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How Lack Of Counter Narrative Sidelines LGBT Malaysians

Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters say Malaysia can engage with its LGBT citizens and learn from other countries to open up spaces for and improve the lives of LGBT people in the country.

Thilaga Sulathireh (3rd from left), Kyle Knight (2nd from right) and other LGBT activists holding a copy of the report, “I Don’t Want to Change Myself: Anti-LGBT Conversion Practices, Discrimination, and Violence in Malaysia.” Photo by Najua Ismail.

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 20 – The lack of a counter narrative on LGBT people in Malaysia have made it difficult for them to be acknowledged and accepted as equals, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Justice for Sisters (JFS).

Not only has the government painted the LGBT population as deviants who should change their gender identity and sexual orientation, it has also suppressed any attempts to affirm the existence of LGBT people, through erasure, censorship, and by denying their rights to expression, assembly, and association.

Over the years, government authorities under the administrations of Mahathir Mohamad, Najib Razak, and Muhyiddin Yassin have come down hard on events or activities that involve LGBT people, notes the report “I Don’t Want to Change Myself: Anti-LGBT Conversion Practices, Discrimination, and Violence in Malaysia”.

Through the threat of censure and arrest, LGBT activists, allies, and organisations have been deterred, resulting in the silencing of their voices, or the adoption of a more cautious approach to making their voices heard and pursuing their activities.

Activities That Run Afoul Of Authorities

When a conservative media outlet ran an “expose” on an event organised by Pelangi, an LGBT organisation, in 2017, the Minister for Religious Affairs, Federal Territories Islamic Department (JAWI), and Malaysian police responded by saying they would launch investigations on the organisation.

Although the organisation had run many events before without attracting negative attention from authorities, they opted to lower their profile after the outcry, due to fears of getting arrested, maintained the report.

Pelangi also had a hard time trying to register formally as a non-governmental organisation in late 2016 and early 2017. On appeal, both the Registrar of Societies and Home Ministry rejected its application without explanation.

During a march to commemorate International Women’s Day on March 8, 2019, a speaker condemned anti-trans violence. While the event was not primarily focused on LGBT, it was attended by LGBT people and allies, some who carried rainbow flags.

According to the HRW and JFS report, police and politicians characterised the march as an “illegal LGBT assembly”. In the days following the march, police summoned nine people, including speakers and members of the organising committee, for investigation under the Peaceful Assembly Act and Sedition Act.

Under the Peaceful Assembly Act, organisers of assemblies are required to give police notice of any event 10 days in advance, which the Women’s March organisers said they had done. 

The Sedition Act criminalises “seditious tendency” which is defined under the act as “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any ruler or against any government”. The prosecutor’s office eventually dropped the case.

Organisers of a photo exhibition on patriotism at an arts festival in 2018 were ordered by Islamic Affairs Minister at the time, Mujahid Yusof, to remove portraits of LGBT activists Nisha Ayub and Pang Khee Teik. In the photo, Pang was draped in a Malaysian flag and was holding a rainbow flag.

“When you put the picture with the (pride) symbol, if that is not promotion… then tell me what is the definition of promotion?” he reportedly said.

The HRW and JFS report also highlights the experience of a student, Alan G., at a private university, whose attempts to set up a queer student group in 2016 was curbed by the university administration.

When they were denied permission to register, the group tried to organise LGBT inclusive activities through other student organisations, but their efforts eventually petered out.

“There’s basically no way to do these things anymore, to organise, because of all the bureaucracy they throw at us. At its peak, we had five committee members and 20 members. We’d have film screenings, a sharing circle. Now we don’t do anything, because it’s hard,” said Alan G. in the report.

“A lot of the advocates I work with face mental health issues directly related to what we’re doing. We were fighting for this, but we were crumbling ourselves. We felt like, what can we do? We felt like we’re so tiny, which is demoralising.”

Media Censorship Of LGBT Content

Authorities also resort to censorship to impede depictions of LGBT people and to prevent pro-LGBT expression, notes the report. The Home Affairs Ministry’s Guidelines on Film Censorship prohibit portraying “homosexual and unnatural sex” and “transgender behaviour and lifestyle” in films.

In 2017, the Film Censorship Board instructed Disney to cut four minutes of content from the film Beauty and the Beast, arguing that Malaysia does not accept “LGBT ideology”. When Disney refused, censors backed down by accepting the film if it carried a PG-13 rating.

Malaysian authorities successfully censored gay scenes from the Elton John biopic, Rocketman, in August 2019. 

Other forms of media and events that feature LGBT personalities and content are also not spared, according to the report. In February 2018, authorities cancelled a planned concert by Denise Ho, a lesbian singer from Hong Kong who has publicly supported LGBT equality. 

The Home Ministry banned the book Gay Is OK! A Christian Perspective, with the ministry’s secretary-general denouncing homosexuality as both illegal and immoral in December 2020. 

A legal challenge was filed by the author and publisher in March of the following year against the ruling, arguing that the ban is unconstitutional. In February 2022, the High Court ruled in favour of the author and publisher, revoking the government’s ban.

After publishing a profile of a Chinese LGBT activist in 2018, a Chinese language newspaper received a warning letter from the Home Ministry accusing it of “promoting homosexuality”.

Increasing Acceptance In Southeast Asia

While Malaysian authorities appeared to have doubled down on their efforts to curb LGBT related events and activities, as well as promote anti-LGBT sentiments over the years, neighbouring countries seem to be moving towards increasing acceptance.

Last month, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said the country would repeal a colonial era law banning gay sex.

Thailand’s parliament passed both the Civil Partnership Bill and the Marriage Equality Bill on their first reading in June this year, either of which would provide legal recognition for same-sex partnerships in the country. 

Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta showed his support for the LGBT community in the country by joining the Pride Parade, which was held in the capital city, Dili, on July 29 this year.

During a media briefing on the HRW and JFS report on August 10, Kyle Knight, senior LGBT rights researcher at HRW, explained that the Ministry of Health in Vietnam had just sent an order to all the health departments across the country, clarifying that homosexuality or being transgender is not a mental disorder, and LGBT people do not need to be medically fixed.

“This isn’t exactly a ban on conversion therapy, but it certainly clarifies a major problem that was going on in Vietnam at the time or in recent years, where because the discourse in the country was largely that these were still mental health conditions where you can get diagnosed and you can get treated, you had kids coming up to their parents and their parents paying a lot of money to go see a psychiatrist,” said Knight.

“The psychiatrist (would respond) saying, ‘this is not a problem, this is not a disorder’, and the parents saying, ‘ok, cool’ and on they went with their lives. But that’s not a very efficient system and that’s not a very rights respecting system.

“So, you actually saw a campaign with more than 80,000 signatures of the allies of the LGBT community in Vietnam going to the WHO office, asking them to engage the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Health responding positively just yesterday.”

Prior to the publication of the report, HRW wrote to the Malaysian Ministry of Health (MOH) asking for their responses to questions about addressing discrimination against LGBT people in the health care sector. The letter is included in Annex III of the report. Knight said they never received a response.

“We focused on the MOH because I think they do have an opportunity to conduct a review here to engage substantively on this from a public health perspective,” he said.

Thilaga Sulathireh, co-founder of JFS, a local transgender rights group, said they would recommend that MOH carry a review of their programmes as they intersect with the provision of HIV/AIDS treatments and services.

A previous article on Ova reported on the intersection between conversion practices and HIV/AIDS in Malaysia.

“Conversion practices are a direct threat to our health and well being,” she said. “We recommend that the MOH look at the report and engage us in carrying out an assessment of the LGBT programmes in this country.”

Counter Narrative For LGBT People

Thilaga Sulathireh and Kyle Knight. Photo by Najua Ismail.

Knight also shared examples of positive developments for LGBT people in countries beyond Southeast Asia. The state of Victoria in Australia has a dedicated website focusing on its legislation and efforts to achieve equality for its LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse, intersex and queer) communities, he said.

“And one of the things that is most interesting there is that the Human Rights Commission has invested resources in hiring staff members to spend time with religious communities to train people on how to not do this,” Knight said.

“And not just not do a mukhayyam type thing, or a specific practice but how not to create a hostile environment in the church, or the mosque, or the synagogue in that particular state.”

“Even if the preacher is not going to be pro LGBT, they are at least not going to create a hostile environment. And they’re seeing incredibly positive reception from religious communities there, from all the religious groups.”

According to the report, mukhayyam are camps, run by the federal Islamic Affairs Department (JAKIM) and various state Islamic departments, that in accordance with the belief that LGBT people should be “rehabilitated” and undertake sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts, known as conversion practices, targeting Muslim LGBT people. 

Thilaga said that Malaysia should open up religious spaces to LGBT people. “One of the reasons people go to this programme (mukhayyam) is because they actually want to learn religion. And a lot of times, people don’t have the opportunity to go to religious spaces, especially mosques to perform prayers and be part of communal activities.

“This mukhayyam programme is not resolving that problem. It is actually deepening the restriction of freedom of religion for LGBT persons because in Malaysia being Muslim and queer, it’s such a huge conflict in the minds of the state. I think it is important to affirm the freedom of religion and belief or not, for LGBTQI persons and open up these spaces for them to access.”

The United States has also addressed the use of conversion therapy with the Prohibition of Medicaid Funding for Conversion Therapy Act.

“New York was the first state and then it sort of went out across the US, (which) have now made it illegal for insurance companies to reimburse practitioners for anything that’s conversion practices,” Knight said.

“In other states, lawyers have been able to bring successful cases that sued practitioners, in this case, psychologists or other types of therapists, for fraud. Because what they say is you’re actually advertising a false service.

“It is not possible to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, it is a human rights violation to do so. This is a fraudulent service so they get sued as a business person for advertising something that does not exist.”

Knight added that these were the type of changes that needed to be heard about in Malaysia because there is no counter narrative.

“In fact, the anti-LGBT narrative is amplified by the government. And the counter narrative has to be based more on reality. Malaysia is slipping backwards against the rest of the world,” he said.

Thilaga said the country runs the risks of further isolating itself if it continues on the same path. “Like, now what we’re seeing, Malaysia is already isolating itself with the censorship of Thor: Love And Thunder, Lightyear, and all of that.”

Both Thor: Love And Thunder and animated film Lightyear, were prevented from being released in Malaysian theatres because they contained LGBT elements.

“And it really impacts the economy as well. Any form of discrimination, be it homophobia, transphobia, has financial implications. We are already seeing how Malaysia’s strong anti-LGBT position is having an impact on businesses in Malaysia. So, I don’t think the position is in the long run sustainable.

“Everywhere around the world, every major corporation, there’s no escaping Pride Month now if you live in the social media space or anywhere. I think, of course, with the global trends we are seeing, we hope for a positive impact,” Thilaga said.

However, Thilaga admits that progress can sometimes breed even more discontent. “On the flip side, we’ve also seen how conservatives react to progress. And a lot of times, some of the discrimination and the more hostile actions that we’ve seen are a result of global progress — like we need to be more restricted because we need to show better example and things like that.

“So, it can go either way but we hope for the best. Of course, we are always optimistic and we hope to change the situation together with everybody.”

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