Competing ideological struggles and LGBTQ identities in multicultural Malaysia

I have an article published in a special issue on LGBT identities and cultures in Southeast Asia in Südostasien, a journal published by Stiftung Asienhaus, on LGBTQ identities in Malaysia today. It has been translated into German from English. Below is the article in English:

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Malaysia stands slightly part from its neighbours in the Southeast Asian region because of its distinct ingredients of Islam, multiculturalism and modernity. It is perhaps because of the uneasy balancing act of these ingredients that it has maintained a fragile social fabric of toleration between different ethnic and religious groups. Rapid, albeit uneven, industrialisation and pro-Malay-Muslim policies since the 1980s have produced one of the economic success stories of Southeast Asia. Yet, the comforts of modernity have somehow allowed the nation to stay calm and carry on despite alarming rates of human rights abuse, deepening Islamisation and corruption in recent years.

Islam, multiculturalism and modernity have shaped the discourse of gender and sexuality in Malaysia. Being a predominantly Muslim country with colonial laws that prohibit same-sex relations and Islamic laws that criminalise “cross-dressing”, Malaysia is a hybrid modernity with socio-political restrictions and opportunities. The use of Islam as a tool to appease the alienation of the Malay community has been a foregrounding theme since the earliest days of the nation. Though it seems that nearly everything in the public and private spheres of Malaysia is tainted by this alienation and its attendant, the racialisation of politics.

Globalisation of gender and sexuality

The story of LGBTQ identities in Malaysia parallels that of many others across the region. It has embraced the internationalisation of sexual identities and the “global gay”(i) and shares a discursive trajectory that began with HIV awareness campaigns in the 1990s although these have tapered off in the last decade. Its small community of activists employ the language of rights and Western labels of self-identification. However, specific events in Malaysian modern history would give the story of LGBTQ identities its distinctive flavour.

A nebulous kind of homophobia and transphobia would emerge concurrently with the increasing awareness of global LGBT discourse in Malaysia. Since the 1990s, non-normative sexual identities become more visible in public discourse and associated with Westernisation. Sadly, this visibility had come with a price; indigenous non-normative practices and identities which thrived and were tolerated for decades (ii) were being viewed as deviant and sinful in Islam. Effeminate male traditional wedding organisers and bridal make-up artists, and court dancers who reside in ‘specialised homosexual villages’ (iii) have gradually disappeared since the 1980s. The lack of political will to protect vulnerable groups from violence and discrimination in Malaysia has caused many to go underground and silent.

Male homosexuality was thrust into the public consciousness in the late 1990s with the political dressing-down and imprisonment of the former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, for the crime of sodomy and corruption. Lurid descriptions of same-sex relations made front page news nearly every day during Anwar Ibrahim’s trial. It was a public tar and feathering that appeared to guarantee the end of his political career. The former deputy prime minister continues to battle for his freedom today.

By the 2000s, homosexuality and gay male identities were firmly established in the Malaysian public consciousness but the latter continued to be toxic. In 2010, Azwan Ismail, a Malay-Muslim man, received death threats after posting a Youtube video titled ‘I’m gay and I’m okay’. The repercussions following Azwan’s attempt to connect to a global queer mediascape demonstrated the limits of national boundaries. There has not been a high profile online campaign to promote acceptance of gay identities in Malaysia since.

The transgender communities in Malaysia have made important inroads by challenging the state sharia court’s ruling against ‘cross-dressing’ as unconstitutional in 2014. However, in 2015, their victory was short-lived as the federal court overturned the decision in favour of the sharia court in a larger campaign of the sharia court’s growing supremacy over the constitution that guarantees protection from gender-based discrimination.

Patriarchy and fundamentalism

A comment about patriarchy is important here, too. The oppression towards LGBTQ identities in Malaysia is a reflection of the deeply patriarchal society that is increasingly repressive towards Muslim women. The mark of patriarchy is felt even in the progressive spaces of LGBTQ activism; compared to the gay men and transwomen, transmen, the experiences and voices of queer and lesbian cis-gendered women (or women born female) against repression are rarely heard. This transwomen and gay male-dominated LGBTQ discourse in Malaysia may be attributed to the legacy of HIV awareness activism of the 1990s that was couched in more acceptable terms of public health management. By contrast, queer and lesbian cis-gendered women have had fewer opportunities at raising public consciousness for different interest groups.

As the country falls into a period of deeper discontent with its leadership, it sees the government employing strategies to demonise sexual and gender minorities to consolidate support from a conservative electorate. Bizarrely, the present Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, has condemned LGBTQ people as dangerous as the terrorist organisation Daesh. This has dangerous ramifications for a nation that has great difficulty in managing the diversity of cultures, beliefs, gender and sexuality.

When a visitor arrives in Malaysia, she may be mesmerised by the dizzying cornucopia of consumerist pleasures and hyper-modernity. An image of multicultural harmony invoked in our delight in food hides both the ideological imagination and reality of deteriorating standards of livelihood and wellbeing. As the country enters the new year with scandals ravaging the economy, politics, and the environment, the hope for women and other minorities in Malaysia remains particularly dim. The crackdown on Malaysian civil society and the pervading fear threaten to cripple and choke any effort to bring issues on LGBTQ into the public sphere.


i Dennis Altman, Dennis. 1996. Rupture of continuity? The internationalization of gay identities. Social Text 1: 77-94.
ii Michael Peletz. 2009. Gender Pluralism: Southeast Asia Since Early Modern Times. New York and London: Routledge.
iii Peletz. 2009. Gender Pluralism, pg. 186-187.

Lecture notes: Trans identities and queer acceptance in Indonesian cinema?

The following are notes from my final lecture for Sex and the City: Gender and Sexuality in Southeast Asia on trans identities in Indonesian cinema.

Disclaimer on the use of ‘definitions’

Since I am teaching this class in English, to students in a British institution with a largely unproblematised epistemological culture that privileges western ways of knowing about the world with a penchant for derivatising non-western epistemologies as ‘critiques’ at best, adjuncts at worst, I will need to introduce my lecture on trans identities with terms we already know or at least recognise in our nomenclature for variant gendered subjectivities.

That said, does anyone in class know the differences between transgender, transsexual, queer, transvestite, cross-dressers, drag kings and drag queens?

Transgender is a broad term to describe people whose gender identities do not match their biological sex. Gender and sex are different. Gender denotes social characteristics that are usually used to differentiate between women from men. But this is a limiting, binaristic term that has a risk of becoming quite essentialist.

Cross-dressers and tranvestites tend to be used inter-changibly to describe people who simply have just have a preference, sometimes involving sexual arousal when they wear clothes worn usually by the opposite sex.

Queer is an umbrella term to denote sexual minorities and gender variant people. The term was reclaimed from the derogative term to mean homosexual individuals, and now it is used as a political position against heterosexist and transphobic ideologies and discourse.

Drag king is a female performance artists who dress and act like a caricuture man often performing stereotypes of men, incorporating singing and dancing at times. Drag Kings also do impersonations of famous male personalities like Elvis Presley, which is a drag king favourite – I believe both Annie Lennox and Sharleen Spiteri of the band texas have done Elvis impersonations, and very well, too. I’m sure you’re more familiar with drag queens, particularly now that we have Priscilla Queen of the Desert the musical on Shaftesbusy Avenue. Yes, what’s wrong with a bit singing and dancing men in drag and conflate trangender and transsexual people into the mix? Hm.

So, transsexuality is a person’s identification with a gender identity that is not consistent with biological sex. Transsexuality comes with a desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by a sense of discomfort with, or inappropriateness of, one’s anatomic sex, and a wish to have surgery and hormonal treatment to make one’s body as congruent as possible with one’s preferred sex.


Because I am using the terms transsexual women and men quite a lot in this lecture, I will use the terms cis-gender or cis-sexual women and men to describe people who are not transsexual. Mainly because if I said just ‘woman’ to describe cis-sexual woman, it seems as if the default woman is only those who are born with the biological sex and gender match. To use to term cis-sexual/cis-gender also destabilises the dominance and normality of cis-gender identities. It draws attention to the fact that we cannot take for granted that only cis-gender women are in fact ‘women’. Transsexual women are women, too. They identify as women, feel that they’re women inside, and most definitely prefer the pronoun ‘she’. It is very offensive for many transsexual women to be described as a ‘he’.

Representations of transsexuality – cliches and bad stereotypes

For the sake of the film, we will focus on transsexuality as characters in cinema more generally as opposed to simply transgender identities. And then I will focus on representations of characters assumed to be transsexual, transvestite, and just transgender in Indonesian film. Representations of transsexual identities in film tend to fall into a very limited, often very negative spectrum of freak-show exploitation that occur in documentaries, fictional film, and pornography.

In film-making of the Anglosphere, that includes Hollywood, independent American, British, and Australian cinema, transsexual characters are usually played by cis-sexual male actors and exhibit flamboyance, campness, tawdriness, and tragicomedy with great frequency. We have depictions of transsexuals as a joke: these characters tend to inhabit tragic and comedic roles often at their own expense. They’re often conflated with drag queens and cross-dressers who find themselves in outrageous situations where they are the source of the joke or object of derision. Transwoman actor and model Calpernia Addams who has written about representations of transsexual people in film, says that transsexuals in film can be summed in 4 P’s: Prostitutes, Psychos, Punchlines, and Poor Thing! Who are the “noble victim” of society’s intolerance.

In Hollywood film-making from the 1970s onwards, transsexual characters became psychopathic serial killers in the B-film Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde in 1971, Brian de Palma’s 1980’s Dressed to Kill, and the characterisation of Buffalo Bill in the Silence of the lambs, made in 1991. In both Dressed to Kill and Silence of the lambs, the serial killers were denied sex-reassignment surgery and because of this denial, murder people out of revenge for society’s lack of acceptance towards trans people, otherwise known as transphobia. The two films suggest that their murderous tendencies are all down to their lack of access to a sex reassignment surgery.

Then there are the films based true or actual documentaries depicting real-life transsexuals. Among them include the highly acclaimed Paris is Burning, an excellent film about the Black gay and transsexual ball in New York City. There is Southern Comfort about the female to male transsexual, and there is Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hilary Swank a cis-sexual woman who won an Oscar for her role in the film.

There will always been close-ups on transsexual women and men dressing up, putting on make-up, painting their nails, their wigs, bounding their breasts to make their chests flat. Such close-ups fetishise the bodies of transsexual people, and sexualise their body parts, objectifying them, turning them into objects of our prurient and voyeuristic interests. This is also typical in images that eroticise cis-women’s body parts, close-ups that focus on exposed or exposing body parts for the viewer’s pleasure. The use of close-ups here are certainly different; close-ups of transsexual bodies are meant to shock yet titillate, while close-ups of cis-women’s bodies are just titillating. These shots are problematic because they reduce ideas about femininity in very crude ways, through make-up, high heels, stockings, and clothes.

Clichés and stereotypes serve as a kind of shorthand that people use to categorise others into comfortable “types” without having to do much work, and even when someone seems to fit a cliché, there are always deeper levels. Outside of the easy clichés, there are so many other interesting realities that transsexual people experience.

The trends and stereotypes we’ve seen is largely part and parcel of how transphobic film industries tend to be, with little awareness of trans issues and rights, and most importantly the fact that there are always so few to no trans people working in the film industry. As one transsexual activist Calpernia Addams has observed, transsexual people very rarely are featured in film as themselves or as transsexual people. What is much rare still are transsexual people playing non-transsexual people. There are some similarities in the representations of transsexual people in Indonesian cinema.

Representations of transsexuality in Indonesian cinema

There are not many depictions of trans characters in Indonesian films. But when they are, transsexuality in New Order Indonesian cinema is mixed with cross-dressing and real transsexual characters. Depictions of trans people tend to be similar to some of the stereotypes in Anglo-American and Australian films of impoverished street sex workers and in newer post New Order Indonesian films, drag queens. In Indonesian films of the late 1970s, such as Betty Bencong Slebor, transgender women are featured as comedic relief. Oftentimes, they are ridiculed and denigrated in public. As shown in this clip from Betty Bencong Slebor, who is a domestic servant in an Indonesian household. Here, she is invited to sing in a village fair. But it becomes clear that people do not like her for some reason. Interestingly, we have a white woman from out of nowhere who is most vociferous in attacking Betty:

One film that stands out as a true-to-life depiction of life as a transsexual in Indonesia is Akulah Vivian (I am Vivian), also made in the late 1970s, about a woman who undergoes a sex reassignment surgery to transition from male to female. Vivian faces prejudice and transphobia, and eventually finds a cis-sexual man who loves her.

In the film we have watched today (Realita Cinta dan Rock n Roll, 2006) we have Mariana who challenges all previous stereotypes of the poor, desperate, and marginalised transsexual woman. We have a transsexual character who is a parent, wealthy, and a quirky combination of masculinity and femininity. In constrast to the maternal waria is the reflexive caricuture of Madame X, trans super hero and avenger of fellow waria who are victimised by a religious cult group. But how does this portrayal fare against the realities of being a trans person in Indonesia?

The reality of life as a waria in Indonesia

In Indonesia, there isn’t one term that best translates as “transsexual”. There is the waria, which is the combination of the Indonesian words for wanita to mean women and pria to mean men. In different parts of Indonesia, the cultural terms are different; in Bali and Sulawesi, they’re sometimes called Kedi. In Makkasar, they’re kawe-kawe. Among the Bugis and in Kalimantan, Borneo, they’re called the cultural term, calabai and calalai.

But the generic term waria has come to mean mainly transgender women who are born biologically male but feel that they have the ‘soul’ of a woman. Because sex reassignment surgery is very expensive and not available in hospitals, the sex reassignment surgeries are very rare, and so post-operation transsexuals in Indonesia are rare.

Waria tend to be confused with gay men a lot in Indonesia. The term that blurs trans people and gay men is banci, a broad pejorative term to describe any effeminate man, a man who does feminine work, a playground insult, a transgender or transsexual woman. The widespread use of a derogatory term that collapses multiple gender and sexual identities make it quite hard to get more neutral terms like waria and gay (the Indonesian version of gay) to come into wider use.

There is also a tendency to class warias as a “third gender”, which is now being challenged by scholars in Indonesian studies. I know that a number of authors on Indonesian studies such as Leonard and Barbara Andaya like this term, while Tom Boellstorff is more reluctant to use this term. Instead, he classes them as “male tranvestites” and “male transgenders.”

In some ways, I can understand why a lack of agreement on terms occurs; it’s mainly because people like to put categories on people’s gender usually without referring to gender variant individuals themselves what terms or pronouns would suit them best. Most of the people who make such categories are rarely ever trans people themselves and place labels as they please without causing much harm or identity crisis on people like themselves. It’s called cis-gender privilege.

Also ,we live in a gender-obsessed society. So we MUST know how to address a person: are they male or female. There’s a fascination, obsession, and insistence that we know one’s gender. Which is why many trans people are faced with the completely unsolicited question by total strangers, “Are you a bird or a bloke”?

When babies are born, is it a girl or a boy? When people do not fit our rather rigid gender binary, then we think we’re coming across a problem, an abnormality, and very often what we think as problems cause more complications on the lives of transgenderism and transsexual people.

For the sake of this class and some 101 guide to trans identities in Indonesia, it’s safe enough to categorise the waria under transgender or transsexual. Most seem to prefer to identify as women, so they are trans women. Unless many are versed in gender theory and fully embrace the notion that there’s a seperation between biological sex and gender which is socially constructed, many of which may belong to educated, middle-class economic bracket, we need to keep the gender categories loose due to difference in culture and class within cultures.

This includes the terms like gay, which is not really used as an identity marker in Indonesia very much unless you happen to identify with global, more western gay culture. Which is why David Cameron’s proposal to cut aid in non-western countries that do not have provisions that protect gay people is ignorant, classist, and Eurocentric. A country or cultures are not necessarily homophobic because many do not identify as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, sometimes the terms, practices, and sexual norms which we may consider as homosexual or non-normative just happen to have different systems of classifications, names, or none at all.

To a certain extent, warias are generally considered acceptable for a variety of reasons, warias, just like the trans women in Malaysia and Singapore who called the Mak Nyah, are stereotypically known to be good as hair-dressers and make-up artists. Considered as experts of feminine beauty, they are usually hired as bridal make-up artists during weddings, and they’re called Mak Andam.

There’s also the local court tradition in southern Sulawesi of the bissu, who are holy individuals who are blessed with special powers. The bissu, although displaying both feminine and masculiine characteristics, mainly through attire, are not according to authors on Indonesian studies, waria. They are, as Tom Boellstorff rather clunkily coines them, the “ethnolocalised homosexualities and transvestite subject positions” or rather charmingly, ETPs.

But this does not mean that the waria do not experience discrimination, oppression, and violence on a regular basis in Indonesia. They do. As we recall in various scenes in Realita Cinta, the trans women in the beginning of the film are depicted as far from desirable and almost always as sex workers. Mariana, not matter hard she tries to be a good parent, Nugi’s idea of a ‘real’ family is a male father and female mother. Very heteronormative.

For the best accounts on the life of waria and gay men in Indonesia, I suggest you read the works of the Indonesian LGBT activist Dede Oetomo. According to Oetomo, although many warias wish to identify as women, and become real women through superficial appearances, many display characteristics that make them quite unique from other cis-gender women, such as greater physical strength to fight off other men, the boldness in attracting a cis-man’s attention, through groping and grabbing a man’s crotch that one perhaps never will see in Indonesian cis-gender women.

In sum, I would stress that it is important to consider gender categories as fluid. Although we may assume that biological sex is binaristic between male and female genitalia, new evidence is showing that even biological sex, based on our primary and secondary sexual characteristics – which are our primary being are sexual reproductive organs – our gonads, and sex organs. And secondary sexual characterisatics – hormones, things like facial hair, shape of face, growth or lack of growth in breasts – these things are shown to exist on spectrum. The fluidity of our biological sex and gender challenges some rigid ideas about makes a ‘real’ woman or ‘real’ man. These ideas are social and cultural. In the case of transsexual people in Indonesia, or the waria, some may identify with the globalised western framework of gender that seperates gender from biological sex. Other may not. Film currently may not or may not be the best forum to discuss the variances of gender. But we will find out in our tutorial. But now, we’ll take a 10 minute break.

Pentingkah paparan watak-watak LGBT di media?

Disiar di Merdeka Review, tanggal 17 April 2012.

Kelewatan ini melihat desas-desus pengharaman paparan watak LGBT di kaca televisyen telahpun mendatangkan lagi persoalan tentang wajarkah individu-individu LGBT mempunyai tempat di siaran media. Bagi saya, jawabnya ya, tetapi saya juga mempunyai rasa ragu dengan pendirian saya. Pertama sekali, watak lesbian, gay, dan transgender terutamanya di filem-filem dan rancangan televisyen tempatan hampir selalunya stereotaip-stereotaip yang negatif. Sebagai contoh, watak yang dianggap ‘gay’ selalu disamakan dengan lelaki yang ‘lembut’, cerewet, dan slapstik tahap kewanitaannya.

Watak-watak yang difahamkan sebagai ‘lesbian’ pula hanya mempunyai satu jelmaan; wanita yang mempunyai gaya pemakaian dan pertuturan seperti lelaki atau ‘butch’. Watak transgender atau Mak Nyah pula tidak lain dan tidak bukan seorang wanita yang menjual tubuhnya dipersisiran jalan atau penghibur di kelab malam yang terlalu marak make-up dan gaya kewanitaannya. Secara lazim, watak-watak LGBT akan insaf, dikecewakan, atau diseksa dalam drama televisyen dan filem tempatan, contohnya filem Anu Dalam Botol.

Kesemua stereotaip-stereotaip ini memain peranan dalam media; kesemuanya berfungsi sebagai watak satu-dimensi yang digunakan sebagai bahan jenaka atau kontroversi yang tidak bertempat. Menurut peneliti-peneliti media, apa yang dilihat di media merupakan paparan dan gambaran yang dibuat oleh masyarakat majoriti atau kebanyakan untuk tontonan kebanyakan, dan jarang sekali buat sukuan minoriti masyarakat. Pendekatan yang diambil untuk mengharam penggambaran watak-watak LGBT di media untuk mengelakkan masyarakat Malaysia (yang bukan LGBT) daripada menyokong gerakan hak-hak seksualiti dan menzahirkan gender adalah sangat simplistik.

Mengikut pakar-pakar media juga, penonton dan pengguna media adalah lebih celik daripada yang dianggap oleh lembaga penapisan Malaysia; setiap satu pengguna media mempunyai cara menafsir imej-imej dan maklumat media dengan cara tersendiri. Tetapi ini tidak bermaksud setiap individu bebas berfikir di bawah satu kerajaan yang kuat menyensor dan menyempit wacana. Akhirnya, kebebasan menonton, berfikir, dan menafsir media dari pelbagi sudut pandangan individu tertakluk kepada macam-macam faktor, terutamanya yang berupa politik, sosial, dan taraf pendidikan individu.

Habis, mengapakah penting watak-watak LGBT dipaparkan di media tempatan? Pertama, paparan yang ‘realistik’ mengemukakan isu-isu dan pengalaman komuniti LGBT dengan harapan ia boleh ‘memanusiakan’ LGBT. Jika penonton (yang bukan LGBT) dihidangkan dengan stereotaip-stereotaip sahaja, secara tidak langsung ini akan mencorak pendapat khalayak tentang apa yang mereka fahami tentang komuniti minoriti ini. Kedua, seperti mana-mana penonton filem atau drama televisyen, kita suka melihat dan boleh berkongsi perasaan dengan watak-watak yang pada zahirnya lebih kurang seperti kita. Inilah sebabnya drama yang diperankan pelakon utama wanita akan selalunya mempunyai lebih ramai penonton wanita daripada lelaki. Ketiga, personaliti media atau artis LGBT boleh memainkan peranan positif sebagai ‘role model’ seperti Dorce Gamalama kepada yang anak-anak muda dan remaja yang dijadikan sasaran samseng-samseng yang merasa diri mereka lebih alim.

Malaysia mempunyai sejarah menolak keras penyanyi luar negeri daripada mementaskan muzik mereka kerena hala seksualiti mereka yang gay. Pengucapan perkataan ‘gay’ juga pernah dilenyapkan daripada bibir pelakon Sean Penn yang memenangi anugerah Oscar pada tahun 2007 untuk peranannya sebagai ahli politik Amerika gay yang pertama, Harvey Milk. Lagu Lady Gaga, Born This Way (Lahir Sebegini) yang membawa mesej positif tentang toleransi dan penerimaan identiti LGBT pernah di tarik dari siaran radio kerana melanggar “budaya dan tafsiran akidah agama”. Pengharaman yang bersifat anti-LGBT ini tidak dilahirkan daripada sentimen homofobia atau transfobia semata-mata, tetapi menjelma dari wacana awam kita se-Malaysia tentang gender dan seksualiti yang semakin menyempit. Secara lazimnya, lembaga sensor filem Malaysia mempunyai pendirian yang ketat terhadap penyiaran aksi lucah, termasuklah pasangan perempuan-lelaki bercumbuan.

Kerana sempitnya fahaman khalayak dan ahli-ahli yang mewakili majlis sensor film tentang apa maksudnya gender dan seksualiti, dan apa bezanya aksi seks dan identiti yang berdasarkan seksualiti, akronim LGBT disamakan dengan perbuatan seks semata-mata. Malah, LGBT sering dikaitkan dengan cara hidup ‘songsang’, aksi liwat, dan seks bebas. Paparan watak-watak dan personaliti LGBT di saluran media dan di industri filem tanahair seringkali adalah negatif, ini adalah kerana pembikinnya hampir tidak sama sekali gay, lesbian, atau transgender dan kurang memahami pengalaman komuniti yang ingin digambarkan.

Jika pendekatan kita tentang gender dan seksualiti beranjak dari perbuatan seks ke perkara yang difahami dan dialami oleh khalayak seperti percintaan, pernikahan, dan rumahtangga, ia memberi peluang kepada komuniti LGBT untuk bersuara tentang perkara-perkara yang dikongsi bersama masyarakat Malaysia yang bukan LGBT. Ramai yang akan setuju bahawa hubungan seks adalah perkara peribadi, tetapi apakah ramai yang sedar bahawa seksualiti sedikit sebanyak mempunyai implikasi di pentas awam; seksualiti berkait rapat dengan percintaan, dengan siapa kita berpegang tangan di tepi tasik, dengan perkahwinan, dan juga soal-soal rumahtangga.

Seksualiti dizahirkan melalui tarikan kita kepada lelaki atau perempuan, ia membuatkan kita jatuh cinta, dan ia juga sebahagian daripada identiti kita, sama ada kita menggelar diri heteroseksual, biseksual, atau homoseksual. Oleh yang demikian, seksualiti bukan perkara yang tertutup tetapi di’pentas’kan secara terbuka. Di sini saya kaitkan kembali peranan media dalam memaparkan kepelbagaian gender dan orientasi seksualiti dengan menegaskan bahawa media adalah seperti cermin masyarakat. Kerana itu, komuniti LGBT yang membentuk sebahagian daripada rakyat Malaysia dan turut menyumbang kepada pembangunan negara sudah tentu berhak direpresentasikan and bersuara di wahana awam.

Being gay in Malaysia: The myths and realities

In a class I was teaching recently about transgender identities in Indonesian films, I explained that Upi Avianto’s 2006 film Realita Cinta dan Rock n Roll broke the mould of many earlier Indonesian films depicting trans* people, as it featured a transwoman character who was a mother (played by action actor Barry Prima), who was affluent and had a non sex-related job, had hobbies (taekwnondo and salsa, among others), and a son who eventually accepts her. Realita Cinta could count as a wholesome ‘family film’ about trans acceptance. I asked my class then if whether a similar film for a PG audience about homosexuality was possible. Nearly every student answered no, saying that the world is ‘not yet ready’ for a PG-rated film about homosexuality.

Something that was perhaps unarticulated by my students was the fact that homosexuality was primarily about same-sex relations. And being about sex, it is very rarely PG-rated, though efforts have been done to make it more preschool-friendly. Whereas transgender people can assume perfectly heteronormative sexual configurations – i.e. a transwoman who identifies as female and a woman and who is straight will seek a heterosexual relationship with a male-identified person. In the heteronormative gender-binary world in which marriage is seen to be only between a woman and a man, the sexual preferences of straight trans* people seem less controversial than two women and two men loving (and indeed marrying) each other. But lest we forget that there are also lesbian and gay trans* people.

Judging by the moral panic surrounding homosexuality, it is male homosexuality that nearly always comes into focus (such is the androcentrism of public discourse in Malaysia) as a the object of public anxiety. More often than not, there will be discussions about the legality, safety, and hygienic unease about anal sex. Because gay sex is assumed to mean anal sex after all.

Never mind the fact that many straight couples have anal sex, and that not all gay men even like anal sex, the topic of homosexuality in Malaysia makes people talk about anal sex. The rather prurient public interest in gay people’s sex lives (and how they have sex) exposes several issues about the homophobic Malaysian public than the reality of gay men in Malaysia itself.

  • their refusal to have an open mind to listen and unguard their prejudices about same-sex relationships.
  • their straight privilege not to care about the discrimination and general difficulties lesbian and gay people face.
  • the dearth of gay-friendly and anti-homophobic Malaysian media.
  • our often infantile and self-censoring attitude towards topics of sexuality.

What of the realities of being gay in Malaysia? Is is as shadowy, counter-cultural, and utterly depraved as the Malay media claim them to be? In the last month, I’ve been in contact with two gay men, one Chinese Malaysian and one Malay, both now based in London, who have kindly shared a slice of their lives with me. I’ve asked them about their thoughts on the public obsession with anal sex when homosexuality is discussed in the media, and the difficulties, homophobia, and the self-imposed closet and denial of the self that they sometimes have to navigate. For Imran Jamil, the Malaysian obsession with anal sex and sodomy was heightened during the sacking of Mahathir’s former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim:

I think the Malay-language media has been reproducing and amplifying Mahathirist discourse on “homosexuality” ever since Anwar was sacked in 1998. Hence the obsession with “liwat”. I have very little memory of “liwat” obsession pre-1998, but then again that might have been because I was unaware of such things as a quiet teenager.

And Mahathir’s discourse did not come out of a vacuum — it was based on colonial stereotypes of “homosexuality” passing off as authentic “Asian values”. But discourse works in funny ways. As a gay man, I was so intimidated by the gay “scene” in KL (and overseas where I went to university) because of what I perceived to be a heightened need for gay men to be extremely sexualised, have multiple partners and yes, to have anal sex. It really made me feel quite afraid when I first stepped onto the “scene”.

It was only much, much later that I realised not all gay men (to my relief) wanted anal sex. I’m not knocking anal sex — it’s a legitimate form of consensual sexual pleasure for any combination of adults in my opinion. But I did feel a sense of inadequacy for not wanting it and making that known in “out” gay circles. Does this make it right that the Malaysian media obsesses about anal sex between men when they think of homoesxuality? In my opinion, no. But in my experience, it also made it hard for me to operate within the gay “scene” in Malaysia.

Also, I found it difficult to find a partner here in KL because I just wanted to go out on dates first. Where there was no expectation of sex on the first meeting. Where you could get to know someone first before deciding if you wanted to have a sexual or romantic relationship with them. Call me old-fashioned, hehe. And that’s exactly what I got eventually in London of all places. A romantic, sexual and monogamous (yes, I am someone who wants that, hehe) relationship that blossomed out of an initial friendship, where we did things like have breakfast, visit art galleries, watch plays, exchange books, take walks down the river etc. But where’s the space for two same-sex desiring people to explore this safely, without constantly looking over their shoulder, in Malaysia?

There were people in the past who were potential partners. But I think I blew it because of my own insecurities and inability to process what I wanted as a gay man. There was this sweet Malay guy who never uttered the word “gay” who wanted to be my partner, but I didn’t understand his advances because they were so culturally embedded. So I ended up not responding and nothing developed. So there were some pleasant near misses, yes, but within a context where, even though I was completely comfortable in my own skin being “gay”, I had no idea how to “express” that gayness in ways that made me feel safe, loved and whole.

One Chinese-Malaysian man, Tim, shares with me the emotional burden he carries with him whilst living in Malaysia, and that more welcoming attitudes were later found in his new home, London:

A gay’s life is miserable in Malaysia.

You can’t tell many of your friends and family about your private life. You have to keep all your emotion to yourself. You can’t freely share who you fancy.
Roughly 10 to 20% of total population is exclusively gay and it is tough to identify who is and who isn’t. Of course if were to include bisexuals, it could be more. (But bisexuals usually do not want to get into a gay relationship.) Unless you’re very open about your sexuality or you go to gay dating sites, it is almost impossible to find a partner. Living alone forever could be your destiny.

Being able to foresee a better future is an important element of keeping oneself happy. Although I’m single but I am always positive that I’ll find someone in this liberal city. But living in Malaysia doesn’t make me happy. I wasn’t positive that I’ll find my Mr Right at all – the outlook was gloomy. This caused me to have depression.

In London, even at my work place, people are not shy to disclose that they are gay. I just told my colleagues I’m gay in recent company Christmas party. Other gay colleagues are also not shy to tell me either.

People said ‘curiosity kills the cat’. I would say ‘curiosity kills the gays’. When you come out to someone, people in London will not ask you ‘since when you realised you’re gay?’, ‘are you sure you’re gay?’, ‘are you top or bottom?’, ‘ how do gays have sex?’.

In Malaysia, people see you as an alien and keep asking you very personal questions that you have to keep repeating. People are ignorant but they don’t read up and don’t do research when Wikipedia is just a click away.

When I told my friends and colleagues that I’m gay, they treat me like a normal person. Some people even offer to help me to find a partner once they know I’m gay.

What Malaysian people, who are disinclined to support same-sex relationships and marriage, will at least need to realise is that being lesbian and gay is more than just about sexual preferences, but about love, the choice to share their lives with a chosen partner who happens to be of the same sex. Unfortunately, for some people, even things like two women or two men holding hands is too much for them. Many couples who welcomed the recognition of same-sex marriages and civil partnerships in the US and the UK respectively were before then in long-term relationships, much longer than some straight couples.

There are several theories about homophobia that suggests that bigotry against the idea and sight of homosexual people is symptomatic of a homophobe’s insecurities about their own sexual identity. For homophobic men, it is mainly the fear of being seen as gay themselves, the irrational horrors of being sexually penetrated (presumably by another man), and the rejection of becoming ‘feminised’ through becoming subjected to that penetration. Homophobia is an irrational thing, overcome only by more knowledge, comfort with one’s own sexuality and gender identity, recognition of straight privilege, and rather simplistically, emphathy for people who different from themselves.