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“You Grow Up Learning What You Are Is A Sin”

LGBT students and youths face pressure to renounce their gender identity and sexual orientation, says a report by Human Right Watch and Justice for Sisters.

Saiful from Jejaka, Dorian Wilde from JFS, and Thilaga Sulathireh from JFS at the launch of the “I Don’t Want to Change Myself: Anti-LGBT Conversion Practices, Discrimination, and Violence in Malaysia” report. Photo by Najua Ismail.

KUALA LUMPUR, August 25 – LGBT Malaysians face pressures to change their sexual orientation and gender identity from a young age, with influence being exerted from family, social institutions and the media. 

According to the report, I Don’t Want to Change Myself: Anti-LGBT Conversion Practices, Discrimination, and Violence in Malaysia by Human Right Watch and Justice for Sisters (JFS), cultural and institutional discrimination in the country has made LGBT youths vulnerable to bigotry, intolerance, bullying and rejection, affecting their emotional and mental well-being.

“School textbooks list homosexuality as bad behaviour, and messages from religious officials reinforce that,” said Raymond Tai from the PT Foundation, a community-based NGO that provides HIV/AIDS services, sexual health and empowerment programmes for vulnerable communities in Malaysia.

“You grow up learning what you are is a sin. You get out of school feeling that what you are is an abomination,” he said in the report.

Early Socialisation Of Homosexuality Being Obscene

Bern Chua, an academic at a public university who conducted research among Malay Muslim men, said in the report, “basically, they told me when they were young, when they attend any religious classes, one of the lessons will cover sodomy, the story of the prophet Lot. 

“So that becomes part of the early socialisation of homosexuality being obscene. And it’s being reinforced by the mainstream government discourses.”

According to the report, transgender students have been called in for “counselling”sessions at both public and private secondary schools where they were subjected to efforts to change their gender identity or expression. 

State religious officials have provided workshops to educational institutions on preventing homosexuality and transgender experession. 

They have also organised events for universities and for the general public that featured self-proclaimed ex-gay and ex-trans people who say they have returned to the “right path” and that other LGBT persons can and should do so as well.

The anti-LGBT sentiments expressed in these initiatives have contributed to a culture that sanctions hostility towards young LGBT individuals. As a result, they also face pressure and suffer bullying from their peers.

Until When Do You Want To Be Gay

“We are seen as ‘baa’ — someone who brings bad luck, causes disasters,” said Azim, a 27-year-old gay Muslim man who considered suicide at age 25 due to pressure related to anti-LGBT rhetoric.

In the report, he said, “I’ve heard a lot of messages that LGBT should change. People say, ‘we don’t want LGBT to become a disaster in Malaysia’.

“[At university] there was pressure from friends to change: “Do you want to change? Until when do you want to be gay? The prophet disowns the followers [who are LGBT].

“This harassment continued until I finished my studies. I wanted to kill myself. I went to the Klang River and wanted to jump. My boyfriend came in his car and drove me back home.”

Anti-LGBT sentiments and narratives about change also prevail on mainstream and social media where they are given credence and employed to exert pressure. 

Nadia, a trans woman in Sungai Petani, said social media postings about “changing” contributed to pressure from family members and friends.

“These Facebook postings and news have also led former schoolmates to say, ‘oh, you should change, or return to how you were in school, and change slowly, bit by bit’, she said in the report. 

“But they don’t understand. When I was in school, I was like that because of the laws and regulations. You weren’t allowed to be yourself. You had to have short hair, wear the uniform. If I had the opportunity, I would have transitioned in school.

“The stuff in the media makes people confused. And then it also increases transphobia. And the parents end up putting pressure on people to change, because they themselves are getting confused. I felt pressure from my parents to change, especially when they see [ex-trans] people in the media.”

Some families also begin pushing conversion practices on LGBT or gender noncomforming children early on. Raymond Tai from PT Foundation said in the report that he got calls from parents who “want to get psychiatric help to straighten their gay child”.

Emotional And Psychological Toll Of Conversion Practices

Conversion practices are sustained and deliberate efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. In the report, two young LGBT adults described the conversion practices they were subjected to by their parents, and the emotional and psychological toll it had on them.

Darren Tan, a 28-year-old gay man, was made to undergo repeated exorcisms as a teenager, which led him to experience suicidal ideation.

Linda, a trans woman in her early twenties, described how her parents took her to a seminar offered by ex-trans pastor Edmund Smith in May 2016. “A lot of queer kids were there, dragged there by their parents. The parents were clinging to every word he said, and the kids were just crying.

“He was saying he [became] a trans woman because his mom said feminine things into the womb. He plays into where people are not educated, plays on their fears and experiences. I was heartbroken. Everyone was crying and upset about being queer.”

She goes on to describe his sermon in the report: “[He said] I was trans because I hated my penis. He presented gender as an influence from the outside, he conflated sexuality and gender identity, he kept emphasizing his marriage to a woman, he kept portraying LGBT as a lifestyle, how he’s sick and tired of the “lifestyle,” emphasising queer people get HIV, gays have sex in parks. And people were just eating it up.

“At the end, he brought up a programme for healing us. He also emphasised a connection between queerness and sexual abuse and made lots of biblical references. He said, ‘when God comes in, your queerness goes out’.”

It Is Ok To Be Yourself

Conversion practices occur across the religious spectrum and can be in the form of exorcisms, family coercion, shamanic rituals and so on, said Dorian Wilde from JFS at the launch of the report last August 10. The message it conveys is that it is not ok to be yourself.

“Even if your family is not actively pursuing this, there is also a chance you yourself would pursue these things because you yourself believe you are not acceptable,” said Dorian. “And that there is a correct way of being, so that is also another reason why people seek conversion therapy without having that understanding it’s ok to be yourself.”

As a result, they end up experiencing mental health issues like suicide ideation, depression, and anxiety, he added.

However, affirming mental health services are difficult to come by in Malaysia, according to the report. LGBT persons also face the possibility of being treated by therapists who might seek to change their gender identity or sexual orientation through conversion practices. 

Gavin Chow from PLUHO speaking at the launch of the “I Don’t Want to Change Myself: Anti-LGBT Conversion Practices, Discrimination, and Violence in Malaysia” report. Photo by Najua Ismail.

Gavin Chow from People Like Us Hang Out (PLUHO) said that his organisation had to create a service that refers community members to therapists who have been screened to determine whether they are LGBTQ affirmative or not. PLUHO is an LGBTQ community building group.

“And I talk to activists from other countries, there is no need for such a service in other countries,” he said. “However, it became a need in Malaysia because it is very hard for us to identify which therapists in Malaysia are doing conversion practices or not.”

LGBT people may also be reluctant to seek mental health services for fear of being discriminated against.

“I didn’t try to go to a counsellor,” said Azim, who suffered from suicide ideation. “I didn’t believe that a counsellor could accept me if I’m honest with them that I’m gay.”

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