By Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy
A look at international trans rights through the eyes of a Malaysian diplomat
Remember that time in 1969 when a police raid on a New York bar called The Stonewall Inn became a catalytic event in the U.S. LGBTQ civil rights movement? Yet in 2016, we can still find these types of situations happening in some countries,. On March 29, Malaysian transgender activist Nisha Ayub was honored by Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, D.C., as one of 14 International Women of Courage.
Mere days later back in Malaysia, a private dinner with entertainment fundraiser held for Nisha’s HIV foundation and her transgender / gender non-conforming civil rights organization was raided by police and one of the organizers retained.
While Nisha may have begun her 2016 U.S. tour in our nation’s capital, through the efforts of the San Diego Diplomacy Council (SDDC), she was recently brought here as part of the U.S. State Department’s International Leadership Program. As a result, I had the privilege — along with leaders from the San Diego LGBT Community Center, San Diego Pride and the SDDC — to sit down and meet this amazing young woman.
Hosted at The Center by Dr. Delores Jacobs, during the meeting we all came to understand the lengths one will go to live an authentic life and how resilience can be a bridge to advocacy.
“The visits of global LGBTQ community leaders and activists to San Diego are not just a matter of cultural and professional exchange,” said Fabienne Perlov, SDCC executive director, on behalf of the organization that coordinates these important visits. “Already ambassadors of change in their own country, these individuals travel to the U.S. as citizen diplomats on a mission. The reverberating impact of a visit like Nisha’s has far-reaching implications for social change. Her time in our community is used to leverage media and communities, to influence government, societies, and individuals, in an effort to improve LGBTQ rights around the world.”
Nisha’s journey into advocacy began at the age of 21, when she was arrested in Malaysia for dressing in women’s clothing and sentenced to three months in a men’s prison. Though sexually and verbally assaulted during her incarceration, instead of letting this time define her as a victim, Nisha’s ordeal galvanized her resolve to stand up to a nation that would allow the Malaysian transgender population to be abused.
Her organization, Justice for Sisters, addresses a spectrum of injustices, from “micro-aggressions” — such as mis-gendering trans victims in the press — to the government allowing Penang Sharia Law to trump State Law in the prosecution of non-Muslim transgender community members. The specific goals of Justice for Sisters include addressing legislation issues of transwomen and reforming laws that discriminate based on gender expression, such as the Sharia law that forbids crossdressing.
Additionally, Nisha addresses the challenges of HIV/AIDS through SEED, a registered nonprofit organization that works with marginalized communities, such as the transgender community, female sex workers, the homeless, and People Living With HIV. Spearheaded by Nisha and her team, this Trans-led organization provides a safe space, capacity building training, information dissemination, and referrals to health, social welfare, employment and even peer to peer support group.
Despite prejudice and lack of government support, Nisha continues the fight and was justly recognized as the first transgender woman to receive an International Women of Courage Award.
During our meeting at The Center, she disclosed to us that to date, the U.S. Embassy has been continually supportive toward her effort to create an enabling and safe environment for the transgender community in Malaysia. Her hope is that she may use the honor bestowed by Secretary Kerry as a platform to spark international conversations about the plight of LGBTQ communities in nations that are considered “developing” countries.
Nisha’s April visit also afforded San Diego’s leaders the opportunity to honor and support her work, including having April 5 proclaimed Nisha Ayub Day by Mayor Kevin Faulconer, congressional recognition from the office of Rep. Scott Peters, and the Jose Julio Sarria Civil Rights Award, presented by City Commissioner and Queen Mother of the Imperial Court of the Americas, Nicole Murray Ramirez.
Graciously humble while accepting all the acclaim, Nisha reminded us that she was not doing this alone, and while her visibility might offer a measure of protection, her community in Malaysia still faces life-threatening discrimination on a daily basis.
“This prestigious award has given us, the transgender community, recognition of our preferred gender identity,” Nisha said. “To have such support from a powerful country such as the U.S. gives the community hope towards positive changes in the near future. My trip in the U.S. has widened my knowledge in so many ways towards advocating for transgender rights in my country. Thank you to the United State of America for giving the community a sense of acceptance and hope towards the betterment of the community around the world.”
In the wake of LGBTQ discrimination measures being paraded as “religious liberty” laws in our own states, we must feel an acute solidarity with Nisha and her cause. I am proud to stand, on behalf of the San Diego Human Dignity Foundation, with The Center, San Diego Pride and the San Diego Diplomacy Council to lend our voices and resources to Nisha’s advocacy work, and hope that the larger San Diego LGBTQ community will join us in following the developments in Malaysia, and supporting our brothers and sisters who suffer, but continue to fight!
—Ian D. Morton is s freelance grant writer and the producer of Y.E.S. San Diego, an LGBTQ youth empowerment conference. To nominate an individual or nonprofit for this column, please email the information to firstname.lastname@example.org.