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.

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