I’m always on the hunt for Canyon contraband cigarettes, though it’s been a while since I had one now that the small shady shops, hawkers and mamaks have decided that it’s not worth risking their businesses for frugal addicts like myself.
But on one hot afternoon in Chow Kit, a box of Canyon cigarettes lay there on the table before me. It belonged to Jozzie, the transman with whom I had an interview.
Just as I had been waiting for the moment I would be reunited with my favourite cigarette, I had been eagerly anticipating the moment I would be able to document the story of a transman like himself.
Just a few weeks before, Jozzie had had his first dose of testosterone in his journey of gender reaffirming therapy.
Before his birth, his mother thought that she was carrying a boy as doctors had told her so during her medical examinations. The news was welcomed as the family had had only girls before.
But while the anticipation of a baby boy brought joy to the household, it was tinged with sadness as Jozzie’s father passed away before his birth. His mother was asked to abort the baby, but she was reluctant to do so as she had wished for a boy for so long.
Jozzie was born a girl, but his mother’s wish shaped his experience of childhood. He was given new toys and clothes that were different from those of his sisters. Instead of the toys usually associated with girls, he played with action figures and toy cars. His hair was kept short, and at Raya celebrations he wore a baju Melayu and paraded before his relatives with the innocence of a young tomboy.
Jozzie’s first taste of femininity came with puberty. His hair was grown out and he wore baju kurung instead as his mother began worrying about talk on her side of the family. But even then, he rebelled against this although his rebellion was not entertained by his mother.
Soon, though, his mother agreed with Jozzie’s unease with his long hair and decided that it would be easier to keep Jozzie’s hair short.
While his mother may have factored in the way Jozzie expressed himself during childhood, his identity as a transman was not a foreign feeling embedded in himself but rather one precipitated without causality from the nurturing he received – a nature that was there simply from existing as himself.
Jozzie as a secondary school student reminded me of the adolescents in SE Hinton’s The Outsiders. The nostalgia and romances of American teenage boys were a distant parallel to Jozzie’s fights with boys and the after-school romances sneaked when his parents were not home, although the frequent visits of Jozzie’s girls invited teasing from his third sister, with whom he was close.
He had no choice but to wear the school uniform although he settled on changing out of the compulsory baju kurung as soon as school ended.
Acceptance was not something Jozzie had to demand from his family. While the relatives on his mother’s side subtly voiced the need for Jozzie to be a proper lady through the lens of a Muslim family, those on his father’s side were more than willing to accept his masculinity.
Raya would see Jozzie in a baju kurung during get-togethers with his mother’s side of the family, but the relatives on his father’s side were more than willing to lend him pants and a shirt for him to change into as soon as he arrived.
His love life was also acknowledged by his mother and stepfather, although not in the way he would describe it. His home in Johor Bahru shortened the distance between himself and his lover, Janice, who worked in Singapore. That romance is now a concluded chapter in his life, but it was his parents who could not get over his breakup. In fact, his stepfather would still ask about Janice’s well-being.
Nevertheless, his journey to accept himself as a transman continues. The religious teaching that came before would sometimes bring teachers with a heteronormative view of life. Although he knows not to fall into the pattern of denying himself what he truly felt, he still seeks spiritual guidance from the entity in whom he believes as well.
Each prayer and prostration is a moment for Jozzie to find reassurance for his identity. He asks God to show him whether what he feels is what he is supposed to, and he has never felt denied for expressing himself as what he is.
But Jozzie undermines the significance of his story. When I asked him to let me interview him, doubt was voiced not on the fear that shrouds the lives of sexual minorities about the loss of their private identities but about whether his story was significant enough compared to the tragic experiences of others.
We have become accustomed to tragic stories of sexual minorities, to the point that we may even become desensitised, to protect what little we have left of our ability to sympathise with others.
Just as we lead our lives filled with work and the business that accompanies it, sexual minorities seem expected to lead their lives with new tales of discrimination, abuse, and lost hope and families.
I would be lying if I said I did not long for a story that, for once, involved its narrator being happy and content.
Stories of how sexual minorities can live a life indistinguishable from other members of society could at least tell readers that sexual minorities can simply be happy.
Let this piece of writing be a guide for families and friends that sometimes the best and only thing they can do is to continue loving and accepting their kin and peers for the sake of the contentment which everyone deserves regardless of identity or orientation.
Until contentment is within reach for everyone who struggles, semoga kita terus berbakti.