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.

Ada apa dengan bendera?

Disiarkan di Merdeka Review, tanggal 22 Desember 2011.

via Merdeka Review

Sejak usia remaja, saya pernah dinasihatkan oleh orang tua supaya jangan masuk campur dengan arena politik apabila dewasa kelak. Mengikut mereka, politik hanyalah “permainan kotor” yang menguntungkan politikus sahaja, lantas kepentingan rakyat sejagat jarang dipertimbangkan secara ikhlas. Setiap satu yang diberikan kepada rakyat diragut satu yang lain, contohnya masing-masing peluang melanjutkan pelajaran di institut pengajian tinggi awam dan kebebasan akademik.

Baru-baru ini kita dihidangi berita yang kian menjejaskan integriti kerajaan yang kononnya mahu mendaulatkan konsep demokrasi dan mempunyai keinginan untuk berjinak-jinak dengan prinsip kebebasan bersuara. Tindakan aktivis-aktivis mahasiswa dari Gerakan Menuntut Kebebasan Akademik (Bebas) menurunkan bendera yang melayangkan wajah Najib Razak selama lima minit sebagai simbol tidak-puas hati mereka terhadap keengganan kerajaan memansuhkan Akta Universiti Kolej dan Universiti (AUKU) yang menyekat kebebasan akademik dan berpolitik. Walaupun didepani dengan desakan aktivis-aktivis mahasiswa untuk memansuhkan AUKU yang semakin mengombak, kerajaan Najib Razak hanya mampu berdiam dan mendiamkan suara-suara protes.

Demokrasi siapa?

Menurut menteri pengajian tinggi Saifuddin Abdullah yang kononnya menyokong “kebebasan bersuara” dan konsep demokrasi, penurunan bendera UMNO bukan tindakan yang berdemokratik. Ada pula yang berpendapat mahasiswa-mahasiswa terlibat bersikap kurang matang, kurang ajar, dan tidak menghormati harta-benda kerajaan, seolah-olah memecah masuk rumah dan menyusun-semula perabot. Sasaran mahasiswa SMM – bendera yang bermukakan Najib Razak – secara tidak langsung menjadi objek yang suci. Ia bukannya bendera negara atau parti, tidak dibakar atau diinjak-injak. Namun yang demikian, penurunan bendera tersebut dilihat sebagai satu serangan terhadap ego seorang pemimpin yang pantang dicabar.

UMNO dan penganut-penganutnya tidak jauh berbeza daripada kerajaan tidak gentar menggunakan kekerasan – sama ada dalam bentuk fizikal mahupun retorikal – untuk menindas perjuangan hak-hak mahasiswa. Di United Kingdom sepanjang tahun ini, kerajaan David Cameron menggunakan kuasa polis untuk “mengawal” pergerakan mahasiswa yang berdemonstrasi kerana kenaikan yuran tahunan universiti yang melambung tinggi. Yang paling tragis pula, pembunuhan ratusan mahasiswa-mahasiswa yang berarak di Dataran Tiananmen secara aman mengutuk Parti Komunis China pada tahun 1989.

Ya, kerajaan Malaysia bukan satu-satunya kerajaan yang takut kepada kemarakan mahasiswa. Sejarah gerakan mahasiswa telah menunjukkan bahawa kuasa dan pengaruh mahasiswa boleh menggulingkan kepimpinan yang represif; regim Suharto berjaya digulingkan atas desakan mahasiswa Indonesia pada tahun 1998. Jika mahasiswa dan cendiakawan seperjuangan mampu mengguling kerajaan Suharto yang berkuasa selama 32 tahun – antara regim diktator yang paling lama di dunia – jelas menunjukkan bahawa mahasiswa Malaysia juga serba upaya.

Kerajaan Najib yang menidakkan hak mahasiswa untuk berpolitik menyelindungkan ketakutan mereka terhadap kuasa mahasiswa. Universiti bukan sekadar kilang mencetak sijil tetapi tempat orang muda menuntut ilmu berfikir secara berdikari. Kebanyakan mahasiswa yang mempunyai kesedaran politik pula bukan kuda mana-mana parti. Kerajaan dan orang awam harus sedar bahawa arena dan istilah politik itu sendiri sangat terhad dan sempit maksudnya. Politik bukan sekadar pertandingan populariti atau acara berlumba-lumba yang menjuarakan politikus yang dilantik – Tidak.

Hakikatnya, kuasa politik juga terletak di tangan pengundi, penyokong, dan pejuang agenda masing-masing yang sedikit sebanyak menentukan jaya dan gagalnya seorang politikus dan jatuhnya pengaruh kerajaan; dari sini kita kembali kepada asal-usul perkataan “demokrasi” dalam bahasa Yunani yang berasaskan “demos” yang bermaksud rakyat dan “kratos” bererti pemerintahan.

Sebagai mahasiswa yang bakal menapak ke alam universiti sebagai pensyarah dan penyelidik, kebebasan akademik bukan sahaja memberikan ruang dan peluang menyampaikan pendapat dan idea-idea yang berbeza dan kritis tentang keadaan politik semasa, tetapi juga menggalakkan mahasiswa untuk lebih bersuara tanpa ugutan dan kecaman. Negara Malaysia sudah terlalu lama dikekangi budaya paternalistik, iaitu budaya (dan juga polisi) yang menyekat kebebasan atas nama ketentaraman dan kebajikan rakyat. Budaya paternalisme inilah yang sebenarnya takut kepada konsep kebebasan bersuara dan demokrasi kerana ia melemahkan pengaruh seorang atas anggota-anggota rakyatnya. Di alam universiti di mana penghuninya diberikan peluang untuk bersuara dan berfikir secara berdikari, kematangan minda akan dipupuk secara semulajadi.

Saya dapati bahawa reaksi pihak-pihak tertentu yang mengutuk dan mengugut tindakan mahasiswa yang anti-kekerasan berbaur ironi; perasaan marah yang melulu juga timbul daripada budaya kita yang anti-intelektual yang kuat menolak peluang berdialog secara rasional dan aman. Budaya kita juga mengagungkan status yang tinggi, bermaksud status mahasiswa yang biasa dianggap rendah tarafnya sering diperlekehkan dan ditindas.

Oleh yang demikian, gerakan mahasiswa aktivis tidak akan mengakhiri protes mereka dengan penurunan simbolik bendera yang berwajah Najib Razak, tetapi akan terus memuncak sehingga pihak kerajaan menyerahkan diri kepada desakan-desakan mereka.

Why feminist blogging in Malaysia is important

One of the things I realised with great despair is that the vast majority of Malaysian feminists and supporters of gender equality are not interested in blogging and writing about their experiences within feminist and women’s rights movements in Malaysia, whether they’re coming from the inner sanctum of such movements or around its periphery. Why this is particularly despairing is because writing is a powerful medium to spread ideas, inspire, and document feminism in Malaysia, however too few Malaysians take to the art of blogging and do these things. The result is: too few will know and care about gender equality and feminist issues in Malaysia.

One of the most profound quotes that I keep close to me and remind myself with during the darkest hours of blogging is “If you cannot eliminate injustice, at least tell everybody about it” by the indomitable Shirin Ebadi. Out of the hundreds who trawl the pieces by the scant number of Malaysian feminists each month, one or two readers will learn something new and perhaps become inspired by feminist social justice.

If not some news about oppression occurring in a far-flung country or just around the corner from their home, readers and future writers will learn that some issues are worthy of articulation. There are so many issues and concerns that we as women and girls assume as trivial and inconsequential, but that’s because we have drummed into thinking that our opinions and voices do not matter, or at least secondary to opinions and voices of men. We are silenced on a daily basis by others who know they have authority to keep us silent; political, religious, and parental figures, our friends, and not seldomly, our own partners.

Blogging can be therapeutic. It keeps the busy, overworked mind to rest when words are neatly placed in a blog post. Once those words are put down on paper or on the glimmering computer screen, we attain a feeling of gratification for having produced an original piece of written work. What’s even more valuable, they are your words. They cannot be silenced nor easily erased.

There are two major challenges that Malaysian feminist blogging face that I can identify; one, our latent sexist, anti-intellectual culture that is often averse to reading “serious” writing due to our increasingly attenuated attention span. And two, the established feminist and women’s rights movement in Malaysia are perhaps “too cool” for feminist blogging done by those outside the tightly-knit activist circles seeing as they’re at the “nerve centre” of where feminism as legitimate activism lies. There is the other (more suspect) reason for the unpopularity of feminist blogging in Malaysia, and that is the claim of time constraints. Also, many of those who have a greater share of influence and control over NGOised feminist discourse are older cis-women who are not keen on harnessing the power of online social media to spread the good word of feminism to the nation.

The result of keeping feminism in Malaysia simply as “oral history” and inside knowledge is the cocooning of women’s rights from the interconnected feminist discourses in Southeast Asia and beyond that can be reached through the internet. Social media-savvy Singporean feminists are keen on learning about and spreading Malaysian feminist discourse, but too few of us Malaysian feminists do the same for Singporean feminism. Yes, I get that access to the internet is still a privilege for 10 to 15% of the world’s population, while the use of social media within these slim numbers may be far lower. But there is a real problem when a movement restricts the sharing of feminist knowledge to a small coterie of a select few. To be fair, not everyone has a flair for writing. But writing is not a gift one is born with, rather it is developed and sharpened through practice and careful observance of the writing style of other good writers.

It is important to note that the lack of interest in feminist blogging is not an isolated problem; it is reflective of centuries and decades of poorly documented histories of our own nation particularly written material about those within the margins of society are lost. We know little about the lives of ordinary trans and cis, disabled, and / or lesbian women in the early history of our land. They were either never documented or deliberately suppressed from public knowledge through the double bind of trivialising women’s history and our culture that is wholly suspicious of intellectual pursuit represented typically through the act of writing for writing’s sake.

Malaysians are quick to forget, goes the saying. That is because we have no sense of or much appreciation for history, or wanting to archive our experiences for posterity not just for others to learn from us but also for us to learn from our past selves. Feminist and women’s rights activism invest much time and energy in organising events and projects for the now, with little time and interest in exploring the issues their events and projects raise through critical lens and document them for younger and future activists’ benefit.

I urge Malaysians who are interested in feminism and gender equality to write about their thoughts, experiences, fears, and hopes and resist the self-punishing belief that our opinions do not matter or offend the perceived sensibilities of others. Record and document the injustices you face and know about through blogging and vlogging so that more people will know about them. In our culture against academic freedom, of book banning, and clampdown on freer speech and on citizen participation in nation-building, greater knowledge and its far-reaching influence strike fear in those who oppress by imposing ignorance on others.

‘Love’ mail I get

In this day and age, when you’re an academic it is always good to have information about your research interests published online. Who knows, you’ll get asked by the media to give your expert opinion on topics you know intimately about, prospective students become inspired by similar research and seek your consult, and then there’s the general and ever curious public who wonder what it’s like in the ivory tower and at times do things to topple you from that tower. A few days ago, I received a short email that contained many searching questions:

Dear Alicia,

I come across your profile on SOAS and I’d be interested to your views on Islam, gender and politics? Why do you think, as you mentioned, there is a gender inequality in Muslim society? Do you not think there is inequality in the UK society? How film is going to help in this?

Cheers,
MN

Very patiently and interestedly I answered:

Dear MN,

Thanks for your email and query. Gender inequality is a social problem that cannot be reduced as a problem with religion, and particularly not Islam. There are great many factors that contribute to gender inequality (which is rarely separated from other forms of social inequalities such as classism, racism, etc.) in Muslim societies – laws that are not enforced to protect the interests of women and girls, traditional gender roles which are enforced on women and male chauvinism that devalues women and femininity, war and conflict (women and girls tend to be the most vulnerable during these times, especially during the post-conflict period), and poverty. And as you can see, these factors are not unique to Muslim societies, but can and continues to occur in ‘Western’ societies (that also have Muslim communities).

Yes, there is a serious problem with inequality in UK society. Namely in terms of class, and it starts from the acts of classist injustice at the highest rungs of society and politics and seeps into other forms of inequalities. The Con-Dem government has exacerbated poverty levels by taking away public funding in places that need them most. If we’re talking about gender, class, ethnic, and immigration-related inequality rolled into one, take the example of funding cuts on ESOL classes for migrants to the UK. Most migrants who enter the UK with lower levels of education, lower employability status, and as adjuncts of better qualified migrants are female spouses and family members of male migrants. Inability to speak English will mean fewer work opportunities, lower self-esteem, and heightened racist panic.

About film, particularly fiction film; It doesn’t “help” in ending social inequalities in a direct way since films are things produced through a compromise of multiple factors (marketability, creative (and sometimes political) vision, and censorship constraints) but it holds up a kind of mirror reflecting the way society works. How we talk about gender (and our messages about gender inequality, whether implicit or not) comes to life on screen. I hope not to overstate this, but I believe that film is but a social barometer that gives us an understanding on how and what kind of images of women and men are being imagined, accepted, loved, and rejected. The more we see images of gender in a particular way (namely stereotypical images of women as sexual objects characterised by narrow standards of beauty, housewives who do the washing up and childcare, and mere adjuncts to important characters in film) the better we understand how women and men are expected to be seen in society. Hope this helps.

Best regards,
Alicia

Perhaps I hit a raw nerve somewhere with my carefully thought-out reply, because the reply I got from MN was terse, accusatory, and frankly ridiculous:

Dear Alicia,

Thanks for taking the time to reply to my email. I appreciate what you voiced in your email. But allow me to enquire further what is your responsibility when Muslim women are labelled as victim? And when France and Britain use familiar language towards Afghanis and Iranian women and yet humiliate them in public places? Would you voice against the current French regime’s decision to humiliate Muslim women who wears Hijab – daily? Or would you stop at “the ways film as ideology and social practice work toward maintaining and subverting domination and gender inequality in Muslim societies?” Will you merely focus on the Muslim societies and not domestic violence and issues women face in the UK? Should you not talk about the humiliation towards to the Palestinian women and girls in the name of the state Israel? And wouldn’t you care about the voiceless women and young females of Gypsy background in Europe and North America who are displaced by the states? And would you talk about and join protests against treatments towards women who cannot enter in the Westminster because of their gender? And finally, what is the meaning of your thesis title “”Construction of ‘new’ Muslim femininities and masculinities in post-New Order cinema “” and how would it help people?

ask all of these questions merely to mention the academic dishonest which only applies to some people and not to others. Because I care about humans and honest scholarships.

Sincerely,
MN

To which I replied:

Dear MN,

Thanks for your reply. I get similar things said to me by people like yourself. If I was a scientist in the biological sciences, you would be asking me, “What am I going to do about climate change?!!”. Or perhaps not, because anything in the sciences would be considered worthy for study.

For film and media studies, people are quicker to dismiss, discredit and invalidate our scholarship as petty, insignificant, fluff. That’s because people are quite ignorant, Malcolm. And I sincerely hope you’re not one of them.

You may be pleased to know that I’m also a feminist activist and probably know more about and have done more for Palestinian and Roma women than yourself, but I also happen to believe in scholarship for the sake of intellectual growth which cannot be quantified as easily as world peace. But does it matter to you that I’m a feminist activist in my neighborhood, because you’d be asking me to sort the injustices that occur on the other side of the world.

If you’re frustrated about gender inequality in France, Palestine, Iran, and wherever else, perhaps you should go out there yourself and do something about it rather than telling me that I should be focused on X, Y, and Z instead.

If I can offer one valuable advice for you that will answer your enquiries and future ones, it’s this: if you care so much, YOU do something about it. It’s not just a Muslim woman’s “responsibility” to care about Muslim women and the injustices we face around the world, but also for people like yourself to care by stop labeling us all as mere “victims” and speak up yourself against injustice rather than piling on the “responsibility” on others and blaming them for apparently doing nothing. Volunteer at a women’s crisis centre, stop expecting women to “fix” gender inequality on their own, stop telling Muslims to “get ourselves in order” and not checking your prejudices, read more about gender, feminist politics, and Islam, and educate yourself rather than taking an anti-intellectual stand. Hope this helps.

Best,
Alicia