Originally scheduled for release on March 16 in Malaysian cinemas, Walt Disney Studio’s live-action version of Beauty and the Beast was initially banned in the country due an outcry over a short scene of two men dancing.
Despite continuing objections from conservative NGOs that this “gay scene” goes against Malaysian values, the film will now be screened uncut. Many Malaysians believe that the country’s Film Censorship Board relented in part due to tourism minister Nazri Aziz’s comment that the ban was “ridiculous”.
Objections from certain sectors of Malaysian society to the film neatly illustrates both the fear and lack of understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the country. A prevailing moral panic means gay men and male-to-female transgender people have been particular targets of discrimination, conversion therapies and even violence.
Opposition to LGBT people is part of a larger framework of hostility towards and the policing of Malaysians who are considered immoral.
Secular and religious police have raided hotels in search of unmarried Muslim couples who are considered guilty of khalwat – close proximity between unwedded people. And sex workers have been routinely rounded up and sent to police stations for illegal activities.
Homosexual identities are not illegal in Malaysia, but there are secular and religious laws that criminalise sexual expressions between men, such as the Malaysian penal code and Syariah (Islamic) laws. Some sections of the the Code outlaw oral and penetrative sex, for instance. And while such laws are applicable to all citizens, they have targeted primarily gay men.
Former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim is probably the most prominent Malaysian to be prosecuted for homosexual acts. He has been subject to a series of arrests, convictions and acquittals since 1998.
In 2015, he began a five-year sentence on the charge of sodomy. Although Malaysian academics argue that these are obviously political ploys against him, Anwar’s case is symbolic of the vulnerability of gay men in Malaysia.
Male-to-female transgender people – known as mak nyah in Malay – are often seen as men who shamelessly imitate women. Mak nyahs often experience social stigma familial rejection and workplace discrimination, which causes some of them to resort to sex work for a living.
Apart from the penal code and Syariah laws, mak nyahs can also be arrested under the 1955 Minor Offence Act for indecent behaviour. Malaysian transgender activists, such as Sulastri Ariffin, have shared stories of ill treatment in public areas as well as in prison.
And although the police have denied it, the recent murder of transgender woman Sameera Krishnan is seen by some in the LGBT community as a hate crime against mak nyahs.
The role of religious belief
The vulnerability of LGBT people in Malaysia particularly affects Muslims and those at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
Organised religions continue to play an important role in the daily lives of Malaysians. LGBT citizens have been labelled as enemies of Islam and compared to terrorist groups in the Muslim-majority country.
Mainstream Christian churches have stated that they do not condone violence against LGBT people, but they continue to resort to the Bible to condemn homosexual expressions as going against divine law.
Other religious groups in Malaysia have mostly been silent on the issue, but the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism has officially spoken against discrimination and violence towards LGBT people.
In 2012, deputy minister in the prime minister’s department, Mashitah Ibrahim, stated that the Malaysian Federal Constitution does not provide protection for LGBT people. And during the signing of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration at the 21st ASEAN Summit in 2012, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak deliberately excluded LGBT rights on the premise that the country has its own moral norms and values.
In 2016 Human Rights Watch noted the steady increase of human rights violations in Malaysia. Topping the list were curtailments of free speech and freedom of expression, police abuse, detention without trial, human trafficking and the lack of protection for LGBT people. In fact, the human rights NGO considers Malaysia one of the worst places in the world for transgender people.
The fight for LGBT rights in Malaysia has faced and continues to encounter various forms of resistance. Islamic federal and state government agencies have even claimed that sexual minority rights do not constitute human rights.
Efforts to foster community spirit among LGBT Malaysians have also been prohibited, as evident in the banning of the sexuality rights festival Seksualiti Merdeka in the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur in 2011.
In short, LGBT rights do not officially exist in Malaysia.
Fighting the good fight
Nevertheless, LGBT activists continue to fight for recognition. Grassroots organisation Justice for Sisters, for instance, is actively advocating for the rights of Malaysian transgender men and women.
Community-based organisations such as the PT Foundation and Kuala Lumpur AIDS Support Services Society deal mainly with issues of sexual health. But they also recognise the need to educate government departments and the general population on related issues of gender and sexuality.
Numerous groups in the country are discreetly creating strategies on how best to canvass for the rights of LGBT people. For many of them, working behind the scenes is the safest and most effective way.
Malaysian LGBT activists have also linked up with their international counterparts. In 2011, the ASEAN Civil Society Conference and ASEAN People’s Forum was held in Kuala Lumpur.
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus organised workshops and set up booths to educate the masses on LGBT rights. Many Malaysian LGBT activists were involved in these events, and took the opportunity to speak to politicians about their issues, needs and concerns.
Despite these efforts, LGBT rights in the country continue to face uncertainty, disapproval and opposition. Activists experience a certain measure of the good – a sense of community and camaraderie – as they work towards their goals. But they are also subject to a lot of the bad and the ugly in their fight for the legal, social, cultural and religious recognition and appreciation of LGBT people. They too are, at the end of the day, Malaysians in their own right.