This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 9 November 2010. Below is the original version.
It was another quintessential night in Chow Kit; hot, humid, red and reeking with the thick smell of danger for those who would shun the district. Celeste, Joanna, Samantha and Lola lined the street of Lorong Haji Taib. In between small chats with each other, they call out indiscriminately to men walking by; teasing them unabashedly in their deep hoarse voices. For those who bother to play along, they are rewarded with flying kisses.
The night was slow but not devoid of excitement. Just as the night, they came slowly and quietly for them. They are ambushed by a group of uniformed policemen. Lola and Samantha manage to escape. Celeste and Joanna are quickly handcuffed and brought to the police station.
Less than 24 hours later, Celeste is released. Joanna? Dead. But not before being forced to perform sexual favours on the commanding officer while being restrained by his two subordinates. They eventually “finish” her off by applying multiple blows to her skull when she refuses to let them take her from behind.
Joanna never had a chance.
Celeste returns with a mission. She saw what they did to Joanna and vowed never to end up as another unclaimed corpse. She pleads with her friends to stand united and fight for their honour and lives. Together, they vow never to be silent again.
Celeste’s blood-chilling and piercing cry, “Joanna dah mati!” would echo in their minds forever.
It may not be as real as Poh Si Teng’s acclaimed documentary “Pecah Lobang”, a Freedom Film Fest winner in 2008, but that was the script used by the Bar Council MyConstitution Campaign team to send out a strong message to sex workers and Mak Nyahs at the Jom ke Chow Kit Carnival at Lorong Haji Taib on 31 July 2010.
Above: The MyConstitution Campaign team
It took the team a few days to put together the skit but not without first spending hours after hours debating and deciding on a suitable yet effective message. Most of the team members were lawyers but none of them knew what sort of message would make an impact on one of the oldest professions in the world.
Lawyers are useful when it comes to giving advice on what to do when one is being arrested but what can they tell a highly stigmatised community who not only are prime targets of the police and religious authorities, but also vulnerable to abuse and violence?
That was when the team decided to tell the story of Joanna, a transsexual sex worker who died in police custody.
The message was simple. It is louder when four persons scream at the same time than just one. The chances of being heard are higher if you continue to scream. Sooner or later, someone will hear you.
The crowd responded. They laughed and cheered when they saw Celeste, Joanna, Samantha and Lola blowing kisses in the air. The atmosphere turned sombre and quiet when Joanna was being tortured by the officers. Some wore grave expressions on their faces as they watched Celeste bringing news of Joanna’s death and crying out in anguish. They clapped thunderously when the girls came together and agreed to do something about it.
The image of helpless Joanna being forced to face her opponents alone is more real than imagined. Most of us are aware of the discrimination and injustice faced by the community of sex workers, yet we choose to keep silent and stay ignorant of it. While we will readily acknowledge the right to live, life without dignity and justice is not a life worth living.
The organiser, the PT Foundation (PTF), is to be commended for providing an opportunity and platform for people living with HIV/AIDS, sex workers, drug abusers, men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM), gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people to learn more about their rights and HIV/AIDS. Combating HIV/AIDS is after all one of the UN Millennium Development Goals.
According to the Ministry of Health’s statistics in 2009, there are 86,000 reported cases of HIV/AIDS in Malaysia. Everyday, 15 Malaysians are diagnosed HIV positive and the majority of them are men. 34% are in their twenties. The high-risk groups are surprisingly not sex workers, drug users or homosexuals. They are fishermen, factory workers, long distance drivers, housewives and heterosexuals.
Speaking to Jeremy provided a sense of comfort and assurance. He came across as someone who is wise and easy to talk to; and he is a gay man who occasionally also drags or crossdresses as a woman in special functions such as at the Jom ke Chow Kit Carnival.
Jeremy works towards educating and sensitising people on the importance of safe sex, sexuality and self-acceptance - all the right qualities to help fulfil PTF’s objectives.
I first spotted Jeremy when he was standing in front of the stage with a microphone in his hand. He was giving out a series of HIV/AIDS related trivia. It was difficult not to notice him as he was dressed in a black body-hugging t-shirt, hot pants, black stockings and Mary Jane shoes. In addition to his thick make-up, he was a picture of confidence and determination as he asked the crowd, “Can you get HIV/AIDS by holding someone’s hands?” while loud pumping techno beats were playing on the background.
Later in a private interview, Jeremy disclosed that he had come a long way before his family and friends accepted his sexuality. He was reluctant to call this episode in his life a problem but preferred to see it as a challenge instead. He added that at the end of the day, what’s really important is for a gay person to come to terms with his own sexuality, first. But it is important to take the time to figure out who he really is before arriving at that critical juncture.
When asked whether he faced any discrimination while growing up as a homosexual, he answered no. He explained that Malaysia is that sort of country where you would not get into trouble if you do not tell. An example is how PTF is not allowed to publicly inform people that they provide counselling to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender (GLBT) people. They may only call it “sexuality counselling”.
He also said that while law enforcement authorities do not harass PTF directly, they face many obstacles when trying to implement their HIV/AIDS education and prevention programme for sex workers in massage parlours, karaoke lounges, motels and nightclubs. These places are raided by anti-vice enforcement officers and too often in the presence of PTF, which consequently prevents the businesses from wanting to engage with PTF.
When asked who his hero is, Jeremy declares that he is his own inspiration. His father once told him in an acceptance speech, “Whatever you do, you’re an adult now. You’re responsible for your own life.” He said that it is important for everyone to be themselves because in the end, it is up to each individual to find out who they are and to grow comfortably into their own shoes.
Such positive self-image was unfortunately not seen in Eddie, a 39 year-old former drug user. He was seen sitting alone at the back of a tent, quietly colouring his face with bright blue paint.
When I asked him what he was doing at the Carnival, he insisted that I would not be able to stomach his answer. “If I tell you, you won’t be able to take it. So, I rather not say anything,” he said to me again and again and all the while avoiding eye contact.
After some coaxing, he revealed that he is HIV positive. He said most people who learned about his condition would run away. We ended up having a long chat about his life story.
According to Eddie, he started using drugs when he was 15-years old. His family moved to Kuala Lumpur from a small village in Negeri Sembilan. He experienced culture shock and was not able to adapt to city life. Due to existing family problems, he experimented with drugs and it subsequently became a means of escape for him.
He spent most of his adult life in and out of prison and rehabilitation in Sungai Buloh and Kajang. He still remembers starving in prison where inmates were under-fed and often resorted to eating left over fish bones and banana peels. When asked whether he was ever physically abused by prison guards, he replied, “Only if you disobey them. That’s all I’m willing to say.”
He said many inmates died in rehabilitation due to their weak and frail physical conditions, mostly pronounced by poor nutrition. Like him, most of them had no families or friends who would miss their absence. The moment they all discovered how low they had sunk, they would drop out of their lives.
Eddie added, “It hurts. It hurts greatly to see how they looked at me with disgust. Once when I came out of rehab, I had the will to turn over a new leaf. I really wanted to change my life. When I got home, my mother and sisters were busy cooking the whole day. Do you know why? They had planned to feed me well and then send me away for good. I never saw them again.”
When asked whether he is afraid of death, he paused briefly before admitting that he is more afraid of dying a painful death and being alone.
I asked him whether he ever regretted his actions that have led him to this situation, he answered bitterly, “Of course! Who would want to live like this? Because of my health condition and medical treatment, I’m feeling sick all the time. I can’t find work and I have no money or friends.”
Access to assistance
That night, 40 people were arrested by the police on their way to the Carnival which incidentally, was endorsed by the Ministry of Health. They were apparently tested for drugs. As fellow columnist, June Low wrote in her blog, thanks to the police, these 40 individuals missed out on a chance to learn more about the risk of HIV/AIDS.
There is something fundamentally wrong when people are being stopped from having access to help. It is morally sinful when people are being deprived of such an opportunity.
Is it because they are different? Is it because they are considered as moral pariahs?
It is time to ask ourselves these questions.
What makes these people different from us? What makes them so contemptible that we allow them to fight their battles alone? Does that not make us even more contemptible for not coming to their defence?
Finally, how many of us actually give ourselves to others without expecting anything in return; whether it is for love, sex, financial security, companionship, procreation or power?
Answer this truthfully and you’ll know that we are all the same in the end.
I asked Eddie what keeps him alive.
He replied, “What keeps me going is that every year I vow to change my life for the better. I vow to take my methadone and anti-retroviral treatments more diligently. I vow to secure a job to keep me financially independent. I’ll be 40 soon and I think there’s hope. After all, isn’t it true what the Western people say about life beginning at 40?”
The question is: will he live to see that change?