When Shika Corona was growing up in Malacca in the 1980s, her Muslim Indian family would take her to visit pop-up fairs. The fairs always featured "paper doll" performances in which trans women (mak nyahs in Malay) would perform on stage as though they were in a beauty pageant. Shika was born into a body that was assigned as “male,” but she’d already begun to recognise that this didn't feel right. “They were so beautiful, I wondered if I could be like them,” she said. “Malaysia was a very different place back then.”
At the time, the Malaysian government offered gender-confirmation surgeries—the only other country in Southeast Asia to offer the surgery aside from Thailand. Trans health was so widely embraced that even the government contributed funds towards the Mak Nyah Association. But then in 1983, everything changed.
That year a fatwa was issued by the National Fatwa Council, banning such surgeries, and the hospital was shut down, marking the beginning of a repressive, anti-LGBT chapter in Malaysia’s history.
Shika was about six years old when the fatwa was issued. As a child she was obsessed by the glamorous mak nyahs she’d seen at the pageants, and she collected any newspaper or magazine clipping mentioning a trans woman. The first story she ever cut out was from a British newspaper article on Caroline Cossey, a trans actress featured in a 1981 James Bond film. “When I read about her when I was really young, I really thought to myself ‘that is me,’” she said.
All of the positive depictions of mak nyahs Shika found were in Western publications. Sadly, almost all portrayals of trans women in local Malaysian newspapers were either neutral or negative. Some articles even claimed that when trans women died, the earth would refuse them due to their sins. And yet, despite the terrifying portrayal of trans women in Malaysian media, Shika still held on to these articles as proof that people like her existed.
Shika believed the only way she could transition was if she migrated to the West. But when her father died in 2009 and she still hadn’t migrated, she decided to go ahead and transition in the country where she’d been born. "When he passed away, I told myself, 'fuck I think I really need to transition… I need to really catch up with my dreams and make it happen. Life is so short'," she said.
Today, Shika is a woman and an artist and plays in a trans and queer band, Tingtongketz, in Kuala Lumpur.
The tolerance towards trans and queer people that Shika remembers from her childhood was not an anomalous blip in Malaysia’s history. In fact, it was for many centuries the de-facto attitude not just for Malaysia, but also for most of Southeast Asia, even in Islamic countries such as Indonesia and Brunei.
The tragedy is that Southeast Asia’s rich LGBT history is unknown to most people. Modern headlines are mostly negative—particularly in Brunei, where a recently passed law prescribed death-by-stoning for all who commit gay sex or adultery. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah later announced the law would likely never be enforced, but the fact that it even passed was still a shock for most Westerners. As the former New Zealand PM, Helen Clark, tweeted: “Hard to comprehend what could be driving such a barbaric move which stands in stark opposition to fundamental human rights principles.”
Yet this isn’t a simple case of the West looking down its nose at the East. It’s important to keep in mind that European powers once mocked Southeast Asia's tolerance for gender and sexual diversity, perceiving their attitudes as evidence the region needed “redemptive civilization.”
South Sulawesi is a great example. When the Europeans arrived in the 16th century, they were shocked by what they saw. Portuguese missionary Antonio de Paiva wrote a scandalized letter to his Catholic bishop in 1544 about his observations of the Bugis people:
“Your Lordship will know that the priests of these kings are generally called bissus. They grow no hair on their beards, dress in a womanly fashion, and grow their hair long and braided; they imitate [women’s] speech because they adopt all of the female gestures and inclinations. They marry and are received, according to the custom of the land, with other common men, and they live indoors, uniting carnally in their secret places with the men whom they have for husbands...”
He concluded the letter with his amazement that the Christian god, who had destroyed "three cities of Sodom for the same sin," had not yet destroyed such "wanton people" who were "encircled by evil."
The bissu tradition dates back to the 13th century. They are considered a “fifth gender” within the Bugis' gender system, which is comprised of male men (oroané); female women (makkunrai); male women (calabai); female men (calalai); and bissu, who are neither male nor female.
This example of gender-bending ritualism wasn’t just unique to South Sulawesi, but was found throughout Southeast Asia. Such traditions were a function of age-old indigenous belief systems that portrayed the gods as androgynous, or comprised of male-female pairs. Given this view of divinity, people who embodied both masculinity and femininity in their gender and/or sexuality were believed to be closer to the divine and uniquely capable of mediating between the spirits and humans.
A lot of people associate Malay culture with anti-LGBTQ attitudes, but it’s just not the case. As early as the 15th century, there are records of Malay androgynous priests, or sida-sida, who served in the palaces of Malay sultans. The sida-sida were typically “male-bodied priests or courtiers” who undertook “androgynous behavior” such as wearing women’s clothes and likely “engaged in sexual relationships with individuals of the same sex” or “both sexes.”
Up until the 1950s, sida-sida were observed working in palaces. Shika recalls hearing of an elderly trans woman who used to work in such a palace before she passed away. In the 19th century, trans women among the Iban—an indigenous community in Borneo—known as the “manang bali” were well-respected for their abilities to heal and mediate between the spirits and people. They were AMAB (assigned male at birth) individuals who adopted the mannerisms, clothing, and lifestyle of women, even taking on men as husbands and often becoming village chiefs.
Over in the Philippines, pre-colonial communities were religiously led by babaylan, or, women healers and shamans who were responsible for mediating between the gods and people. These roles were also open to AMAB people (asog, bayog) so long as they comported themselves like women. A 16th century Spanish manuscript records asog in the following manner:
“Ordinarily they dress as women, act like prudes, and are so effeminate that one does not know them would believe they are women… they marry other males and sleep with them as man and wife and have carnal knowledge.”
In Vietnam, there are similar records kept by European priests of “men” who acted as spirit mediums and who wore “women’s clothing and completely pull out their beards.” Even today, the tradition of feminine, AMAB mediums who channel feminine spirits lives on in Dao Mau temples that worship the Mother Goddess, an indigenous religion to Vietnam.
And then there’s Myanmar (formerly Burma), which has a rich pre-Buddhist tradition of “nat kadaws,” translating literally to “wife of a spirit.” While there are historical records of AFAB (assigned female at birth) nat kadaws—some of whom resisted the British in the First Anglo-Burmese War—today nat kadaws are known as AMAB individuals who dress as women during the ceremonies and perform important blessings. They typically have sex with men, and some also identify as women outside of a ceremonial context.
These are just a few examples from an enormous list of Southeast Asia’s gender-bending rituals. The fact that many “transgender” figures in Southeast Asia hold religious roles does not necessarily mean that religious contexts were the only safe spaces for gender non-conformists. Thailand, for example, is a country without a tradition of transgender ritualism, but is nevertheless famous for its “third sex” of kathoeys, who are typically AMAB people who appear and dress as women.
With many governments throughout the region imposing increasingly draconian laws against LGBTQ communities, it’s more important than ever for Southeast Asians to learn about their proud queer history. Malaysian government officials have recently issued statements declaring LGBTQ rights to be a “Western idea” created in an effort to re-colonise Asia, but this isn’t true.
Although Shika grew up accustomed to trans women in her early childhood, she only learned of the ritualistic tradition of the Malay sida-sida in 2009, after attending workshops hosted by LGBTQ NGOs.
“I feel very proud that we’ve been around for so long in Malaysia,” she said. “Generally people here do not know who the sida-sida are. Since the 80s, the media tries to say that trans women are something new… that LGBT is a Western thing.”
This was a similar experience for Faris Saad, a trans man who plays in the “queercore” music scene along with Shika. He recalls how he felt when he first learned about Malaysia’s increasingly forgotten trans and queer traditions.
“I was like ‘oh this shit’s cool.’ Then I thought ‘fuck, we don’t have it anymore.’ We have lost something that could’ve affected so many people’s lives. A lot of people today wouldn’t be dead if we kept that [tradition] alive,” he said.
For many LGBTQ advocates in Malaysia, connecting their present activism to their country’s queer heritage feels vital. As Saad explained: “I want to help people understand that acceptance of queer people is not a Western thing. It’s who we always were. We changed because we adopted another culture and tried to be somebody we are not.”
This article was written with the help of Mayang Al-Mohdhar, a writer based in Malaysia. Most of the research is from Michael Peletz’s book "Gender Pluralism in Southeast Asia."
Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She was born in Borneo, Malaysia. She has published in South China Morning Post, Jacobin, Sojourners, and Public Radio International. Her website is sarahngu.com