young men gyrate on raised podiums to a thumping dance track by Kylie
Minogue. Some are in blonde wigs, tight t-shirts, and sunglasses,
shimmying in the dim purple light. One is in bondage gear, locked in
an embrace with his male partner.
could be a scene from any gay nightclub in the world. But this is a
typical night at Marketplace in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of
the past decade or so, Malaysia's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and
transgender (LGBT) community has found a voice of its own, thanks to
the growing prevalence of social media and the work of gay activists.
But an embattled ruling political party, and reaction against the
growing acceptance in many parts of the West of gay rights, has made
Malaysia's LGBT community a target for conservative Muslim
politicians and their supporters.
of the world's longest-ruling coalitions, the Barisan Nasional (BN) or
National Front, has governed Malaysia since independence in 1957
using a race-based political structure. The majority ethnic Malays
are represented by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO),
while the Chinese, Indian and indigenous races have their own parties
within the National Front.
in 2008, for the first time in its history, the National Front took a
significant beating during the general elections, and performed even
more badly during the 2013 polls -- although the party did retain
power. The opposition, who campaigned on a platform of racial
inclusiveness, gained ground due to growing disgust over rampant
corruption and cronyism and the government's undermining of civil
institutions. The opposition's gains were also aided by the
emergence of urban, younger voters, independent news outlets, social
media and civil society groups.
and transvestite men had for centuries been tacitly accepted as part
of Muslim communities in Malaysia, traditionally doing the make-up
for brides at rural weddings, for example.
then society just accepted fluid gender identities as part of the
natural order," says Sharaad Kuttan, a presenter and producer for
BFM, a business radio station in Malaysia.
running parallel to that acceptance has been intolerance by more
conservative elements. The gains made by the opposition, including
the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), over the last two elections
have driven the ruling party to try to appeal to the conservatives
within its power base.
a result, minorities, be they racial or sexual, have come under
Minister Najib Razak has joined the attacks on the LGBT community.
pluralism, liberalism -- all these ‘isms' are against Islam and
it is compulsory for us to fight these," Najib said in July 2012,
speaking to a 11,000-strong crowd of religious scholars. This May, he
again said "human rights-ism" was against Islam, according to Bernama, the national news agency. Online media lit up with criticism over the comments, which he later retracted.
Islamist groups have added to the chorus. In November 2013, the
activist Muslim group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia said the country had no room for LGBT rights or religious freedom,
according to the Malay
an independent online newspaper.
verbal attacks by the political elite against Malaysia's LGBT
community may have stepped up in recent years, but the persecution
has been going on for longer.
Ayub, a transgender woman, experienced such discrimination 14 years
ago when she was 21. When religious officials asked to see her
identity card, which read "male" and "Muslim,"
she was brought to a jail and charged for impersonating a woman.
Having long hair, breast implants, and wearing makeup "was against
Islam," she was told. Two days after her arrest, she was found
guilty by a sharia court and imprisoned with male inmates for three
wardens forced her to stand naked in front of other prisoners,
subjected her to an anal probe and mocked her for having breasts.
was treated like a puppet," she says. Also during her detention,
six cellmates made her perform oral sex. It was her first sexual
a transgender activist with Justice for Sisters, Nisha says, "I
feel for my trans community because [we] don't feel protected under
the law. We have no rights as citizens. People could kill me and
nobody would want to know."
Ministry of Education, the Department of Islamic Development, and the
Department of Special Affairs did not respond to email requests to be
interviewed for this article.
of the LGBT community are frequently harassed. Police raid
Marketplace from time to time; they claim they are there to root out
illegal drugs, but patrons say they feel singled out among other
clubs in the area.
those who choose to go public with their sexuality, the backlash can
be hostile -- especially if they are Muslim. In 2010, Azwan Ismail,
an ethnic Malay man, posted a video online entitled "I'm gay, I'm
OK" -- and created a media firestorm. It was modeled on the "It Gets Better Campaign," aimed at helping LGBT youth in the United States cope with
harassment. After receiving death threats, Azwan says he avoided
going out alone. In response to the Malaysian campaign, YouTube user
"faiz461" wrote: "we muslims still tolerate ur freedom of
religion. dont push us too far."
rights in Malaysia have been steadily eroded over many years through
the weakening of key institutions such as the judiciary, the electoral commission, and the mainstream media, which have been heavily influenced
or even co-opted by the ruling parties.
process began in earnest during the 1981-2003 leadership of Prime
Minister Mahathir Mohamad. During his time he imposed severe
restrictions on civil liberties, passed draconian security laws, and
had then-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim arrested for sodomy in
institutions have just rotted away, not merely weakened. It's like
termites eating through timber. What remains is just a shell," says
Jahabar Sadiq, chief executive officer and editor of the Malaysian
Insider, an independent news website.
even among other minority groups, homosexuals are a particularly easy
target for politicians trying to score points with conservative
voters. And that's true not just of Malaysia: Nigeria, Uganda, Iran,
and Saudi Arabia, among others, all have harsh punishments for
homosexuality. "They are the weakest groups you can hit out on,"
Jahabar says "Gays have no official standing in this country. No
politician on either side will stand up for them."
Welsh, associate professor of political science at Singapore
Management University, says, "Fear is a well-known tactic that
works in a Malaysian context, [especially when] put along racial or
religious lines. The government is using this tactic to stay in
is locked in a battle with PAS for recognition as the country's
number one Islamic group. In PAS' heartland of Kelantan in the
north, a ban on alcohol has pushed once-thriving bars and karaoke
lounges underground. Swimming pools and supermarket checkout lines
are segregated by gender. PAS has long advocated imposing strict
Sharia-based laws nationwide if it comes to power. After neighboring
Brunei recently adopted an Islam-based penal code, which will make gay sex punishable by
stoning to death by 2015, PAS suggested similar legislation be
considered for Kelantan.
gays in Malaysia are also discriminated against under the parallel
secular civil legal system, a legacy of British colonial legislation
that criminalized sodomy and other homosexual acts. Sodomy between
consenting adults is punishable by caning and up to 20 years in
prison. It has rarely been enforced, except for political reasons,
such as that of Anwar Ibrahim. As deputy prime minister, he had been
seen as Mahathir's anointed successor. But in 1998, Mahathir sacked
him, and Anwar was subsequently charged
with sodomy for which he served four years in prison. Anwar says
these charges were trumped up because he posed a political challenge
racial and religious structure makes it difficult to be both overtly
gay and Muslim. But those from other backgrounds have a somewhat
came out ages ago. It really depends on your religion, race, age,
class and whether you're urban or rural," says Jerome Kugan, 39,
who sports a nose ring and is part Chinese and part Kadazan (an
ethnic group from eastern Malaysia). He started a monthly musical
event called "Rainbow Rojak" (a pun on a local fruit
salad), at which raucous crowds pack into a hip café in downtown
Kuala Lumpur. "You can have a good time in KL ... if you don't
shove it in people's faces," he says.
media has allowed members of the LGBT community to meet, flirt, date
and provide counseling. Malaysia has one of the highest Internet
penetration rates in Asia, according to Freedom House, and Malaysians are among the world's most
enthusiastic users of Facebook. Take a ride on any metro train in
Kuala Lumpur, and you will see headscarf-clad Malay girls, workers in
office attire, students in flip flops and jeans all glued to their
smartphones. Gay men routinely use the Grindr mobile application to
rendezvous with their friends, and LGBT activist groups flourish in
in Malaysia's gay community are also emboldened by the enormous
strides made in the West for LGBT rights. Same-sex marriage is now legal nationwide in 17
and in some jurisdictions in in the U.S and Mexico.
many Muslims see these developments as a threat to their society. In
2011, the education ministry in the conservative eastern state of
Terengganu introduced camps to "re-educate" effeminate young men to be more masculine.
boys were given religious counseling and physical education over a
four-day period; later, the state education director was quoted as
saying it was a character-building camp, and not aimed at correcting
years later, in March 2013, the state sponsored a play, Asmara
(or "Abnormal Desires"), that follows the lives of three
LGBT people. They have wild parties and convince a naïve Malay girl
to take off her headscarf. Some later repent -- and those who don't
are struck by lightning. The moral of the story is "to warn young
people about the perils of being gay," as Malaysia's Director
General of Information, Communication and Culture, Fuad Hassan put it in 2013.
LGBT activists realize that they may not achieve the kind of progress
made by their peers in the West.
marriage in the west becomes mistaken for our campaign here, but this
approach does not work in Muslim-majority countries," says Pang
Khee Teik, co-founder of Seksualiti Merdaka, an LGBT festival that
was banned in 2011. "There's a backlash [here]."
Pang says, most gays in Malaysia would be happy if Malaysian
authorities stop harassing and vilifying them.
fight to achieve the kind of acceptance gay people enjoy in the West
may have to wait for another generation.
MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images