LGBT Malaysians face rising threats from a more militantly religious governmentAround the World, Online Only, Top Highlights Tuesday, July 8th, 2014
For years, Malaysian transgenders and gender-fluid individuals were a staple of society often found doing makeup for brides at rural weddings. For others, be they gay, lesbian or bi-sexual, life was OK. It wasn’t the oasis of freedoms and protections found in many, if not most, Western democratized nations, but if you didn’t shove your sexuality down other people’s throats, LGBT Malaysians enjoyed a degree of acceptance not found in many other Muslim-majority nations.
But that is changing and, according to LGBT activists in this sprawling nation of 30 million people in Southeast Asia, it’s changing for the worse as Muslim-backed parties grow in influence and work toward a society routed in Sharia law. “Malaysian 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 Web site, according to a report in Foreign Policy.
The majority of ethnic Malays are represented by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the opposition, including the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) is each locked in a power struggle and each are battling for the minds, hearts and votes of the country’s Islamic base. 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.
And for the LGBT community, the consequences are even more dire. Nisha Ayub, 35, knows firsthand. When she was 21, she was rounded up by the police for wearing makeup, having breasts and, according to the Sharia-based court was found guilty of impersonating a man. She was sentenced to an all-male prison where she was forced to stand naked for hours in front of male prisoners. During her time in prison, she was also forced to perform oral copulation on other male prisoners. As if that humiliation weren’t enough, it was also her first sexual experience.
Now 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.”
But not everyone in the Malaysian LGBT community feels the same way. Just like here in the United States, class, location, education and age can distinguish you (and your freedoms) from other members of the same community. A ride on any metro train in Kuala Lumpur demonstrates how socially connected young people are as they pass their urban surroundings staring at their smart phones and iPads. (Malaysia, according to Foreign Policy has the largest Internet penetration of any Southeastern Asian nation.) And with that social mobility comes the freedom to hook up on mobile app sites like Grindr and other locally-based portals.
“I 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 [the capital] … if you don’t shove it in people’s faces,” he says.
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