Call Me A Boy – My journey into music and manhood
It was a formidable thing, my father’s record player. It was in our living room, on the side reserved for guests and dinner parties because it had the fancy coffee table with no water ring marks. My brother and I were not allowed to touch it because Malaysian parenting logic dictated that we would immediately break it. It was placed on a high shelf between two large speakers, just out of kid-reach. It seemed so grown-up, this shiny object from another world. I couldn’t wait to be a grown-up so I could have a record player.
This was the late 80s and my family was living in Yangon. During those long, white-hot, nap-inducing, summer afternoons I would wait eagerly for my dad to come home from work. I’d be shirtless with a towel tied like a cape, riding my bicycle, with cardboard strategically placed under the seat making it sound like what I thought motorcycles sounded like, and I’d hear my dad’s car come up the lane to our house. I’d ride as fast as I could to the front door (we had a huge yard) and before he had time to drink a glass of water I’d shove a record into his hands so he would play it for me.
It never occurred to me to ask my mum to turn on the record player for me, maybe because I’d always associated it with my dad. It was a dad thing.
SUNSHINE ON MY SHOULDERS
I had great taste. John Denver was a favourite. I liked him because I liked Sunshine On My Shoulders. He seemed so serene on the record cover. Like, this man has it made. There is a picture of him sitting in some American countryside, and he’s wearing a denim jacket with an orange pattern on it. I hated that pattern, but I loved John Denver and the quiet confidence he had about life and that jacket. While the song was playing I’d prop the record cover up and there was my live gig.
I also liked Deep Purple a lot. Ritchie Blackmore was brilliant. He made me want to be a guitar player. My guitar idols were Ritchie Blackmore, Richie Sambora, Joan Jett, and Ms. Chang, my kindergarten teacher.
Ms. Chang was the first woman I’d seen play guitar in real life. She’d play songs for the class and we’d clap and sing and sometimes while she was playing she’d get a faraway look in her eyes that made me feel like there was a whole other world out there that only she knew. I wanted to see that world.
I told myself that when I grew up and magically transformed into a man, I would casually play the guitar fantastically like it was nothing, and I’d have that faraway look in my eyes.
For some reason, I’d always associated playing the guitar with being a guy. Joan Jett played, but sure, she was a rock star and rock stars weren’t real people. But then here was Ms. Chang, strumming her huge classical guitar and she was so small, it looked like she was hiding behind it.
DO YOU HAVE TO LET IT LINGER?
At the same time that I knew I was destined to be a musician, I also started telling people to call me a boy. I was maybe four or five at the time.
But it wasn’t until I was eight or nine and living in a whole other country that I’d had the chance to learn a musical instrument. I was selected by my school for their orchestra programme. The idea they had was great, according to the music teacher. They’d pick kids with musical ability and offer them violin or clarinet classes. They’d start with kids in the choir, and I was one of them.
I picked the violin because it was a stringed instrument and sort of resembled the guitar if you turned it sideways and imagined real hard. My reasoning was that if I wasn’t allowed guitar lessons, I’d learn something with strings that looked like guitar strings. Linger by The Cranberries was always on the TV, it was a great song, and I was sure there was some violin in there. (To kid-me, the chorus always sounded like she was singing “you know I’m searching food for you.” Although grammatically incorrect, it made sense to me. She’s sad because she spent all her time looking for food for him and all he does is hold another girl’s hand.)
There were no musical instruments at home, and my parents weren’t the type to encourage something as frivolous as musical talent. You can’t get a decent job with music. What are you going to be, a music teacher?
My dad wasn’t happy when I brought the letter home, and was even more unhappy when he read that he would be paying for the lessons, but then he mumbled something (I wasn’t paying attention) and signed the letter. Yessssss!! I was on my way.
ALL THE SMALL THINGS
Six lessons later, I quit. Strumming the violin like a guitar apparently didn’t count as practice and it wasn’t a cool-sounding instrument, anyway. Deep Purple didn’t have a violinist, and I’d never seen Joan Jett play one either. Did MC Hammer play the violin? Nope.
So, I had to come up with another plan reach my goal of rock musician. But everything I tried, I was blocked. My parents had taken my short and turbulent experience as a violin student and used it as ammo every time I brought music lessons up. The “what about that time you learned violin and quit” paired with “you can’t make money playing music” defence strategy lasted them seven years, until we reached a compromise.
We were in yet another country by then, Blink 182 were super famous, and I was an angry, hormonal teenager when my dad brought home a bright green “Rhythm” acoustic guitar from the neighbourhood stationery shop. He wouldn’t pay for lessons, but I also received a little RM2 book of chord diagrams and that was the beginning of my journey into music and manhood.
Call Me A Boy, Part 2: Fuck my blossoming womanhood
Puberty crept up on me and fucked up my life. Slowly, painfully, my body began to change, adding on to it layers of femininity. It became my prison. I would check out my budding bosom in the mirror and slowly press my hands down on my achy developing boobs, wishing I could make them disappear.
One day after school, my teacher pulled me aside and said it was time I wore a bra. She was pleasant about it, but that was when it really hit me that I couldn’t stop this horrible hormonal beast from taking over my body and transforming me into something I never wanted to be. I wanted to change into something else, anything else. More than anything I wanted to change into a boy and confirm that everyone had made a mistake by calling me a girl. I would wake up one morning, come down to breakfast, and surprise everyone; I would suddenly be a boy and everyone would be happy and we would eat.
WELCOME TO PARADISE
My mother came home from work one day and took me aside (talking about bodies always involves pulling the kid to one side and speaking in hushed tones) and handed me a Metrojaya plastic bag. I was excited because I was getting something my brother wasn’t. But my heart sank when I saw the plain white BeeDees training bras, their little peaks confirming the start of my journey into womanhood and the loss of everything I wanted to be true about me.
“Mahal ni. Bra memang mahal pun. Haaa… tak lama lagi kena pakai modess* bila dah period. Cantik baju dalam ni, lembut. Kecik je ribbon!” [This is expensive. Bras are expensive, anyway. Soon you’ll have to use a sanitary pad when you get your period. This undergarment is pretty, soft. The ribbon is so tiny!] she said.
She tapped my nose when she said modess. MO-DESS. Like it was a holiday to look forward to. My boobs hurt, I was being bullied at school, and I was on the express bus to period-land. I had nothing to look forward to. (*Sanitary pads are known by the brand name Modess by many of the older generation, perhaps due to the popularity of the brand and the reluctance of women to use the term ‘sanitary pad’. Interestingly, even today, some shops pack sanitary pads in black plastic bags so customers aren’t seen in public with them, but we all know that black plastic bags means either pads or porno.)
Later that week my brother brought home a cassette copy of Green Day’s Dookie album and played it on our boombox. I loved the cover because there were little monkeys and little poops on it. I loved the music because it was catchy, and Billie Joe didn’t care about rhyming or proper enunciation. I forgot about my training bra under my t-shirt for a while and for the first time in my life I really paid attention to the lyrics and really listened to the songs. For the first time in my life as well, I cried in the shower. “Welcome to Paradise” was playing.
Can you hear me whining?
It’s been three whole weeks
Since I left your home
This sudden fear has left me trembling
‘Cause now it seems that I
Am out there on my own
And I’m feeling so alone
CHURALIYA DEKO ABTO
When I was twelve, my mother’s colleague, Abang Bob (always Abang and never Uncle) gave me a copy of his band’s album. His band was The Pilgrims, and the album was Da Capo. It came with a sticker, which was the coolest thing ever. I listened to the cassette over and over.
I’d never met anyone who was in a band, but here he was, in my mother’s office, sorting files with the makcik-makcik! People in bands were real people so that meant I could be in one too. Fuck my blossoming womanhood. I substituted my longing to be a boy with plotting to start a band. I soothed my dysphoria with music. I was consumed with my mission for years.
My brother and I used to pretend we were in a band when we were little. We’d line up my mother’s Tupperware for drums, and I’d use a tennis racket as a guitar. It was mostly us yelling, but to us it was music.
For years I begged my parents to get me guitar lessons. There was no YouTube back then, and guitars were expensive. The world was still years away from the flood of cheap Chinese-made guitars.
When I was 16 my dad came home with a bright green acoustic guitar. No one knew how to tune it, so for a while I tried to figure out songs on a weird open tuning, until my friend (and future bandmate) Diyz, showed me how to tune it. Her brother studied classical guitar, so she knew a thing or two. She also had a great ear and could tell immediately if the chord I was playing was right or not. We bonded over our love for football and music.
HEAD OVER FEET
I’d developed into an overweight teenager, which didn’t help reduce my boobs and curves at all. It also didn’t help with my self-esteem because adults were always giving me kind advice on losing weight and preparing myself for the husband-search. According to them, if I wasn’t slim, no man would like me and I’d have trouble getting a husband in the future. I was already lazy with housework (which my brother never had to do), never woke up early on a weekend like a good anak dara, and I was overweight — so how would I ever please a man?
“Kalau kurus sikit, dah ok tu.” [If you lost a little bit of weight, it would be better]
“Kena belajar masak nasi, kalau tak nak bagi laki makan apa? Takkan nak bagi makan spaghetti je?” [You have to learn to cook rice, otherwise what are you going to feed your husband? He’s not going to eat spaghetti every day is he?]
If I was a man, I’d cook spaghetti every damn day and no one would care.
I cared for little else except for music and football. I couldn’t have been an interesting person to talk to, because I only ever wanted to talk about those two things. I wasn’t boy-crazy like my peers. I wasn’t girl-crazy either. I wasn’t attracted to anyone. School gossip was of little interest to me. I was also ugly so who would want to date me? I might as well focus on my goal of starting a band, fuck everything else. Looking back, I’m glad I was a loser in school because it gave me a single-track mind.
I’d hang out with Diyz almost every day after school. She introduced me to bands like NOFX, Sublime, and 311. We loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers. She also liked boybands and we’d sometimes practice harmonies. We’d use the PC at her house (she had internet access!) and try to follow tabs. With another friend, Mille, we’d play songs and record them on my stereo. Somewhere out there is our cover of Alanis Morissette’s “Head Over Feet”, recorded on a re-used cassette (by sticking foil into the holes on the bottom). I’m sure it’s horrible but we were so proud of it. The three of us would also shoplift cassettes and CDs from the local music shop, because we had no money and it was fun. Cargo pants were all the rage, and they were very convenient for this purpose.
I told Diyz we would be in a band together one day, and we would make that dream come true, years later…
Call Me A Boy, part 3: Being an out trans man in a queer band
I turned 33 last year. According to myth, you become a completely different person every seven to ten years, literally. Your cells die off and get replaced and you regenerate into a whole new person. That might not be accurate, but I feel like I’ve at least shed an outer skin.
I’m happy I’m not dead, although I might have come close a few times. Twice from failed suicide attempts, and more than once from drinking and drugs (and often a combination of both).
My girlfriend of four years had decided she wanted to be “normal” and marry a nice man, who would be sort-of-religious but also liked cool things like music and art, and they’d do things like have kids and go on holidays abroad. No one was gay forever, right? This isn’t America.
SEASICK, YET STILL DOCKED
After she left, I would spend ages listening to sad, pasty-white emo songs, wondering where I went wrong. I thought I would die alone and no one would ever love me. My housemate Kak Hani would find me unconscious, Morrissey’s “Seasick, Yet Still Docked” playing on repeat. She would wail hysterically and try to revive me with minyak angin (medicated eucalyptus oil, used for all sorts of ailments from headaches to demon possession).
I am a poor freezingly cold soul
So far from where I intended to go
Scavenging through life’s very constant lulls
So far from where I’m determined to go
I got into a cycle of drinking, partying, drugs, and work. I put aside my dreams of being in a band.
Sometime around the Asian Economic Crisis, I lost my job at a call centre. I was young, sad as fuck, and broke. I barely had money to eat, let alone party. I was still emo, listening to a lot of queer music, like Tegan and Sara, Boyskout, and The Organ (L Word shout out). My MP3 player was full of lesbian music. I was so gay, thanks to Myspace. I discovered a lot of new music there. If I was going to be gay, I would be the gayest gay ever. I also discovered my first trans man, the rapper Rocco Katastrophe, through Myspace and its queer music network (clicking on your fave bands’ top friends). Thank you, arwah Myspace.
After years of being in the closet, I came out (as a lesbian) to my friends and my brother. Their immediate and unquestioning acceptance gave me the confidence to throw myself into lesbian culture and make some very questionable fashion choices. The L Word was all the rage, and I can blame some of my earlier regrettable fashion choices on season 2 Shane.
I started hanging out again with Diyz, my close friend from school and first jamming buddy. It felt good to reconnect with that part of my life. Now that she was around I thought it would be a good idea to revive our childhood dream. I started writing little tunes about girls and drugs. My friends encouraged me to play solo in public. This place in Hartamas, Lepaq Café, had an open mic, so we went there to check it out. I wasn’t planning on playing but my friends made me go up on the stage. I might have peed a little. I fucked up the song but the owner of the café liked what I played so he asked me to be a regular. That night changed my life. It’s amazing to have friends who have such blind faith in you. They let me be a lesbian and a musician.
JULIE, DON’T LISTEN TO THEM
I started playing regularly, but I was always nervous as hell up there alone. If I fucked up (and I did, a lot), everyone in the audience would know. If I was in a band, I could get drunk and make mistakes and no one would ever know. I would also be excused from making eye contact with people.
Then I was asked if I would play with a band at a queer party. I didn’t exactly have a band but that was beside the point. Why yes! I replied, of course my band would love to play!
I had been in bands before, but it was more of a one-off kind of thing, like the college battle of the bands or a work-related event. This was different. I asked Diyz to play bass. She would have to learn how, but that’s ok because she’s a musical genius. I rang up a former colleague and asked her to play drums. We had played together in a company battle of the bands thing some years ago, and she was up for it. She said she knew a girl, Yon, who could play guitar.
Shh…Diam! was born. We had two weeks to get our shit together and played on borrowed instruments. We played “Linger” by The Cranberries (fate!) and a bunch of other covers. We sucked, but that did it for me. I was hooked.
Soon we were singled out as one of the few all-girl bands in the independent scene, and people came to our shows to see us swear and sing songs about making out, things nice Malaysian girl bands weren’t supposed to do. They came for the novelty factor, then stayed for the music.
Although we hadn’t originally set out to be a queer band, we started gaining a following among the KL queer network because of our very lesbian song, “Julie, Don’t Listen To Them” and also because of our new drummer, Jellene, who knew people in the queer activist network. It was through this network of activists and artists that I met Dorian. He was the first out Malaysian trans man I had ever met. I did not know that there were trans men in Malaysia. I thought FTM transitioning was something that only happened in America, like country music.
Throughout all this, the thought of transitioning remained in a little KIV folder at the back of my mind, right next to my band dream. However, ever since I first saw Rocco Katastrophe on Myspace, I started seriously considering transitioning. I read up on other transmen and stalked them on social media. I asked questions on forums and watched videos of other transmen who were documenting their transition.
Being in Shh…Diam! really opened my eyes. Before that I didn’t know there was such a strong network of queer folk, wonderful people in this country fighting for our right to belong. The possibility of transitioning started to become more real to me.
LIVE LIKE A WARRIOR
I remember that “Live Like A Warrior” by Matisyahu was the song that made me want to go ahead with my transition. I still get choked up listening to it.
But I still worried that if I transitioned, I would lose everything. I began preparing myself mentally to lose my band, my job, and my family. The band’s identity was all-girl, and we played to a mainly straight cis-male audience. How would they react? I told my bandmates and close friends, and they were not surprised at all. Jellene is MTF (male-to-female) and none of the shows at which we played has ever given us shit for it. But was it because they didn’t know? She had begun transitioning before joining the band. I wouldn’t be able to hide my transition. I saw how brave Jellene was and told myself I have to be like that. Thirty is too old to keep giving a fuck about what other people thought, anyway.
We have a shared principle: Always angkat bakul sendiri (‘carry your own basket’. The equivalent of ‘to blow one’s own trumpet’). We shouldn’t wait for people to say we’re handsome, because we already know we are. It’s a long-running joke, but it seriously made me appreciate myself more. Self-praise and self-love is our philosophy.
My bandmates assured me that no one in the straight cis-male crowd would care, and if they did, fuck them, selamba je. Even if I lost everything else, I would still have my core group of friends who accepted me as my handsome self.
Without them, and without music, I wouldn’t have had the courage to transition.
Listening to our earlier recorded material I can hear how my voice has changed. It’s sort of like those “this is my voice, 6 months on Testosterone” videos on Youtube. Our photos and videos are all a form of documentation, I guess. It’s a good thing our songs are mainly lots of yelling and some cartoon voices, so I didn’t lose much in terms of singing ability. In the early months of transitioning my voice was breaking so badly I just rapped my way through the songs.
The band is no longer all-girl, obviously, but that hasn’t been an issue at all. We’re more vocal about being queer now.
Being an out trans man in a queer band, while having its own disadvantages, can be a platform for helping those who can’t be out, or are confused, or just discovering themselves.
A friend told us that he met a Shh…Diam! fan while he was in Sarawak for a holiday. They were staying at the same longhouse. The fan was really happy to find out that our friend knew us (he lived in our studio).
She told him that she could relate to what we were singing, and it made her feel like she wasn’t alone. We’ve also played to makciks in malls and little babies and we love to see the smiles on their faces. We love sharing our love with people and we hope they share that love with others. This is what we were meant to do.
Tom Moore started reading newspaper comics when they were little. They are dyslexic and like things which are short and punchy. They love how this kind of imagery becomes monumental in Pop Art. Although things have gotten mixed up for them now and they can’t help but see the grandness in Snoopy and the cuteness in Warhol. Tom Moore is also part of #TheGalleryProject.