Thilaga Sulathireh is brimming with hope. The 30-year-old activist believes there is more support now for the LGBT community, a most vulnerable group in society.
“We see a lot of cis-gender, hetrosexual people speaking out against the discrimination the LGBTQ community faces and that’s really a positive step in our activism. There are limitations in Malaysia when it comes to talking about gender identity. Yet, people want to talk about it now. This is really encouraging and something we cherish.
“Take the recent murder of Sameera (in Kuantan recently) as an example … there was a huge public outcry not just within the trans community but from the general public,” says the co-founder of Justice for Sisters, a group formed to raise awareness on violence and persecution against the transgender community in Malaysia.
Thilaga’s activism began when she began volunteering with the Malaysian Aids Council (MAC) as a teenager.
“Working with MAC allowed me to meet and work with a lot of people … those living with HIV, drug users, sex workers, trans people and gay men which exposed me to the realities of the world at a young age. I knew about safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual and reproductive health issues and all that from a young age. It got me interested in understanding gender issues,” shares Thilaga who went on to pursue a degree in gender studies at Universiti Malaya.
Raising public awareness on issues faced by the LGBT community is an integral part of her work, says Thilaga.
Helping the public understand even basic things like what a trans person is and the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation reduces the discrimination that the community faces in society and in the workforce.
“Trans people face a series of discriminination at work…right from the interview process to their experiences at the workplace. There are not many employment opportunities for them which forces them to do sex work and this leads to them being discriminated yet again.
“With more public awareness, hopefully there will be more job opportunities for them,” she says.
The community, she points out, faces not only societal discrimination but structural discrimination too with laws and codes that criminalise them.
Thilaga and her colleagues at Justice for Sisters offer legal referrals for transgenders who face arrests or encounter any other problems.
“We have laws against LGBT people. There is a lot of structural violence as well as systemic violence, and all these have a huge impact on their lives. It’s worse for children who not only can’t express themselves but are sent to camps that aim to reform them. Think about the psychological and emotional impact on them. On top of all that, we have so much hate speech about the LGBT community which negates the public awareness work that is being done.
“What we need is more alliances to empower the LGBT community and help them feel safe. We also need to stand against any rhetoric that promotes hate and discrimination and we need to be consistent. Ask ourselves if we are willing to allow such discrimination,” she asserts.
Her activism takes up a lot of her time but Thilaga also works as a freelance researcher and on various projects that promote equality, human rights and gender. She came into gender-based activism largely from her own exploration of gender and sexuality. She also hopes to see a world that is safe and welcoming for all types of people.
And change, she believes, has to begin at home.
“One of the biggest challenges LGBT people face is talking to and coming out to their families. We need to start having conversations about gender at home, with friends and at the workplace so that we can promote awareness. At the end of the day it is about changing hearts and minds and that is very difficult to do alone,” she says.