KUALA LUMPUR -- Singing and playing guitar with her garage punk band TingTongKetz, trans musician Shika Corona is a striking mak nyah -- Malay slang for a trans woman. Tall and charismatic, she and her two LGBTQ colleagues have carved out a niche following in Kuala Lumpur's lively underground music scene. But they remain persecuted outsiders in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where cross-dressing and same-sex acts are illegal, and persecution of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer community is growing.
Shika, 43, was born in the small Malaysian town of Ujong Pasir, near Melaka, where she grew up listening to imported heavy metal music at a time when Malaysia was shifting toward increasing Islamization. TingTongKetz's 2018 debut album "Enjoy the Monsoon" celebrates the struggle to be trans among conservative Muslims. The song "Berubah," which means "To change" in Malay, focuses on Shika's gender confirmation process, which she completed in Thailand in 2015.
Until a few weeks ago, Shika was homebound, with Malaysia under a COVID-19 lockdown that started on March 18. The lockdown has since been relaxed, but music performances, including those in the few venues that support underground punk and alternative music in the Malaysian capital, have been halted. That is not Shika's main problem, however: For her and bandmates Gemma and Yon, the hardest struggle is being themselves in a restrictive society whose prejudices are reflected in the local popular music scene.
"Many underground musicians are quite homo/transphobic," Shika says. "We've played at well-known 'safe space' local venues a couple of times, but we hope to play more elsewhere for new experiences and fresh perspectives." She adds that "after COVID-19, playing live music is [an] even more remote [possibility]."
Being a trans woman in Malaysia is challenging. Speaking at a rally for the International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 25, trans activist Nisha Ayub claimed that, in addition to bullying and physical assaults, 19 trans people were murdered in Malaysia between 2007 and 2020.
As in many other countries, Malaysia's vibrant underground music scene has provided a haven for creative talents in the LGBTQ community. But homo/transphobia remains ingrained even among punk musicians -- a globalized music genre that traditionally supports anarchist ideals and opposes racism, homophobia and other forms of social discrimination.
The most recent example is the hit song "Akhir Zaman" ("The End of Times"), released in February by the popular Malaysian pop-punk band Bunkface. The song rehashes the faux-rebel formula of commercial melodic punk, with verse 109:6 of the Quran ("You with your religion, me with my religion") as its main refrain. But the song also includes the homophobic line "LGBT boleh pergi mampus" ("LGBT can go to hell" or, more literally, "LGBT can go die").
Bunkface, whose three members are Muslim Malays, responded to criticism by stating on its Instagram feed that "what is haram (forbidden to Muslims) will always be haram." This combative response was in line with conservative Muslim views about sex and gender issues throughout Malaysia. In late 2018, for example, two women were publicly caned in the state of Terengganu after being convicted of attempting to have sex in a car.
"In the context of Malaysia, Sunni Islam is an ethnocultural identity and political badge as much as it is a religious belief," says Joseph N. Goh, a senior lecturer in gender studies at Monash University Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur. Goh's latest book, "Becoming a Malaysian Trans Man," discusses the intersections of gender, society and faith in the Southeast Asian nation.
Goh says that Malaysian Islam regards LGBTQ identities and practices as "unlawful, forbidden and sinful." Goh adds: "For many LGBTIQ Malay Muslims who cherish their ethnic, cultural and religious identities, and view them as integral to their very existence, it is impossible to relinquish any one of them." (The initial I in LGBTIQ stands for "intersex" and signifies people born with genitalia, chromosomes or reproductive organs that do not fit typical definitions for males or females.)
This view is common in Malaysian politics. In September 2018 Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister at the time, declared that LGBTQ values are "unacceptable" in Malaysia, which he described as a country that does not follow "Western values." Shortly afterward, Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the multiethnic and relatively liberal Pakatan Harapan coalition, spoke disapprovingly of LGBTQ people in a local television interview. Anwar was himself stigmatized and imprisoned for many years on charges of sodomy (which he has always denied).
A similar approach is observable in neighboring Indonesia, also majority-Muslim, where at the end of February a Family Resilience Bill proposed that people with sexual "deviations" should be compelled to seek "rehabilitation" or "spiritual guidance." Even Indonesia's underground music communities, such as Punk Muslim and Salam Satu Jari (the One Finger Movement) have imbued punk and heavy metal music styles with Islamic proselytizing, blending the global genres with local religious and ethnic identities.
Shika says she has moved away from Islam because she sees it as a very gendered religion. "Cisgender, gay and lesbian [people] can get away and adapt to living in a religious society," she says, "but growing up as a trans person or in transitioning, you are very obvious from miles away." (Cisgender signifies people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth.)
In addition to religion-induced homophobia, Kuala Lumpur's tightly knit group of LGBTQ punks must now also face the coronavirus pandemic. "It is depressing because all the performances have been canceled, and even though now we can get together with our bandmates, it is also difficult for those who depend on music as an income," says Faris Saad, the trans male singer and guitarist of Shh...Diam! ("Shut Up"), Kuala Lumpur's LGBTQ poster-band formed in 2009 at a lesbian pool party.
Faris says that his band is nonreligious, as "[religion] has been used to justify corrupt actions, abuse, and violation of human rights." The group's latest album, "To which my Brother Laughed," was written as the soundtrack for a play of the same name performed in 2019 in response to the caning of the two Terengganu women.
Despite the conservative views of Muslim religious and political leaders, there has been some progress in establishing LGBTQ rights in Malaysia over the last decade. Faris recalls that when the band played an early gig in 2011 in Kelantan, one of Malaysia's most conservative states, the organizers had to rent a private hall to avoid local regulations preventing men and women mingling together at public events. They also introduced Shh...Diam! as an "all-girl-band" to avoid controversy.
By comparison, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, the minister for Islamic affairs, told Nisha in August 2018 that trans women would be allowed to use female public toilets. Shortly afterward, Noor Hisham Abdullah, director-general of the health ministry, pledged to end discrimination against LGBTQ Malaysians in the provision of health services.
Many fear, however, that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a reduction in freedom of expression for LGBTQ people, and for trans performers in particular, not least because many of the limited number of venues that have been open to them will be put out of business by the lockdown.
Social isolation is also likely to have had a damaging impact on trans people in a subtler way, says TingTongKetz bass player Gemma. "A lot of people were trapped inside [their homes] with their homophobic/transphobic families," she says. "Even those who weren't were cut off from the friendship groups that sustain us. It's a very difficult time."