Toilet debates and the obsession with genitals

AUGUST 19 — WHAT do you call someone who possesses knowledge and information, but decides to distort and misrepresent facts in order to perpetuate his personal beliefs and bigotry?
Some would call it intellectual dishonesty.

For example, Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin when wading into the transgender toilet debate, said that Malaysian LGBT should just check their genitals if they weren’t sure which toilet to go into.

Surely a mufti as learned and respected as he is knows the difference between sex and gender? That gender is defined by what’s in your mind, and not your genitals?

Or something as simple as not all LGBT actually have trouble when they go to public toilets, and only the transgenders are affected? Why would a gay man not go into a men’s toilet?

Or perhaps he is obsessed with genitals?

Since he cannot see past someone’s genitals when discussing something as complex as gender identity, systemic discrimination and public policy.

One would have expected someone branded “progressive” — faux or not — to say something more profound. And yet, there is that remark.

And it smacks of ableism too, when he told LGBTs to go to the doctor so they can get certified to use the toilets for the disabled (OKU).

The situation was made worse by deputy minister in charge of Islamic affairs Fuziah Salleh who was also quoted outside Parliament saying that transgenders can use OKU toilets as a temporary measure before they are “fully accepted by society.”

With such a half-baked suggestion, Fuziah not only earned the ire of the OKU community, but had misdirected the anger of the OKU community towards transgenders.

Minister in charge of Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa suggested that transgenders be allowed to use toilets of the gender they identify with but subsequently retracted the statement.— Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Minister in charge of Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa suggested that transgenders be allowed to use toilets of the gender they identify with but subsequently retracted the statement.— Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

These ignorant comments succeeded in pitting two marginalised communities against each other, while solving none of their problems. Instead, with many Malaysians more familiar and sympathetic towards the OKUs, it has caused them to direct their own anger towards the transgenders.

In the past week, I have seen many online comments by clueless Malaysians who lambasted transgenders for taking over OKU toilets, accusing the transgenders of  being privileged and demanding at the expense of the OKUs.

None of this is true, of course. And surely, no OKU nor transgender would want to butt heads with each other — not when the solution is so simple.

The debate surrounding transgender toilets is hardly new. It is just that Malaysia has only now started to talk more about it. It has been a controversial subject in United States politics in 2010.

Here is how I understand the problems faced by the transgender community when they wish to do something as simple as using the toilet.

They clearly do not feel comfortable going to segregated toilets, since they find it hard to identify with them. And when they go into toilets that reflect their gender identity, they frequently face hostility and challenge from others, especially women.

In return, transgenders tend to avoid public toilets altogether.

The hostility is understandable. Many women still wrongly see trans women as men. And this elicits fear of sexual assault, or in the cases of Muslims, concern that trans women will witness their aurat, or intimate parts concealed from men — which includes something as innocuous as the hair.

The conundrum seems to be: if we allow trans women in female toilets, what if a man disguises himself as a trans woman to enter and rape women?

And yet, this belief is unfounded. Men already rape women in the ladies’ toilets even when they are not allowed in. Rape can be perpetrated by anyone, even by women against women — surely women have been bullied by their own in women’s toilets? And furthermore, pushing trans women into the men’s toilet only increases their own risk of getting raped by men there.

It is as if the problem lies with men, not trans women. (Yes, it does.)

And yet, many men do not simply go into women’s toilets just to rape. As someone who has a few times mistakenly entered a women’s toilet only to be greeted by shrieks or bulging eyes, or to sweat bullets when you realise it once you’re in the cubicle and your bowel has loosened up — a healthy, normal, functioning man realises that he does not belong there.

But for some numbers. In a 2015 report at the height of the controversy in the US, news outlet Mic.com asked the Transgender Law Center, the Human Rights Campaign, and the American Civil Liberties Union there to provide the number of cases where a cis-gender person was harassed by a transgender in the toilet.

Wait for it... zero.

There is a case so frequently cited by conservatives here, of a trans woman named Michelle Martinez who was convicted of sexually assaulting the 10-year-old daughter of a friend in Wyoming.

Yes, that happened. But it never happened in a public toilet. It happened at the victim’s home. And Martinez was known for violent conduct, she was accused of beating her boyfriend with a metal broomstick in 2014.

And if anything, this only shows how women frequently get assaulted by those closest to them, not some random “mak nyah” in public.

Perhaps it was no surprise that the case of Michelle Martinez quoted so freely in Malaysia, was first highlighted by American conservative journalists and bloggers.

In the US and elsewhere, the conservatives are united in demeaning minorities and stripping them of their dignity, using excuses like moral panic and respecting the majority. Sometimes, that minority is Muslims, lest we forget.

Minister in charge of Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa made the right call when he suggested that transgenders be allowed to enter toilets of the gender they identify with. It was disappointing that he subsequently retracted the statement, since it should be a public policy here.

Again, the solution is simple. Like in many other countries: build more unisex and gender-neutral toilets. This way, mamy people benefit all at once: transgender and intersex community, the OKUs, and even parents with kids of the opposite sex.

But a more important issue is at hand: to view transgenders beyond their genitals, with compassion and understanding, not as deviants but as brothers and sisters with whom we should stand with — at urinals, or waiting for a cubicle.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.