Election 2013: Branson stunt raises transgender issues ahead of Malaysia poll
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Election 2013: Branson stunt raises transgender issues ahead of Malaysia poll

It started as a Formula One bet between two entrepreneurs and could end up highlighting human rights abuses against Malaysia’s transgender community ahead of the May 5 national election.

Three years ago Virgin Group Chairman Sir Richard Branson made a bet that his Formula 1 Racing team would finish ahead of the team backed by AirAsia X boss Tony Fernandes. Whoever’s team lost would have to serve as a flight attendant on one of the other airline’s flights.

The teams finished with no points, but better race finishing positions meant Fernandes won the bet. Being busy men it has taken three years for them to confirm a date for the cross-dressing antics and now Branson will honour the bet by  donning a dress to work as a flight attendant on AirAsia X’s inaugural May 12 flight from Perth to Kuala Lumpur.

“The day of reckoning for Sir Richard has finally arrived,” Fernandes told journalists. “As an AirAsia X’s flight attendant, he has to comply with our grooming standards and that includes shaving his legs, donning high heels, putting on some makeup and slipping into the AirAsia’s famous red uniform.”

While the stunt will raise funds for children’s charities and give AirAsia X passengers a unique opportunity to be served coffee by a bearded cross-dressing entrepreneur, at its destination it will highlight the restrictions placed on transgender Malaysians who have faced an arduous battle for more freedom of expression.

The right to cross-dress for transexuals is prohibited in Malaysia and is among a laundry list of human rights concerns raised by Human Rights Watch in its 2013 country report.

Discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons reached new levels of intensity in 2012, the report said, with the Prime Minister Najib publicly stating that LGBT activities do not “have a place in the country.”

“Transsexuals are refused the right to change their gender classification on their national identity cards and cross dressing is prohibited,” the HRW report said.

In 1998, 45 transgender Muslims were charged and convicted in court for dressing as women. Last year, a Malaysian court dismissed a challenge to a law which banned Muslim men from dressing or posing as women. Muslim men can be fined and jailed for transvestism in the Malaysian dual legal system, which includes secular laws for all of its citizens and Islamic or Shariah laws that apply only to Muslims.

Branson is renowned for his elaborate publicity stunts, usually promoting his Virgin Group brands. In 1998, in order to launch Virgin Cola in the US, he drove a tank down Fifth Avenue and then “blew up” the Coca-Cola sign in Times Square.

This ‘Australia to Malaysia’ stunt won’t be the first time he’s cross-dressed either: for the 1996 launch of the now defunct bridal and wedding venture Virgin Brides he shaved off his beard and donned a $10,000 wedding dress.

Obviously, Malaysia’s Sharia law won’t apply to the entrepreneur when he lands at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, but the stunt does highlight the issues that continue to impact Malaysia’s transgender community, which will continue long after he has slipped out of his AirAsia hostess uniform and removed his wig.