a transgender, but she is also actively involved in honest and courageous efforts to raise awareness in society about the transgendered community.

The following is part of the transcript of our conversation, which I hope will form the basis for dialogues about this issue among communities of different races, ideologies and religions.

Uthaya: People usually link transgenders and homosexuals to immoral sexual activities. What do you say?

Sharan: The term homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, etc. are just labels used by people. In fact, gender identity has nothing to do with the sexual orientation of a person. It’s scientific fact that every man at certain points of his life, especially during his teenage years, will have a sense of attraction towards a number of women and men.

It is not always the case that the individual transgender male is sexually attracted to other men. It is just that the relationship with a particular person is more intimate compared to other men. This does not just happen to students in boys’ schools or girls in girls’ schools, as commonly perceived, but also happens in mixed gender schools.

However, social norms are the main hurdles that force the heterosexual teen to ignore his intimate feelings, even if he is not really sexually attracted to the other person. Social norms are such that a man can only be attracted to a woman and vice versa, as if love can only be shared with those that we could be sexually attracted to – an individual of the opposite sex.

This view is actually influenced in previous eras by political sentiments in certain religions that want couples of the opposite sex to quickly marry and have kids. This was to increase the number of followers for that religion in the shortest time possible.

Speaking of religion, does being a transgendered person contravene religion?

We should acknowledge the possibility that religious teachings do not resist the existence of transgenders – which is an individual in a male body with a female gender identity (or vice versa).

The fact that must be accepted is that being transgendered has a biological origin from the womb. It is not simply a case of imitation or nurture during one’s childhood or teenage years.

The God who created men and women is also the same God who created transgenders. God never makes mistakes in conducting His tasks. It’s human beings who are confused on this matter, not God.

For example, there is a variety of opposing and contradictory matters contained in the teachings of religion as understood by humans.  That is why various religions, beliefs, denominations and schools of thought exist. There are also different classifications of God, even in similar religions that claim to have only one God.

Different beliefs, denominations, religions and views have caused conflicts and wars because each of them believes that their version of faith is the only form of truth. Even though they all claim that God is only One, they would still argue because of differences in opinions.

It is then unfair if followers of one religion attempt to enforce others to believe in what they believe. We cannot simplify complex issues by concluding certain people have sinned or are rejected by God simply because they have their own distinct ways of life.

This same logic can be applied to transgenders.  For people to understand something medically or biologically is a narrow perspective based on limited knowledge on the real teachings of religion. They may not even know a transgender person. They may not have full knowledge of religion either, but they want to make the rules on something that they do not even know themselves!

The common term used in Tamil movies is ‘Aravani’ when referring to the transgenders. Is this kind of labeling appropriate?

I have mentioned previously about labels such as homosexuals, heterosexuals and bisexuals. These are all labels given by people to simplify their  references. For individuals with a physical body of a man, but possess a gender identity of a woman, the internationally accepted term is transgender. The usage of this term or label is to describe the identity of individuals as having crossed, that is between a sexual identity (physical) and a gender identity (biological and psychological since prenatal time).

There are other terms being used as well in other countries. In certain countries such as the Philippines, the common label being used is ‘gay’ without classifying whether one is homosexual, bisexual, lesbian, transgender or others. The binary terms commonly used when referring to gender are male and female. In this situation, we usually forget that gender should not only be binary, because it is scientifically proven that gender is not only limited to being male or female. Because of this condition, any individual which is not included or does not fulfil the conventional criteria accepted by society as only being male or female is labelled ‘transgender’.

The conventional criteria I’m speaking of is the norm that only categorizes one as either male or female depending on sexual body parts (i.e. penis or vagina). Conventionally, when a baby is born with a male sexual organ, the gender is therefore decided to be male. This method of identification is not accurate because sexual body parts only determine sexual identity, not gender identity.

How about transsexual individuals?

The term ‘transsexual’ refers to individuals who are conscious that their physical sexual identity is different to their gender identity, for example, an individual born with a male sexual organ but possesses a female gender identity. This person chooses to live as a woman, based on her gender identity instead of the sexual identity.

Transsexual individuals know that sexual identity, which is the sexual organ and other physical features, can be changed. However, the gender identity which a person was born into will remain until the end of the person’s life. To make it simple, ‘transgender’ refers to a general condition of an individual that possesses a physical sexual identity contradicting the person’s conscious gender identity, while transsexual is one subset, amongst others, that are attributed under the transgender category.

I consider myself as an example. I was born with a male sexual organ, but I have lived with a female gender identity since an infant. Consciously I am a woman. Since my childhood years, I have lived as a woman. My gender identity will remain for the rest of my life.  

Does this mean transgenders will go for sexual change surgery to change their sexual identity?

It is not a must for us to undergo surgery to change our sexual identity, even though there are some transgenders who have undergone the procedure to remove their sexual organs because they can financially afford it. However, most transgenders cannot afford to perform the procedure as it is very expensive. At the same time, there are also transgenders who do not even consider removing their sexual organs as what really matters to them is their gender identity instead of their sexual identity.

Actually until the early 1980s, sex change operations for transgenders were performed legally at the University Hospital (now University Malaya Medical Center). After a person had undergone the sex change procedure there, the gender information in their identity card could then be legally changed by the National Registration Department.

Why were those stopped?

The problem only arose in 1982 after a fatwa (Islamic religious edict) was declared claiming that sex change operations are ‘Haram’ (religiously forbidden) for Muslims. The most pitiful part is that most people do not understand the fact that transgenders are not changing their gender, but they just want to make sure that their sexual identity suits their gender identity which has been set in their minds ever since they were little.

Even (in Islam), if we examine the authentic Hadith (the traditions of Prophet Muhammad), you can find the term ‘Mukhannathun’ referring to transgenders who are individuals born with male sexual body parts but possess a fully female gender identity. It was mentioned clearly that if the ‘Mukhannathun’ (transgender) condition occurred since its infant years, the particular individual should not be feeling guilty or ashamed with the condition.

Based on the Hadith, ‘Mukhannathun’ or ‘Mukhannath’ is an individual (male) that resembles a female. There are two types of ‘Mukhannathun’ being referred to in which someone can be defined as a male (sexual identity) that has all the features of a female including their courtesy and way of life, which are naturally similar to a woman. Clearly this tradition refers to transgenders. It is stated clearly that this type of people are not in sin as long as they refrain themselves from acts of adultery and other sinful acts. The law for adultery and other sinful acts are also similar even for heterosexuals.

What is forbidden in Islam, the Quran and the hadiths, is that when a man possessing both male sexual and gender identities (i.e. a “real man”) wants to change his condition. This is where we can see some men preferring to dress as women (cross-dressing) even though they are not really transgenders. Unfortunately, because of ignorance and limited information, certain parties assume transgenders are similar to cross-dressers. As a result, innocent transgenders are the ones victimized.

I am hoping that the suppression caused by ignorance like this will end. Society and authority should be provided with sufficient and accurate information on what is actually meant by being transgender.

Uthaya Sankar SB is a novelist and activist actively writing and campaigning for religious freedom and social justice in Malaysia.