While neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam are gearing towards legalising same-sex marriage, Malaysian human rights activists are still fighting for the legal recognition and protection of LGBTQI people still living in self-doubt and fear.
In 2011, the Barisan Nasional (BN) government set up a camp to rehabilitate the ‘effeminate behaviour’ of schoolboys. Last year, the Ministry of Education endorsed a set of guidelines which describe gay men as “males who are muscular, wear V-necks, sleeveless clothes and carry handbags”, while lesbians are women who are “attracted to other women, like to eat, sleep, and hang out in the company of other women and have no affection for men.” This sort of biologically essentialist rhetoric sends out a destructive message – that somehow, homosexuality is a ‘disorder’ with easily identifiable symptoms.
This year, a state-sponsored anti-gay musical production, Asmara Songsang (Deviant Romance) toured schools, universities and teacher-training colleges. The musical follows the lives of three LGBTQI friends who throw loud parties, take drugs and have casual sex. Its conclusion is a harrowing one – those who repent are spared, while those who don’t are killed in a lightning storm.
In a country where sodomy is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and where some states also impose jail terms for public cross-dressing, it is hardly difficult to imagine why bullying and hate crimes against the LGBTQI community continue to persist.
In a personal interview with Honi Soit, fourth-year Commerce and Science student, Art Zahar, shared some of the difficulties he had to endure as a ‘closet gay’ attending an Islamic boarding school in Terengganu, one of the most religiously conservative states in the country. “I went to an agama (religious) school where people refused to acknowledge there is even such a thing as homosexuality. Gay is not even in their vocabulary,” he said.
Though LGBTQI people’s dialogue is still very much a taboo subject in the public sphere, one initiative which has been introduced to educate the Malaysian community on sexual orientations and gender identities is Seksualiti Merdeka (Independent Sexuality), an annual sexuality rights festival in Malaysia. The festival was banned last year because it was considered a threat to national security and public order, even though it is clearly stated in the Federal Constitution that citizens have the right to assemble peacefully.
The general attitude towards LGBTQI people is noticeably very different in Sydney, according to Art. “It felt like going from one end of the extreme to another – I went from this religiously conservative school to here, where you have the freedom to express and be true to yourself,” he said.
Accustomed to living in fear and in hiding, Art admits that he still acts very differently around Malaysians on-campus or in the city. “Whenever I see a Malaysian, I run away or I don’t act like myself,” he said.
Art, who is on a Sime Darby scholarship to pursue full-time studies here at USYD, expressed that he is privileged to have been given the opportunity to study overseas where he can express himself openly. Art admitted that he avoids thinking about the day when he has to go back to Malaysia to serve his 6-year bond with the company.
“Here, I have more friends who love me for who I am… I have become too different of a person to fit into the system again.”