I remember being pleasantly surprised when I heard Lady Gaga’s Born This Way playing on Malaysian radio back in 2011. After all, Gaga unabashedly sings on her self-acceptance anthem that ‘no matter gay, straight or bi / lesbian, transgender, life’, you are born this way.
I was surprised to hear it being played on Malaysian radio — which censors the words ‘alcohol’ and ‘sex’ — because it’s a message that doesn’t quite click with Malaysia’s social or political atmosphere; in 2013, the Malaysian government backed an anti-LGBT musical which aimed to reach out to the youth, ‘to say that [LGBT+] is bad and not to follow it.’ Alia Ali, in her review of the musical for Kakiseni, called it “an all-out propagandic play” which goes so far to imply that ‘“choosing to be gay” was part of a certain opposition party leader’s plan to topple the country’s morals and unity.’
Not content with making the comical implication that the ‘LGBT+ agenda’ is to literally topple the country, the government continued to further demonstrate their fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be LGBT+ by endorsing a handbook meant to help parents identify homosexual symptoms in their children before it’s too late. Symptoms of male homosexuality listed in the handbook include ‘a preference for tight and bright coloured clothes’, and having a ‘muscular body and a fondness for showing off the body by wearing clothing, such as by wearing V-necks and sleeveless tops.’
This hugely-misinformed state-backed propaganda would be funny if it didn’t seem to be working; in 2011, the general consensus amongst the Malaysian public was that homosexuality is a bad thing. According to the World Values Survey, 89.8% of Malaysians perceive homosexuality negatively, and 58.7% specifically stated that they wouldn’t like to have a homosexual person as a neighbour.
89.8% is a huge number. Put it this way: If you decided to walk up to a person on a street and ask them what they think of gay people, you’re almost 9x more likely to get a negative response than a positive one.
If you decided to walk up to a person on a street and ask them what they think of gay people, you’re almost 9x more likely to get a negative response than a positive one.
Legally, Section 377 of the penal code — the same one introduced by the British during the colonial era — criminalises sodomy, or ‘unnatural intercourse’. Former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is currently serving a 5-year sentence for committing the act of sodomy. Despite the controversy surrounding the case, public discussion centred around whether or not he committed the act and the politically motivated nature of the sentencing. Discussion about the ethics and morality of the criminalisation of homosexuality was virtually non-existent.
It’s understandable, then, why so many LGBT+ Malaysians feel as though it would be unsafe to live openly. Seung, a closeted gay man, has only told his two best friends about his sexuality. ‘I feel scared,’ Seung says, ‘because I know my country discriminate[sic] the LGBTQIA+ community.’ Seung also says he worries that ‘kids or teens may potentially be disowned by their own parents when they come out of the closet.’
Being disowned is a common fear amongst LGBT+ Malaysians. ‘My conservative family would definitely disown me if I come out,’ says Farid, a 22 year-old bisexual man. ‘Once my mother had said something about the LGBTQ and she said hopefully none of the family members will be influenced by them, and that they will be thrown to hell.’ Even in the relatively more progressive United States — same-sex marriage was legalised nationwide in June 2015 — it seems that the number of homeless LGBT+ youth is on the rise.
Religion is brought up a lot in discussions about LGBT+ individuals; the lesson that LGBT+ people will go to Hell repeated time and time again in many a childhood religious class was partly the reason for Farid’s inner-conflict between his sexuality and his religion. ‘I was so desperate that I Googled “how to become straight”.’ In the same vein, Seung says that ‘Hell is easier. People are preaching hate toward the LGBT community, using their religion for their own advantages, not letting us to date in public places or getting[sic] married as it goes against the religious teachings when they allow straight couples to get married a hundred times but not a gay marriage which could “ruin the fundamental of marriage.”’
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad famously said that Malaysia would never have a gay prime minister because “Malaysia is officially an Islamic country”, later threatening to deport any visiting British cabinet members if they brought their same-sex partners with them. It’s clear that religion — or more accurately the mainstream strain of Malaysian Islam — plays a big role in the fuelling of homophobia in Malaysia.
Zulaikha, a Malay-Muslim woman, came out to her parents as lesbian when she was younger. ‘It was a very tough process because they are a conservative Muslim family. My mum regularly disowned me and frequently criticised my “lifestyle” but I put my foot down about it because I’m too old to lead my life based on what my family thinks.’ Zulaikha’s family is still hostile to her, however she believes that this hostility is diminishing. The majority of Malay-Muslim families in Malaysia are socially conservative, which is a major reason why many young LGBT+ youth choose to hide who they are.
As of today the reality of the situation seems bleak, but if a paper written by Peter Tan of Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman is accurate then there may still be some hope for young LGBT+ Malaysians. In his paper, he found that 40% of university students have neutral attitudes toward homosexuality. This assertion makes sense; after all, current university students grew up in the information age and have had access to the internet from a young age. The current generation are exposed to and interact with people from vastly different backgrounds every day, including LGBT+ people.
This is why Zulaikha argues that coming out of the closet is extremely important if the LGBT+ community are to make progress in their strive toward societal acceptance; it’s hard to demonise a group when you see that people who are part of that group are just that: people. ‘People need to be confronted that gay people exist,’ says Zulaikha. ‘We are not less than anybody else. Their ignorance about homosexuality has to be debated in the open so that stereotypes can be broken down and gay [people] be people seen as just people.’
When people start to see that LGBT+ people are real people with real stories, it becomes difficult to treat them as less. The slow change in attitudes has already let many LGBT+ individuals come out to loving and supportive friends and family. Alex, a queer 24 year-old trans man says that his immediate family all know about both his sexuality and his gender identity.
‘I didn’t tell them about my sexuality immediately, but I was very obviously smitten with someone of the same gender so they saw it coming a mile away when I came out a few years later. They were slower to come around in regards to my gender, however, and even now they’re still adjusting slowly, but it’s been a long journey and they are as supportive as they can be.’
Although he is surrounded by accepting family and friends, Alex is still painfully aware of the reality of the situation in Malaysia. ‘I fear largely for both my physical safety and my mental health, here, in regards to coming out,’ he says. ‘I may be fortunate enough to live within a fairly tolerable circle, but this country is still largely unaccepting and I do not want to delude myself into a false sense of security.’
As a trans man, Alex also faces problems from the state. ‘Due to the laws here, I am not able to assert my gender fully and live as a man 100%. My legal name gives me away, my gender is still marked as female on my IC and all my legal documents”.
Last November, the Court of Appeals ruled that the prosecution of transgender women for cross-dressing was unconstitutional, making significant progress for trans* rights in Malaysia. However, in October 2015 the Federal Court dismissed the lower court’s decision, effectively upholding the ban on cross-dressing in Malaysia.
This means that today a trans woman can be arrested at any time for “cross dressing”. Khartini Slamah, a trans* rights advocate who works at the PT Foundation in Kuala Lumpur faced a 2-year legal battle which she lost, but today continues to fight for trans* rights in Malaysia. Khartini says that the ultimate goal is to ‘achieve the recognition of basic rights such as equal job opportunities and access to healthcare’ for trans* individuals.
It’s important to note the inadequacy of the language of the current legal system is in light of our increasingly complex understanding of gender identity. For one, cross-dressers and trans women are not the same. Cross-dressers, according to GLAAD, are ‘heterosexual men who occasionally wear clothes, makeup, and accessories culturally associated with women’ whereas trans women are people ‘who were assigned male at birth but identify and live as a woman’.
Alex says that he ‘cannot request that [his] name be shortened to remove the “binti” clause in it’. ‘I get outed very frequently which causes me mental distress as it almost always results in gossip amongst my university peers — i pass 100% otherwise,’ says Alex.
Alex’s fear is one that all LGBT+ people in Malaysia have to live with. A single mistake — sharing a Facebook post with just too much information, getting caught holding hands with their same-sex partners or even just saying the wrong thing at the wrong time — and they could be outed.
And maybe one day being outed will mean nothing at all; maybe one day finding out that your best friend is gay will mean as much as finding out that he enjoys orange juice more than apple juice, or that his favourite colour is green. Maybe finding out that your best friend has felt like a woman her whole life will be as strange as finding out that she likes to play chess.
It’s a world that’s worth aspiring to, but it’s a world that we aren’t living in yet. Until then, we need to make the voices of the marginalised and the oppressed heard.
When I was listening to Born This Way on Malaysian radio I didn’t hear the part where Lady Gaga sings ‘no matter gay, straight or bi / lesbian, transgender, life / I’m on the right track baby / I was born to survive’. I assumed I had just missed it. I realised the second time I listened to it that that section had been cut.