I was scrolling through my Instagram feed when a post caught my eye. A person I was following, who I knew from my schooling days, posted video clips of herself in conjunction with National Coming Out Day on October 11, 2020 – an LGBT awareness day to support queer people in their journey or process of “coming out of the closet.”
The video clips showed my friend, Gleni, swiping at tears of joy as she rejoiced in her mother calling her, her “little girl” for the first time.
“These clips were taken in 2016 when it was the first time my mum called me her ‘little girl.’ It was the only validation I’ve ever needed. Since that day, I’ve never felt the need to hide things from my parents and focus on being the woman I’ve always wanted to be!! I’m trans and I’m proud of this journey!” Gleni wrote in the caption.
Tears welled up in my eyes; the post thoroughly warmed my heart. I reached out to Gleni immediately to ask if she would be willing to share her story. To my delight, she graciously agreed. I was moved by Gleni’s openness and eagerness to have her story told. It indicated a yearning to me, that perhaps Gleni wanted people to see that an “unconventional” gender identity was nothing to be ashamed of.
I knew Gleni since we were both in high school. She was a couple years younger than me and although she attended an all-boys school, and I, an all-girls school at the time, our paths did cross at mutual school functions.
Although she was not able to fully express her gender identity while attending an all-boys school, Gleni had always remained true to herself and was not shy about it. In the formative years of high school when most were only beginning to find themselves, Gleni already seemed to have a pretty good idea of who she was and who she wanted to be.
“I didn’t know I was a boy until people told me I was a boy.”
As a child, Gleni didn’t understand why she was reprimanded for wearing “girls’” clothes and playing with dolls; it just felt natural to her.
For as long as she could remember, Gleni Walker had always felt like “one of the girls.” In recalling her childhood, she simply said that she could relate more to girls compared to boys.
“I always felt that way. I didn’t understand why my parents bought me these ugly pants (or ‘boy’ clothes) when I saw other girls who wore skirts and dresses, play with Barbies. Kenapa when I want to buy Barbies saya kena marah?” (“Why was it that when I wanted to buy Barbies, I was scolded?”)
“I didn’t know that I was a boy until people told me that I was a boy. When I saw girls, I related to them more or I felt like one of them, compared to when I saw boys,” said Gleni.
Gleni’s mother, Evangeline Domingo, also said she had noticed this about Gleni from her primary school days, but did not say anything. To Evangeline, all that mattered was that Gleni did well in school.
Exploding with femininity
Gleni spent the earlier years of secondary school “trying to fit into that mould,” as she described it, purely for her own protection. A student at a prominent all-boys school, she struggled to find a balance between protecting herself from misogynistic harassment and staying true to her identity. Unfortunately, this meant having to suppress who she was.
“I was forced to suppress the way I really felt about myself. That’s why when I started transitioning, I wore a lot of makeup. You typically see trans women wear a lot of makeup when they start transitioning because that’s the first time they are able to be themselves and express themselves. They ‘explode’ with femininity,” Gleni explained.
But for the sake of protecting herself from the jeering and unwelcome advances of not only her peers, but some teachers as well, Gleni did what she could to appear more “masculine.” It was a compromise she should not have had to make, and in the end, it wasn’t enough.
“I tried to be more masculine for the sake of protecting myself. My main motivation was just to not be sexualised. I wanted to walk normally without people touching me. That’s it.
“I had a masculine figure then, and people still made fun of me. People still sexually harassed me. It was then that I realised it was not my fault. If I was sexually harassed, it was not my fault – it was theirs. They’re supposed to be held accountable for their actions. So I decided not to lose myself as a person that I was not. From then on, I slowly became more of myself and tried to find who I was as a person,” she said.
That realisation also instilled in Gleni a newfound conviction, that came with little to no care of what teachers or anyone said or did. What cemented that conviction was the support she received from her mother, as well as her friends who loved her for her true self.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Although Gleni had adopted a more confident outlook on herself, the treatment she received was borderline predatory – she was only a teenager after all.
She recalled a wildly inappropriate comment passed so casually by an adult male teacher, who said to Gleni and her friend, “Sedap tu kan, tu dua orang putih” (“Those two white people must be good”). Gleni and her friend were only 14 at the time.
A number of teachers also discriminated against Gleni and her group of friends when they sought help with school work or wanted to participate in extracurricular activities.
“Kau jalan bagus-bagus dulu, baru saya tolong kau.”
“Walk properly first, and then I’ll help you.”
“Nda buli sebab kau faham juga kan? Kau tau la kan kenapa saya tidak mau kasi ikut kau?”
“(You) cannot (participate) because you understand, don’t you? You know why I can’t let you participate?”
On one such occasion, Gleni and her friends begged their schoolmates to give them just one minute to dance in their group during a talent contest. As a result, a teacher reported the incident to the parent of Gleni’s friend, who was thereafter forbidden from spending any more time with Gleni and their friends because they “danced like girls.”
Yet, because the girls had each other for support, Gleni still cited high school as one of the best times of her life.
“If I could go back to high school and relive every moment, I would. My friends and I were being sexualised and bullied in various forms of harassment a lot of the time, but we found a way to cope with it.
“We made fun of each other and ‘reclaimed’ derogatory slurs and insults aimed at us. We called each other ‘pondan’ and it turned into a joke. We also found things to do together. Sometimes we danced, sometimes we made jokes.
“Those were such beautiful moments. I don’t care that I was still a ‘guy’ back then, but those are such beautiful moments to relive because now, we’re focused on our own goals in life but at that time, ya lah, macam siok (it was fun),” said Gleni.
In the midst of all the inappropriate, harmful and downright disgusting behaviour by people around them, Gleni and her friends found comfort in each other and leaned on each other for support. Among them, they could exist as their true self without judgment and without fear. In conveying this, Gleni illustrated the significance of having a support system; friends who have your back no matter what, who love you and accept you for your truest self.
“She is my child, isn’t she?”
Gleni enjoys a close relationship with her mother, who has always treated her with love and acceptance.
Even just watching from afar, I admired the relationship Gleni had with her mother, Evangeline. The knowledge that Gleni could be honest and forthcoming with her mother, who loved and accepted her thoroughly, filled me with warmth.
Evangeline recalled noticing Gleni’s feminine leaning early on, which she did not comment on at the beginning. At first, I thought this was because Evangeline needed time to come to terms with Gleni’s gender identity; but as Evangeline elaborated, I realised it was because it didn’t matter to her.
“Of course when Gleni was younger, she physically resembled a boy and as she grew older, there were some changes and I pretended not to notice. When she went off to university, that’s when she began transitioning.
“In my mind, it didn’t matter as long as she pursued her studies – and she did well, too. So I also praise God and I accept Gleni. It’s easy for me to accept everything because she is my child, isn’t she?
“Even if you’re angry and you don’t want to accept it, what can you do? I’d rather accept my child for who they are as long as they don’t do any bad things because she continues to excel in her studies. For me, education is important,” said Evangeline.
Gleni was indeed in university the first time she corrected her mother on the pronouns Evangeline used to address Gleni. That, Gleni recalled, was her coming out to her parents.
“I was on a video call with my parents and my mum kept saying things like, ‘I can’t wait for my boy to graduate,’ or something like that. She kept saying boy, boy, boy and I finally told her, ‘I’m not a boy bah mi, I’m a girl.’ And she corrected herself,” said Gleni.
“If I give up, it will be a waste of a trans life.”
The road less travelled by comes with its fair share of bumps and potholes, but Gleni is focused on the destination that awaits.
Living as a trans woman is not easy, to say the least. Gleni is constantly exposed to hate and danger, yet she shoulders a responsibility for her community.
Gleni is currently pursuing her education in mass communication. After this, she plans on pursuing law. She had taken it upon herself to seek justice for her community and when the going gets tough, Gleni reminds herself of the bigger picture.
“When you hear about the trans community, there is always that stereotype of ‘dorang pelacur’ (‘they are prostitutes’). While sex work is still legitimate work, that’s not what we’re all about. That’s why I’m active on social media to show people what trans people do in their daily lives. Trans people do pursue things like furthering their studies – we’re just like anybody else.
“I want to put my life out there so that people know not to put us in a box. We’re capable of a lot of things and not only being this ultra-feminine person, but that we’re also capable of doing things that are not usually associated with trans women.
“My main goal has always been to give justice to my community. Whatever I do is for my community. If I ever feel discouraged, I would ask myself, ‘What other trans woman is going to do this, if not me?’ I have the privilege of furthering my studies. Most of my friends don’t have that opportunity because their parents disowned them and didn’t want to support them.
“But my mum, she believes in me. My friends believe in me. Because of that, I find the drive and motivation to keep going. If I give up, it would be a waste of a trans life,” said Gleni.
For a community that is so marginalised and subjected to profound hate, support means everything. But people like Gleni realise that something as basic as that can sometimes be a luxury to come by, so she becomes the support to others who need it. In doing so, she is not only validating their struggle and journey as a queer person, but also providing them with the encouragement that they need to continue on their path.
This article is a collaboration between Borneo Speaks and ARTICLE 19 under Voices for Inclusion. For more information on ARTICLE 19, please follow this link: https://www.article19.org/region/malaysia