Queer Lapis: Learning to Love Home Again

Beads of sweat drip down my girlfriend Nightingale’s bright red cheeks as she devours the chicken curry and rendang1 from Jayakarta Restaurant in Berkeley, our regular hangout when I am feeling homesick. She opted for Spice Level 4: supposedly “pepper-spray”-like for Americans, but tolerable for Indonesians — and her, a White American queer trans* woman who has never left the country.

Her huge grin sparks similar delight in me, giddy with anticipation over how much wider her smile would be (and how much sweatier and redder her face will become) when she tries cili padi2 and sambal3 and all the Spice Level 5-and-up things in our Christmas trip back home to Malaysia.

A country I never thought I’d ever want to return to, let alone eagerly bring a lover to show off as home.


Malaysia seems like an odd choice of place to bring your queer trans* girlfriend along for a visit. The Malaysian authorities have always been antagonistic to LGBTQ people, and their efforts have ramped up in the last year. Schools are receiving guidelines on spotting and curbing homosexual behaviour in children while playing host to a state-sponsored play that paints LGBTQ people as hedonistic predatory deviants. “Effeminate boys” are being sent to re-education camps, trans women are frequently targeted by law enforcement, and the closest thing to Pride in Malaysia is now banned. Of course, it’s all part of a foreign-led conspiracy to divide and attack Muslims.

Homophobia and transphobia aren’t exclusive to the Government. Trans women are attacked while walking down the street. Slurs such as “bapok” or “pengkid” are common. International ex-gay organisation Exodus International has a branch in Malaysia. Having hardly any representation of LGBTQ people — let alone positive ones —combined with strong cultural messages of not rocking the boat or rousing rabble means treating anyone potentially fitting the stereotypes as defective, deviant, dangerous.

To be honest, though, I never really had to deal with violence or bigotry over my sexual orientation or gender presentation. Rather, as a child of Bangladeshi migrants, my racial identity became my main battleground. For most of my life I had to deal with institutionalized and societal racism against Bangladeshis, commonly shunted into the “Other” category in racial quotas4 (if they’re ever counted at all) and decried by the Government, the media, and society as being untrustworthy criminals.

School teachers constantly interrogated me about news reports of Bangladeshis committing crime, and often threatened me with expulsion claiming I did not have the right papers — even though I was legally required to attend public school.

“Go back to your country!” and “speak the national language!” were common refrains.

“Bangla”,a word meant to refer to a language that sparked a revolution, now became a slur.

Even the supposedly more progressive Opposition coalition and their supporters were no allies to me — Bangladeshis were again scapegoated for allowing the ruling party to regain power via ‘phantom voting‘, and calling out my peers on this behaviour led to me being told that I was too “emotional” and that there were “more important priorities” than not throwing entire races under the bus in the quest for political reform.

Yet in Bangladesh I felt similarly alienated and disconnected. Being born and raised outside Bangladesh meant having few opportunities to be immersed in and appreciate Bangladeshi culture. I can’t read Bengali and I speak like a five-year-old. My relatives consider me the “interesting” oddity. When one of my cousins married a French man she met living in England, I was placed in the ‘foreigner’ contingent with the French family and English friends who came to Dhaka for the reception. Dhaka, with the overwhelming chaos and noise and dust, is the only city that makes me consistently homesick.

Me being fabulous as a kid, before things became painful and horrendous.

Me being fabulous as a kid, before things became painful and horrendous.

Malaysian culture is what I’m most familiar with,from the food to the fluent command of Manglish.Bangladeshi culture is where I am meant to find affinity,with a large extended family centered in Dhaka and histories of culture being key to independence and national pride. Yet in both places I have to view everything through the filter of the Other: expected to assimilate, but never fully welcome.

As it is, my personal interests and beliefs — from my ambitions to fully pursue the arts, to my radical-leaning left wing political activism — were deviating from the norms of both Malaysia and Bangladesh. I was becoming too Westernised, too non-conformist, too queer.

People talk about motherlands; I felt like I am someone born of a surrogate mother(land), who has estranged herself from her biological and surrogate mothers, and is now trawling the world looking for someone to adopt her.

So I left Malaysia,and sought to find home.


So much time and energy was spent dealing with racist backlash that I had no space to think about my gender and sexuality. My burgeoning feminism was more of a reaction against the gendered expectations of society: I didn’t want makeup or skirts or any sort of femininity markers whatsoever, and decried typical feminine pursuits such as fashion or sewing in a holier-than-thou matter.5

My knowledge of sex was perhaps slightly better than the average young Malaysian, given our abysmal lack of sex ed and the national attitude of studies being our only priority — over hobbies or relationships or life in general. However, paranoia over being the 0.000001% that gets STI-riddled babies despite using ALL THE PROTECTION and denial over being in love with one of my best friends meant that I identified largely as asexual: sex seemed like way too much of a messy hassle.

My first stop, Brisbane, Australia6, gave me the space and opportunity to explore my gender and sexuality without feeling like I had to risk arrest or deportation. I was in a loving relationship7 and found sex to be enjoyable (and my paranoia largely unfounded). My feminist politics grew more nuanced, being more inclusive of the “feminine pursuits” I once derided, and I even began to accept and nurture my femme side. When we opened our relationship (a great decision for many reasons), I was able to explore my interest in women,which led to a total reevaluation of my sexual identity.

In Brisbane I dived into my artistic and political ambitions, with a budding burlesque career characterised by my combination of the erotic with social justice — with a debut performance that blew people’s minds by merging my Muslim background with my growing eroticism. I became more involved with the queer community through volunteering and art. At one point I was a rising star.

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me at a protest against the defunding of Healthy Communities, an LGBTQ-centric organisation I volunteered with for a few years. the lines on my flag are from Darren Hayes’s Unlovable. (photo by Queensland Pride)

Then things started to fall apart. I was being ostracised in the burlesque scene for being too vocal about its white-washing and constant cultural appropriation. Even the queer and activist communities were White-centric: I recall being the only non-White person at a meeting organised by radical activists meant to organise a protest against a White supremacist event. I was sexually assaulted and went through a traumatic breakdown of a relationship that had barely even started. Election season stirred up a lot of anti-migrant sentiment thanks to the rhetoric of “stopping the boats”.

Once again, I was alienated. Once again, everything became filtered through the lens of the Other.

I spent the summer of 2011 in San Francisco via an artist residency at CELLspace8 to nurse my heartbreak and alienation, and also because so many of my artistic inspirations were either based in the Bay Area or had spent significant time there. I quickly saw why: it seemed that every identity intersection had some sort of representation, activist community, or artistic presence. From queer artists of colour working with disability, to feminist fat activists, to community centers for culture and sexuality.

The people there quickly took me in as one of their own. I went on an ecosex workshop in the woods with Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, and was rescued by Carol Queen and her partner Robert (whom I was interning for) after a bad pot incident at Dyke March. I performed at the Femmes of Color Symposium and at Oakland Pride. I befriended a ton of people and got laid, a lot. I felt appreciated, affirmed, accepted for the very things that got me pushed out from Brisbane — being a loudmouth rabble-rousing weirdo. Three months was not nearly enough, and I vowed to return.

I knew it was time to move on when hardly anyone noticed I had returned to Brisbane yet people in San Francisco were asking me to come back.

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formerly Tiara the Merch Girl

Creatrix has written 1 articles for us.

41 Comments

    • Thumb up 11

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      More Feels:

      I enjoyed reading this piece and how it felt so relatable in dealing with your birth country being homophobic, transphobic and dealing with the feeling you did not belong. It difficult and in a world where globalization has its perks and dire consequences. I am always ALWAYS reminded that my frame of reference in these politics are annoyingly US-centric, knowing damn well there are other parts of the world with their own nuances that I have to consider while having these conversations heterosexism and all the ugly that comes with it. I’m continually trying to work on that and it’s hard but “I” statements help.

      Anyway, I get this “ragey” feeling when people talk about Africa the country ™ and its homophobia and I feel so uneasy when people have this conversation. Yeah, it’s crazy and yeah I’m Nigerian born, US raised and my feelings on traveling to Nigeria are complicated. I have this passion to write and talk about African Diaspora art, there is this inevitable conversation I have to have with myself on being queer and Nigerian-American; will I be safe? Do I need to closet myself for my safety for the bajillian cousins that will surely try to visit me? I have so many questions and reading your story has helped me find peace for now.

      Not to get “we are the world,” but dammit this gave me so many emotions, thoughts and it has been a serious mental and emotional workout about the place of self, community and the how issues of homophobia affect everything.

      One last thing: food, yes the food has made me really, really hungry. Oh I also enjoyed reading the reference notes at the end, I giggle-snorted at note 5.

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        I am pretty impressed that they went through all the references, actually. On Medium (where this was first posted) the references show up as sidebar things. Kudos and sympathies to the poor person that sorted this all out!

        Urgh I know how you feel about the competing identities. Partway through writing this I wondered how much I can say that wasn’t going to get me arrested. (Some bits I didn’t include precisely because of that). I am glad that my story helped you, that means a lot.

        Sigh, 17-y-o me. Life would have been so much easier if I didn’t spend that whole year obsessively pining for her.

      • Thumb up 2

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        I totally understand your mixed feelings about going home to a not-so-queer-friendly place. I mean, I guess I’m more removed since I’m Canadian-born, but my entire life has been very involved in a patriotic Ukrainian community, and I really want to do my PhD studies on Ukrainian material but now it’s like…do I risk it? With so much in Russia, can I safely pursue my studies where I’m just a few steps away from being jailed or deported? Can I really spend my professional career in countries where I’m not allowed to mention my wife and children, nevermind even bring them with me? Will my family, who still ask when I’m coming back to visit, rescind their invitations once they find out I’ll have a wife and not a husband with me?

        I at least have the privilege of having grown up in a country that is not very homophobic, but it’s been a hard year where the fantasy of the “Motherland” has been shattered for someone like me.

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          As I mentioned to Stephanie downthread, the idea of actually living full-time in Malaysia still scares me. I already had to be a shadow of myself even before the sexual orientation was a factor – there’s stuff such as official religion and parental history and so on that play into it. One of my best friends was ostracised from a career she spent ages in because she was a single mum.

          Malaysia has some appealing points that do make me want to bring people to see, but as for permanently residing there? They treated me like shit when I actually was a permanent resident (took me 26 years and 2 attempts to be a citizen). Still too much anger there.

    • Thumb up 0

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      Aww yay thank you!

      The trip to Malaysia isn’t going to happen on Nightingale’s side unless we can raise enough money for her ticket. As it is the target amount on my fundraiser is woefully short. So please, if you can, click on the link at the end of the article and contribute!

      Or you can go here (though this is the only comment I’ll post with the direct link): https://www.wepay.com/donations/899109298

      I’ve gotten some donations already thanks to this article. y’all made my morning. I couldn’t concentrate at class because I was squeeing so hard zomg. ALL THE BUCKET LISTS

  1. Thumb up 5

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    As a Malaysian living outside of Malaysia, I say amen to every single thing you’ve said. These are all the feelings I’ve ever had about my country but worded well as opposed to “sjkfhakjgshaldkj”.

    I agree especially with the part about loving the country and hating the politics and all the rhetoric. A lot of people who aren’t alienated often say ‘there’s nothing wrong with this country you’re just being sensitive blah blah it’s great and cheap, people are friendly etc’ and I can’t disagree, but there’s that something in the fabric of the country that puts me off my own home, and you’ve just summed it up perfectly.

    “What I hated was the way its culture and its people were being erased and harmed by the People in Power: the clashes between races and religions, the scapegoating of youths and migrant labour, the slut-shaming and discrimination against gender and sexual minorities. There is so much beauty and spirit in Malaysia, in its food and languages and people — yet so much of it is disappearing,often without choice.”

    Btw, thumbs up to AS for including more Other (than US) views.

    • Thumb up 5

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      gah, the whole “if you don’t like it, leave” mentality pisses me off. Some of us DID leave, because we care about our survival, but that doesn’t mean we don’t give a damn.

      it took me until Nightingale showed up (and pretty much just listened to me rant over hot dogs) to realise for MYSELF that I gave a damn. that’s how much alienation can really affect us.

  2. Thumb up 1

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    not-so-secret wish: someone to tweet or otherwise inform Darren Hayes (@darrenhayes) about this article because the flag photo has his lyrics and because I love him to death.

    Similarly, Shirley Manson/Garbage, because it was her song that brought Nightingale and I together.

    *whistles innocently*

  3. Thumb up 2

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    I love everything you post. You’re insightful, eloquent, and your experiences parallel mine in some ways and it’s great to see those experiences portrayed by such a great writer. Thank you for the work you put into each post. I “pass” as white most of the time now, but I remember growing up as a first generation Mexican American in a very xenophobic America. After 9/11, our car was vandalized and had “go home” written on it. Seeing it was like a punch in the stomach. My experience of having a fluid “other” status has impacted me strongly, so it’s what I’m mulling over post-read, but you hit so many other great aspects I know I’ll have to come back for a re-read or two.

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      Yeah, having an identity that’s fluid can be really taxing and draining (pun unintended). There’s so much I didn’t add in here about how being officially Muslim meant being forced to assimilate into Malayness yet also being told that as a Bangladeshi I’m “doing Islam wrong”, or how no one really believes me when I tell them I’m Malaysian, or other such bullshit. argh argh argh!

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    I feel like so much of the way I understand “immigrant identity” whatever that might be, comes from the fact that I get to return to my home country relatively frequently – at least once a year for holidays etc – so I’m never far enough to be able to fantasize about it, to be able to create expectations of it being “the motherland” where I belong / feel like home. I guess my relationship to “my” country, as much as it is “mine”, is a lot like my relationship with my mother – you – well, I would expect things to be really bad, violent homophobia etc, that’s what I was preparing myself for, that is something I’ve been told about, something I would know how to handle, but instead what I get is this anti-climatic awkwardness, people (including my parents) might hate the gays, but what they hate more is having to talk about it because it makes them just so painfully uncomfortable? Things are bad mostly in this quiet, nagging way, a constant stream of disappointing awkward silences and jokes and jabs and comments.

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      Your description of the unsettling quietness is really insightful and apt. I too return every so often, not always by choice, and while my parents seem to be much better at understanding queer and trans* issues (thank Oprah) they still aren’t totally comfortable discussing it openly. Painfully uncomfortable and awkward, yes.

      They know Nightingale plans to come; it was kinda funny when my dad asked about my “girl-lady-friend” because the idea of me being in a relationship with anyone breaks his brain. We’ll see!

  5. Thumb up 1

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    Dear Tiara,

    Thank you so much. I’m a very very mixed race, brought up Catholic girl, from Malaysia and I’m slowly coming out to a few of my friends back in Malaysia, and hopefully here in UK where I’ve just come to continue my studies.

    I thought it’d be easier, but it’s a small town, and it seems the single gay bar may have closed and the school LGBT club may be inactive. But your piece really help me feel at home – nasi lemak and rendang? Well, your girl’s definitely a keeper.

    It’s extra hard I guess, being mixed race and gay to top it off, and wondering when and where to come out in an entirely new town, but your piece gives me hope for going back to Malaysia once I’m done.

    Heck, even Indonesia seems better now, with all the bullshit political rhetoric thrown by lousy politicians. Some people, post-elections, have become very extremist, so keep writing, but be safe.

    It’s crazy back home, that’s one way I comfort myself whenever I get homesick.

    Cheers.

  6. Thumb up 3

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    Aw, Tiara, I’ve been reading your work on what feels like ten different websites for years. It was SO cool to meet you and Nightingale at camp, and so freaking life-affirming to read this summation of the past decade(s?) of your life right here! I recall you writing about yr struggles with former partner, culture, finding racism in activist spaces, Getting to Berkley, etc, and thinking, “she goes through things I can’t imagine and aims higher than I would dare.” You’ve made so many of your dreams come true. I appreciate you always bringing the complexity. Complexity never goes away, and you tell the story of yours in a really beautiful way.

    I hope y’all have a great time in Malaysia. I think it’s hysterical to contrast the picture of you guys eating 12 different kinds of quinoa at Camp with descriptions of incredible Malaysian dishes.

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      Yup, I’ve been around the Interrnet block a few times ;) Thanks for the support, I really appreciate it.

      lol at the 12 different kinds of quinoa! I wonder if that’s now a thing back in Malaysia. Maybe around expat hipster types.

      I hope so too! Here’s the thing about the fundraiser: it’s getting signal boosted like crazy, which is great! And thanks to this article I did get some donations, yay thank you. But I’m still waaaaaaaay short of the goal (and the goal itself is way short of what is needed now) and I’m anxious that I may not have enough in time.

      If y’all could give even a dollar, that would be immensely helpful! I would hate for this not to happen because we were short on cash immediately. If that’s not within your means, totally understandable! Been there, am there. But I wanted to press on the precarious nature of our situation, esp since Nightingale is low income and my ability to earn money or even get a loan is limited (yay international studentdom).

      so yeah, every little bit counts. <3

  7. Thumb up 1

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    First, this restaurant sounds like a place to take my partner. The two of us actually look like you two do, let’s just say that for now. Second, yeah, that bookstore; I mostly read for leisure in my native Japanese; that store, Eastwind, caters mostly to Chinese/ Chinese American. Butyou gotta try Koube ramen next door. I’m from Koube, they’re doing it right.

    But that aside, your article really spoke to me. My father was born a product of the war, between a starry eyed immigrant interned and most likely a nurse, who died before i was born and not talked about. My mother was sicilian and italian, and gave me to my father who took me to his in Japan. Pre-hanshin quake amd pre-crash, i faced racism for not being Japanese enough. I came here in 1995, and am still too asian for white people and the opposite equally applies. Then after my father’s death, i went to florida, whhere i discovered my sexualityand love of carpentry (in a school where girls were supppoaed to take parenting class and not construction).
    This opening up so readily may seem weird, but your article really spoke to me. I’m also another ‘other’. I run a blog about equality and often lgbt issues come up. It’s in Japanese. I attempted to coin a term for transgender that doesn’t involve calling it an ‘illness’, but I don’t think anyone reads it. My political hero is Kamikawa Aya, the first trans* member of the parliament and first politician to not only speak out for ttrans* rights, but the reason Japan has a working system for DV victims. However, after over a decade of having fully undergone conversion to female, other parliament members still call her as ale.

    It really got incited by the first wave of white people in Japan post-Perry, but Japan has become a very homophobic country. Not in the ‘christian’ way, but homosexuality is seen as a ‘children’s practise game’ or a ‘fetish’ . Let’s not forgwt that the 24th amendment to the constitution, prob meant to keep young girls from being sold as brides to fatten daddy’s pocket is now used to deem equal marriage unconstitutional.
    And let’s not forget that to be gay is to be white here.

    And if i’m honest, this is why i end up with, like, no real friends (my partner is so much more, but she’s all I have). I’m too ‘other’ for anyone.

    I wouldn’t mind a reply to this comment :)

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      Hello neighbour! (We should hang out sometime)

      Yeah I totally get you about feeling Not X Enough. Not Bangladeshi enough, not Malaysian enough, TOO Asian…gah. Too ‘other’ for anyone fuck yes.

      Language can really be a big barrier. I came out to my extended family on my family-only Facebook account and honestly I think the only reason the response wasn’t as dire as I feared was because people didn’t quite understand what I meant. What is ‘gay’ in Bengali? How do you express ‘homosexual’ in Malaysia without making it solely about sex? How do you translate whole different paradigms of love and relating?

      What’s the 24th amendment you refer to?

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        And it results in mutual exclusion from all groups. For being born, basically.

        We definitely should. I don’t know where to leave my email address, though. I’m brand-new here (literally, as of today)

        Exactly, I introduced possible term for gender binary as well on my blog-in Japanese, it’s just so ingrained into the culture that it doesn’t have a name. Likewise, things that are so strictly avoided or not discussed might not have names, either. Most of our LGBT-ish vocabulary is pre-perry, though. Anything after is an English loanword, because suddenly, non-standard sexuality became Western for no apparent reason.

        Oh, the Japanese constitution. The amendment states that marriage is “an agreement between both sexes”.

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    you guys. this dream turned into a nightmare.

    I booked tickets on Friday but only found out later that the company I booked them with (airfare.com) has a history of scamming. Since I did get ticket confirmation from the airline (Singapore Airlines) I spent the weekend asking them for help but they couldn’t do anything.

    I got some advice to pursue a refund, and I have it in writing that they will refund me. But they took my money instead (plus $700 in processing fees). They say that the refund will come in 3-5 biz days but I can’t believe them anymore.

    I’ve filed a dispute claim with my bank, but even if I get my money back I’d still not have enough to cover both our tickets, especially if I’m going to book directly from the airline.

    help!!!

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    Hello Tiara!

    Just wanted to say, when I first came upon your work, I was really glad that I can find someone I can relate to. I am of Bangladeshi descent as well (but I was born and raised as a French-Canadian), I struggled a lot with accepting my queer identity and I can absolutely relate to feeling like an outsider; especially your sentence resonated with me: “Expected to assimilate but never expected to assimilate, but never fully welcome”. I’ll keep this brief, I’m sure you get alot of fan mails everyday :D

    Keep up the good work! :) You’re an inspiration!

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    Update on the Get Phia to Malaysia for Xmas saga:

    Thanks to a generous loan from a friend, WE’RE GOING!!! We’ll be in Malaysia and Singapore from December 12th to January 8th.

    I’m still fundraising to cover loan costs, and also looking at a fundraising celebration/going-away party, so if you’re in the Bay Area and want to put something on let me know.

    https://www.wepay.com/donations/899109298

    Thank you so much for all your love and support, especially for sharing our story on Autostraddle. It means a hell of a lot to us. <3

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