SULASTRI Ariffin has been around the world. Manager of the mak nyah (trans women) programme at PT Foundation, she has participated and spoken at conferences on HIV and sexuality in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Switzerland.
She has even met Richard Gere — twice.
But in her 15 years of working on HIV and sexuality, Sulastri is happiest when she is working in Malaysia. She travels all over the country — to Perak, Pahang, Kelantan, Kedah, Malacca, Sabah and Sarawak — to facilitate workshops for mak nyahs and sex workers on HIV awareness and community empowerment.
She tells The Nut Graph that Malaysians are actually more accepting of diversity than we may assume.
TNG: Where were you born?
I was born in Kuching, Sarawak, in May 1961. I am the second of seven children. I have three sisters and three brothers. Sekarang saya pun boleh dikira sisterlah (chuckles).
Where did you grow up?
Saya membesar di Kuching, schooling there and everything. My primary school was Sekolah Rendah Encik Buyong, and from Form One to Form Three I went to Sekolah Menengah Tun Abang Haji Openg. I did my Form Four to Form Six at Kolej Datuk Patinggi Abang Haji Abdillah.
What is your asal-usul? Where were your parents or grandparents from?
Actually my mother’s side dari Brunei. Sebab dulu Sarawak was ruled by Brunei, kan? After Sir James Brooke datang, Sultan Brunei gave Sarawak to him. Itu yang Brunei sekarang kecil saja. So my mother’s side are all orang Melayu Brunei. My grandfather was a Pangeran, and so my mother was a Dayang. Ini keturunan-keturunan istanalah.
Kononnya kita ini blue bloodlah, tapi saya tengok darah saya merah (laughs). Tapi itulah, masa emak saya meninggal masa saya umur 10 tahun, saya ingat lagi kain yang melilit batu nisan dia warna kuning, bukan putih.
When did you come to Kuala Lumpur?
I came to KL in 1982. Still young, biasalah. My intention was to find a job. Tapi I had some peers here already doing sex work. They said you don’t need to look that feminine to earn good money. Apa lagi kalau muka awak memang feminine. Jadi, saya terikut dan menjadi sambutan hangat. People would really queue for services from mak nyahs in the 1980s.
But after a while, we faced police raids and violence from gangsters. But it wasn’t as bad as it is now. Some mak nyahs back then in Chow Kit were very united, and would halau all the troublemakers.
Mimi Zarina was one mak nyah leader who decided to take the welfare approach to organise mak nyahs. In the 1980s she led the setting-up of the Persatuan Mak Nyah Wilayah Persekutuan. This was a crucial time. In 1983, there was the fatwa outlawing sex reassignment surgery, and then in 1986 we had the first reported case of HIV in Malaysia.
The welfare department was very supportive of our persatuan, even though we were all young and inexperienced. And so we were active. We did gotong-royong, cleaned up the city, volunteered in mental hospitals and so on. We even went to Kajang to have perlawanan netball against a women’s team.
At that time Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad was Federal Territory Minister. He was okay with us. We had baju kurung uniforms with badges and all, macam Wanita Umno.
But the religious bodies started to make an issue out of it. They protested, “Why buat persatuan macam ini? It will recruit more people to become mak nyah.”
When did you realise you were a mak nyah?
You just have that feeling, you know. When I was 10 or 11, I found myself attracted to the older boys in my kampung, but I didn’t understand it.
Did the boys or anyone else harass you?
I wasn’t too obviously mak nyah at that time. Just lembut. I’m shy and pendiam by nature. Sekolah pun depan rumah saya, jadi budak-budak tak berani kacau. The kids in the kampung were also not really exposed to mak nyahs at that time. So they had nothing to compare me to.
But when I was in Primary Four, I noticed there was a very obvious boy in Primary One, who was from another village. I knew he was quite a sissy, and he was very popular. Sampai sekarang, dekat kampung dia semua orang kenal dia. And people can accept him, maybe because the villagers knew him from the time he was small until now.
What was your family like?
They are typical Malay [Malaysians] in terms of culture, religion and so on. My childhood was quite normal. I mixed with everyone — male, female, the neighbours’ kids — I climbed trees, played football.
But my family once caught me wearing women’s clothes when I was five years old. At that time I was looking after my six-month-old sister in the buaian. My mother was cooking in the kitchen. So I put on my mother’s baju kurung and sang lullabies to my sister. Suddenly my neighbour showed up. So I slipped and hid inside the baju kurung like it was a tent (laughs).
Does your family accept you now?
They say they always knew. But you must understand I stayed away from them after I came to KL. I only reunited with them in 2002.
How did that happen?
It was unplanned. I had gone to Kuching to help with a training organised by the Sarawak AIDS Concern Society. I went with my boyfriend at the time. We stayed in a hotel not far from the market, and then suddenly one day we bumped into my uncle and auntie near the market. They recognised me, you know. And I wasn’t prepared for it. I just bagi salam normally. But I didn’t know that after that meeting, the word had spread to everyone.
By the time I got back to the hotel, I had so many messages for me at the counter from my family. They said they missed me and wanted to meet me.
How did you feel about that?
I spent two whole hours thinking about what to do. As a mak nyah, you tend to accept what people say about you — that you are wrong, sinful. And if this is what society is saying about you, then how are you going to face your family? You feel lonely and ashamed of yourself. You feel very afraid.
So I was scared of my family this time in Kuching. What if they came to the hotel and they hurt me? What if they interrogated me, “Macam mana kau jadi macam ini? Tak malu?” That’s what I always feared.
But I also had some amount of confidence at that time because of my work with PT. So I called my younger sister. And then everyone came and I was brought to her home. But nobody asked me a single question about why I turned out this way. Nobody attacked me. Even my father and stepmother came to me and said they missed me very much. And at this time, my boyfriend was with me, you know. And there was no judgment, tak ada apa-apa pun.
It’s true, they were angry, but it was because I had stayed away from them. “Why did you not come back to see us?”
I felt guilty about that, and I admitted to them that it was my fault. We had a big family dinner after that, and it was a new beginning for me. When I went back to the hotel, it hit me: my family tak buang saya. Now we stay in touch.
What else did your family say?
I asked one of my aunties here in KL, “Can you accept me this way?” She got really angry with me. She said, “Kalau you separuh manusia separuh babi pun I terima, tau.” That really motivated me.
And I’m really proud of my sisters. Two of them are teachers, and they told me they have many effeminate students. My youngest sister kata dia menangis when she knows her mak nyah students are bullied, because she thinks of me. So because of me, my sisters have become caring and supportive of mak nyah. My other sister had around six effeminate students whom she invited to her house for Hari Raya once.
Another sister said she has many friends like me, and showed me, “Ini tengok mereka tolong buat bulu kening.” (Laughs) Even my stepmother tells me she has a lot of mak nyah friends.
And even my nieces and nephews accept me. They call me “angah”, which is a neutral term — it can mean either uncle or auntie.
My sisters also keep newspaper clippings whenever I appear in the press, and they watch me on TV. And they even talk about it — they’re actually proud of me. They show these clippings off to their friends and colleagues.
So what aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most? Is it still your sexual identity?
Yes, paling mencabar is still being a mak nyah. You have to pay a very high price. You tak boleh lari kalau orang hendak kutuk or discriminate you. But I have learnt not to care about that anymore. I know I have a good job, family support, and I know I am a capable person. So why should I care about orang yang pandang rendah dekat I? That’s their problem.
I always say, tidak semua orang suka mak nyah, tapi tidak semua orang benci mak nyah. Kenapa kita hendak fokus kepada yang benci sahaja? Kenapa kita tidak fokus kepada yang suka?
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
I want a Malaysia that respects all citizens — doesn’t matter who they are or what is their gender or sexuality. I want a society that accepts mak nyahs as they are.