What I've Learned: Nisha Ayub

On being being a transgendered person, fighting for equal rights and her life growing up.

BY Sim Wie Boon | Oct 12, 2016 | Women We Love

Eric Chow

Nisha Ayub, Activist, 37

When I was seven or eight years old, I noticed my family members often trying to “correct” whatever I said or did. I knew then that I was different.

In Primary Three, I participated in a fancy dress competition in school, as a ballerina. When I did that, I felt so comfortable. That’s when I first started to portray myself as who I really am in public. I was so happy.

But at the time, I didn’t know that I was transgender. I’d never heard of the word. When I reached secondary school, I thought I was gay because I became attracted to men when I hit puberty.

At the end of the day, it’s not about being attracted to men; it’s about my identity. The more I started to portray myself as a woman, the more comfortable I felt.

Back home in Malacca, there was once this beautiful Chinese transgender. She had lovely, long hair and rode a motorcycle. At the time, I didn’t know that she was transgender. I only found out when I started to hear people talking about her and saying that she’s actually a man. But when I looked at her, I saw a beautiful woman. Only when I talked to her did I notice that her voice was different, and that’s when I first learned the word transgender.

I was alone. I didn’t have anyone to talk to—not my family or anyone at school. The difference between then and now is that I wasn’t as talkative or expressive as I am today. I was very introverted, because when I met people, they would always go, “Why is he talking like that or behaving that way?” It made me feel very uncomfortable to be around people.

When I reached adolescence, I started to go out more. I met other transgender people. So it made someone like me, who was confused at the time, ask: “Who am I, and why are they like me too?” Then I knew—I’m a part of them.

I’m not saying that I was lucky to be there, but prison made me stronger. Being transgender, we face a lot of problems from birth.

You may see us [transgender people] laughing and making jokes all the time, but behind those smiles are a lot of sad stories.

I always believe that, while whatever you may face now is challenging, things will always get better. It is this belief that keeps me moving forward.

The main problem that I’m facing right now is sustaining the work that I do for the organisation and the community. The problem is, transgender and homeless people are less likely to be engaged by people. For me, to continue my work, I need the support to sustain my organisation. It’s a difficult task.

When I meet the younger generation, what I notice is that there is more acceptance and willingness to listen. I’ve seen a lot of younger transgenders being more open about who they are. In my campaigns, most of my support comes from the younger generation.

Rather than oppressing the community and not letting the right information get out there, it’s better to allow people to really get to know who they are. If more information is provided about sexual identity and orientation, it’ll give them a choice to discover themselves.

When I found out that the US Embassy had nominated me for the International Women of Courage Award, I didn’t think much of it. There are over 200 nominees from around the world, so I was just happy to even be nominated. But when it was announced that I was one of the award recipients, it shook me. I couldn’t believe it because, first and foremost, it was a Women of Courage award. For them to recognise me as a woman was something.

When I travelled to the US for the awards ceremony, I was really nervous about how the other recipients would see me. But they didn’t see me as just a transgender person. They saw me as a woman. In their opinion, a woman is not just from a biological standpoint. If you see yourself as a woman, you are a woman. I felt really honoured and proud of the community. The award didn’t just recognise me, but the transgender community all around the world as well.

People say that I’m a LGBT activist. To be honest, I’m not fighting for LGBT rights. I’m fighting for equal rights. LGBT people are just like any other member of society who seeks equal rights. We’re not asking for any special rights.

For those who suspect that they might be different, the first thing that I would say to you is don’t feel bad. Things will get better. You need to understand and accept yourself. That’s the most important thing. Before asking other people to accept you, you have to accept yourself; otherwise, there is no point.

If I could go back in time, I’d probably tell my 18-year-old self to continue my studies. I wish that I had done that.

Sometimes, I ask myself until when? Until when will I continue to do this? Every day of my life is about the organisation, and I’m thinking about how to continue the programme. Sometimes, I do feel overwhelmed. But the thing that keeps me going is, each time I look at the community, I see things changing bit by bit. The personal thanks and messages—that’s also what keeps me forging ahead.

I believe in religion. I believe all religion teaches good. The only problem is when people start misusing religion. People always say that you need to think about hell or heaven and what comes after. I think about the now. Why do we have to think about hell or heaven or after? Let’s think about the now. Let’s do good now. Religion starts from you.

First published in Esquire Malaysia, July 2016.