I grew up with a deep respect for transgenders!

In Seremban Busu Kassim and Mak Chik Embi were very much a part of our family’s social life, especially during weddings and cook-out sessions. Both were sought after for their skills in turning out the most wonderful  lauk and kuih and wedding craft like bunga telur and pelamin. They were the wedding planners and events organisers of yesteryear, executing their customers’ orders with the greatest attention to detail and an astute business sense – especially Busu Kassim!

Busu Kassim was a formidable person not only in his physical stature and gruff speaking voice but also in his outstanding culinary skills. I remember being in awe of him each time he came to the house in a crisply- starched baju kedah and kain batik sarong with the short hair slickly oiled and the wide, thin lips smeared orange with sirih dye. His tanned face would be patted unevenly with bedak sejuk and his dark eyes lined with celak as he rasped and perspired having travelled across Seremban town squeezed in a beca

We could see he was not particularly fond of children in the way he swept past us without even a glance as he greeted Che Jah my mother. The two got along really well and respected each other’s specialities. Every year she would faithfully place  Hari Raya orders for his halwa maskat which I didn’t really care for despite the fact that it was touted as the best in Negeri Sembilan. When there was a family wedding or special dinner to prepare  for Busu Kassim would be summoned to hold sway over his minions as they sweated over a kawah of  nasi minyak and huge belanga of kari daging, kurma ayam and a cauldron of rendang minang – all cooked over open fire and tasting delicious. My mother would hold sway over them in turn as she churned out her sabut-baked kuih bakar!

Mak Cik Embi was a gentler soul who was persuaded to become the family cook to spare her the trouble of  looking  out for business opportunities as she got older. And so she moved into the back quarters of 4 Lake Road with her adopted daughter Bariah who became my favourite playmate. And so she cooked for the family some of our most delicious daily meals of ayam masak kicap, ikan goreng berlada, peria udang and kobis masak lemak putih. She made perfect karipap, kuih genggang and kuih kesui for afternoon tea.  

Mak Cik Embi was much taller and slimmer with thick,  coarse hair cropped short. She had the loveliest pair of light brown eyes, with a rim of grey which I now discover is a sign of high cholesterol. And she had the widest of smiles, a grin almost that showed her one gold tooth to perfection. An added bonus was that Mak Cik Embi latah, breaking out into spurts of uncontrollable verbal and non-verbal lashings as she reacted to our proddings. She danced and she sang  and she stirred the gulai like crazy as we urged her on but never for a moment did she lose control of her innate sense of modesty. Her short floral baju kedah remained intact as did her batik sarong!

My siblings and I often wondered about their sexuality but never for a moment did we question them or make them feel uncomfortable. Openness was not a virtue in those days! Neither was discussing your sexual inclinations an obsession!

I suppose  we referred to Busu Kassim as a male because of his masculine gait and gruff voice; and we referred to Mak Cik Embi as a female because Bariah called her Mak although she too had to shave daily. They were welcome in our home and in our lives at a time when there was little  fuss made about and attention given to people’s differences whether it was sexual, racial, social or religious. 

It was not yet fashionable to be different or marginalised!


Evolution of the term transgender

The term transgender (TG) was popularised in the 1970s[5] (but implied in the 1960s[6][7]) describing people who wanted to live cross-gender without sex reassignment surgery.[8] In the 1980s the term was expanded to an umbrella term,[9] and became popular as a means of uniting all those whose gender identity did not mesh with their gender assigned at birth.[10]

In the 1990s, the term took on a political dimension[11][12] as an alliance covering all who have at some point not conformed to gender norms, and the term became used to question the validity of those norms[13] or pursue equal rights and anti-discrimination legislation,[14][15] leading to its widespread usage in the media, academic world and law.[16] The term continues to evolve.

[edit] Transgender vs. transsexual

Billy Tipton was born in 1914. He began living as a man full-time by 1940 at age 26, had a career as a jazz and swing pianist and entertainer, a common law marriage (unregistered but publicly accepted), and three sons by adoption. He was discovered to have been female-bodied after he died in 1989 due to a hemorrhaging ulcer (that he refused to have treated). Like many female-to-male transsexuals of this day he did not have genital surgery.

The word transsexual, unlike the word transgender, has a precise medical definition.[17] It was defined by Harry Benjamin in his seminal book “The Transsexual Phenomenon”.[17] In particular he defined transsexuals on a scale called the “Benjamin Scale”, which defines a few different levels of intensity of transsexualism; these are listed as “Transsexual (nonsurgical)”, “True Transsexual (moderate intensity)”, and “True Transsexual (high intensity)”.[17] Many transsexuals believe that to be a true transsexual one needs to have a desire for surgery. [18] However, it is notable that Benjamin’s moderate intensity “true transsexual” needs estrogen medication as a “substitute for or preliminary to operation.”[17] There also exist people who have had sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) but do not meet the definition of a transsexual, such as Gregory Hemingway.[19][20], while other people do not desire SRS yet clearly meet Dr. Benjamin’s definition of a “true transsexual”.[21] Beyond Dr. Benjamin’s work, which focused on Male to Female transsexuals, there are cases of Female to Male transsexuals for whom surgery is often considered to be not practical.[22]

Outside of the above medical definition there is a wide range of gender expressions which are contrary to the norm. Cross dressers, drag queens, transvestites, transvestic fetishist etc. It is notable that many transsexuals go through one of those self identifications before realizing that they are in fact transsexual.

Some transsexuals also take issue with the term because Charles “Virginia” Prince, the founder of the cross dressing organization Tri-Ess and coiner of the term “transgender”,[23] did so because she wished to distinguish herself from transsexual people. In “Men Who Choose to Be Women,” Prince wrote “I, at least, know the difference between sex and gender and have simply elected to change the latter and not the former”.[24] There is a substantial academic literature on the difference between sex and gender, but in pragmatic English, this academic distinction is ignored and “gender” is used mostly to describe the categorical male/female difference while “sex” is used mostly to describe the physical act.[25]

There is political tension between the identities that fall under the “transgender umbrella.” For example, transsexual men and women who can pay for medical treatments (or who have institutional coverage for their treatment) are likely to be concerned with medical privacy and establishing a durable legal status as men and women later in life. Extending insurance coverage for medical care is a coherent issue in the intersection of transsexuality and economic class. Most of these issues can appeal even to conservatives, if framed in terms of an unusual sort of “maintenance” of traditional notions of gender for rare people who feel the need for medical treatments. Some trans people might express this by saying “I don’t challenge the gender binary, I just started out on the wrong side of it.”[26]

[edit] Transgender identities

Albert Cashier, a trans man who served as a soldier in the US civil war.

While people self-identify as transgender, transgender identity includes many overlapping categories. These include cross-dresser (CD); transvestite (TV); androgynes; genderqueer; people who live cross-gender; drag kings; and drag queens; and, frequently, transsexual (TS).[27] Usually not included are transvestic fetishists (because it is considered to be a paraphilia rather than gender identification). In an interview, artist RuPaul talked about society’s ambivalence to the differences in the people who embody these terms. “A friend of mine recently did the Oprah show about transgender youth,” said RuPaul. “It was obvious that we, as a culture, have a hard time trying to understand the difference between a drag queen, transsexual, and a transgender, yet we find it very easy to know the difference between the American baseball league and the National baseball league, when they are both so similar.”[28] These terms are explained below.

The extent to which intersex people (those with ambiguous genitalia or other physical sexual characteristics) are transgender is debated, since not all intersex people disagree with their gender assigned at birth. The current definitions of transgender include all transsexual people, although this has been criticized. (See below.)

The term trans man refers to female-to-male (FtM or F2M) transgender people, and trans woman refers to male-to-female (MtF or M2F) transgender people, although some transgender people identify only slightly with the gender not assigned at birth. In the past, it was assumed that there were far more trans women than trans men, but a Swedish study estimated a ratio of 1.4:1 in favour of trans women for those requesting sex reassignment surgery and a ratio of 1:1 for those who proceeded.[29] There is a school of thought that says terms such as “FtM” and “MtF” are subjugating language that reinforces the binary gender stereotype.[30]

The term cisgender has been coined as an antonym referring to non-transgender people; i.e. those who identify with their gender assigned at birth.[31]



2 Responses to “”

  1. 1 kassim ahmad
    December 21, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    yes oh yes, i remember.

    my mother used to drag me to weddings and i remember how busu kassim would meet us with his standard greeting “dataaaaang!”. i asked my mother why he always greeted us like that and i was always hushed to silence. he was formidable to us children and we tried to avoid his kitchen.

    mak cik embi’s melatah was legendary. he once carried on for a full 10 minutes or so until some girls calmed him down. the girls used to make fun of his gold teeth and hide his tepak sireh whenever he wanted his tembakau sumbit fix.

  2. 2 ninitalk
    December 21, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    I’m thrilled you remember them Kassim! Didn’t Busu Kassim live in Limbok or Temiang?
    Transgenders or what the Malays called pondan had a role in traditional Malay society.In the kampungs around Melaka and Muar they were not only great kitchen hands but natural entertainers leading the dondang sayang and joget at weddings and community events. In Singapore they were exploited as sex workers even in those days. Their image is tarnished by modern society’s sexual permissiveness.

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