Out of all Asian nations, Malaysia has the dubious honor of collecting the most negative headlines on Gay Star News in the last 12 months. From plans to set up ‘rehabilitation’ centers for gay people, to the Prime Minister decrying ‘deviant aspects’, to the laughable, if it weren’t so damaging for the children involved, ‘gay guidelines’ endorsed by the Education Ministry.
A visit to the country gives us the chance to meet the activists on the ground and find out what life is really like for LGBT people in the racially diverse, majority Muslim country.
We meet Jerome Kugan, co-founder of Seksualiti Merdeka sexualities rights festival, which was banned by the government in 2011, and ask him to give us the word from the frontline of LGBT rights activism in Malaysia.
How does the public homophobia from the government affect gay people in Malaysia? Does it mean that everyone has to live a closeted life? Or is there a thriving scene despite all of these comments?
I think the scene has been thriving since the 90s. And that hasn’t really stopped, the nightclubs, the saunas, they are still happening. I think Malaysia has some of the most online gay chat users in the world.
But of course public acceptance and coming out is still a huge issue for a lot of Malaysians. And most people prefer to live in the closet, especially at home with their parents, especially for Muslims.
A lot of the gay Malay are afraid. If you work in the entertainment industry, you know who’s gay. Some of them are even flamboyant on TV, but they will never come out. They even enter into marriages and have kids – but we know they’re gay because we see them out in the clubs.
How does the culture of Malaysia affect LGBT life here?
Malaysia is made-up of three main races. Malay make-up the majority, the Chinese and the Indian, who are migrants from the turn of the 20th century. They came here before the war. A lot of them are third or fourth generation now.
And even though there’s a lot of mixing culturally, the different races are still quite segregated. So you go to different neighborhoods in Kuala Lumpur and one neighborhood is just Malay, one is just Chinese and one is just Indian. You still have that segregation – even though they’ve been here for decades.
And I think that has influenced a lot of the life here. Including gay and lesbian and trans life. We’re divided. The gay Malays stick to their own group. The gay Chinese stick to their own group. Not just that, but the Malay lesbians will stick to their own group and the Chinese lesbians stick to their own group.
It’s even more fragmented than another country where people all speak the same language, because we also all speak different languages.
Does that make it difficult to make progress?
It’s hard to organize. As an activist you always wonder if you are reaching out to the right people. We have to decide whether to translate our publicity materials. And then we worry that if we translate it, will the religious authorities find out about it.
So one of the strategies we have for addressing LGBT rights in this country, is to do it all in English. We’re exploiting a weakness within religious authorities and government departments, because they conduct most of their communications in Malay. So when they come across English stuff sometimes they can’t even read it or understand it.
The government is made up of majority Malay people. It’s actually written into the constitution like that. So that indigenous people, which includes Malay and all the other indigenous people, they have special privileges. They get most of the civil servant jobs, they get given most of the government loans and government housing and all that stuff.
How does Islam affect people here?
If you’re born a Malay in this country, you’re automatically Muslim. You have no choice. And then you are subject to sharia law. We have two systems of law in this country: civil law and sharia law. The sharia laws are different in each state.
Sharia laws ban homosexuality – for men for women – and there’s a law used against transgender women which bans ‘impersonating a woman’.
In the civil code we still have a colonial era law that criminalizes sodomy – a law that’s been used twice against the leader of the opposition Anwar Ibrahim in a smear campaign.
What’s the history of Seksualiti Merdeka?
We are a loose coalition of individuals and organizations and basically it’s a sexuality rights festival. We did it for the first time in 2008. It was centered around the Annexe art gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
Pang Khee Teik and I are the co-founders. We invited academics, activists, artists, performers. Through that we managed to create a network of people who are interested in the issues and want to do something about it.
We found out through doing Seksualiti Merdeka that a lot of people have been wanting to start an LGBT rights movement in this country. But it’s a very daunting task.
In 2011 we got banned by the government. We think it’s because we invited Ambiga Sreenevasan to officiate at the launch. Ambiga is hated by the government because she is the leader of this movement called Bersih, meaning clean in Malay. It’s a movement that’s calling for free and fair elections, because the elections in this country are so corrupt.
We invited Ambiga because we felt she could reach out to a wider public who believe in the human rights cause. The government then did a smear campaign about Ambiga and the leader of the opposition Anwar Ibrahim tying them to Seksualiti Merdeka and spreading the mis-information that it is a sexy orgy party – which is not what it is!
When they shut us down we never got served court orders, they called us, they just turned up to the event with 30 police officers.
Why did you decide not to try to hold a Seksualiti Merdeka in 2012?
We’re just waiting for the election to be over. The Prime Minister needs to call an election before the 8 March. At the moment the government are looking for any opportunity to create a media storm. And we don’t want to give them that. So our strategy is to lay low for a while.
We don’t want to give the government more fuel in their anti-gay rhetoric. The government own the mainstream media and they can just spin it any way they want. How the mainstream media described the ban of Seksualiti Merdeka in 2011 was terrible misinformation.
But after the election, then it’s time to have another festival.
In the meantime are you doing any other LGBT rights activism?
We’re doing some fundraising for Justice for Sisters, the main aim is to raise funds to finance legal case for trans women.
And I run Rainbow Rojak but that’s basically just a social community night. What’s different about it from the other gay parties is that we are self-consciously queer, we’re slightly more political.
How is the gay party scene in KL?
The oldest club is Blue Boy – it’s been there since the 80s. There’s also Marketplace – but it’s only really happening on Saturday nights. There’s Frangipani on Friday nights. Those are the main ones. There’s also one that caters to bears. The Indian community have house parties but I have no idea where. It’s very underground. I think Malay parties also happen but it’s also underground.
The trans community have pageant events. There are drag shows in town.
There are things happening. And you can find within the independent art scene a few people doing stuff here and there.
What the international community do to help LGBT people in Malaysia?
First of all we need money. Funds to help built networks in the country. Even Seksualiti Merdeka doesn’t have money. We don’t have an office, we don’t have staff, we’re all volunteers. And it’s hard to do all the things we want to do. Volunteer power’s just not sustainable. So we need to find a way around that.
The other thing is media coverage, international media coverage about what’s happening on the ground here. I think more people need to know. And not just Malaysia but the whole southeast Asian region. There’s things happening here that are mind-boggling. There’s violence happening but it doesn’t get reported because there’s a media silence.
The Malaysian media get memos from the Home Ministry telling them to bury positive news about LGBT people. Negative reports appear on the front page or the first few pages. Positive reports on the 8th or 9th page or not at all.
Keep in touch with Seksualiti Merdeka on their blog.