Still in the Closet

Life isn't easy for Malaysian gays. And it may actually be getting worse.


Sweaty 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.

It 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 majority-Muslim Malaysia.

Over 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.

One 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.

But 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.

Effeminate 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.

"Back 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.

But 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.

As a result, minorities, be they racial or sexual, have come under pressure.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has joined the attacks on the LGBT community. "LGBTs, 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.

Some 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 Mail, an independent online newspaper.

The 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.

Nisha 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 months.

Prison wardens forced her to stand naked in front of other prisoners, subjected her to an anal probe and mocked her for having breasts.

"I was treated like a puppet," she says. Also during her detention, six cellmates made her perform oral sex. It was 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."

The 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.

Members 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.

For 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."

Minority 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.

That 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 1998.

"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 website.

But 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."

Bridget 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 power."

UMNO 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.

But 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 to Mahathir.

Malaysia’s racial and religious structure makes it difficult to be both overtly gay and Muslim. But those from other backgrounds have a somewhat easier time.

"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 KL … if you don’t shove it in people’s faces," he says.

Social 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 cyberspace.

Many 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 countries and in some jurisdictions in in the U.S and Mexico.

But 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.

The 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 feminine characteristics.

Two years later, in March 2013, the state sponsored a play, Asmara Songsang (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.

Malaysian LGBT activists realize that they may not achieve the kind of progress made by their peers in the West.

"Same-sex 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]."

Ultimately, Pang says, most gays in Malaysia would be happy if Malaysian authorities stop harassing and vilifying them.

The fight to achieve the kind of acceptance gay people enjoy in the West may have to wait for another generation.

Lim Li Min is an online producer with Al Jazeera English based in Qatar. Her articles have been published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.