On the viability of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ as categories in Malaysia

The first thing that would be useful when thinking about genders and sexualities in Malaysia is that the categories of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are far from native and natural in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia. What is meant by ‘native’ and ‘natural’ refers to the fact that gender and sexuality are relatively recent loanwords. And as loanwords, they have a history and serve particular functions. Does the fact that ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are loanwords from the English language and emerge from a Western medical, sociological and philosophical tradition mean that their meaning in the Malaysian context is foreign and out of place?

When ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ and their different linguistic incarnations reflective of the country’s multilingual fabric appear at all, they are sporadic, infrequent, and usually enmeshed in the discourse of academia, feminism, and human rights. ‘Gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are words and currency of those privileged by education and class background. Having rigorous knowledge and interest in gender and queer theory is often the preserve of liberal, queer, activist and/or intellectuals. So there is a spectrum rather than a discrete know/don’t know in the level of knowledge and use of the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia.

The entry of new terms into a language and the development of those terms are governed by multiple factors beyond the will of one individual. Although the viability of terms in a language will require the consensus of collective acceptance and use, the fate of the terms’s cultural connotations are harder to predict. We can have the words ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in public usage, but how would people react to these terms? What are the assumptions, misconceptions, prejudices, and the kind of curiosities these words invite? But above all, why does an interrogation into the genealogies of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia matter at all? The answer to these questions has huge political implications with regard to the state of queer and feminist activism in Malaysia. Because language matters.

The banning of the LGBT rights festival, Seksualiti Merdeka, in 2011 precipitated the circulation of false descriptions and connotations of the festival in the Malaysian media as a ‘free sex’ event. With ‘merdeka’ to mean ‘independence’ or ‘liberation’ but with ‘seksualiti’ not gaining much linguistic traction in Malay, the very name of the festival became subject to misunderstanding. However, machinations leading to such a misunderstanding was far from innocent.

News reports and opinion editorials about transgender, gay, and lesbian individuals in Malaysia in the local mainstream media activate and reproduce transphobic and homophobic sentiments in a moralising tenor. Outside the manipulation of emotive issues and moral panics that serve partisan politics lies a broken linguistic and cultural landscape that seems, at first sight, inhospitable to the development of a local gender and sexuality discourse.

First and foremost, let us consider the westernness of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’. In the present situation, the words ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are already in usage and in circulation in Malaysia. There’s not much we can do about that. Of course words do become obsolete and ‘die out’, but I’m not convinced that the terms used in one of the most influential discourses in recent times will become obsolete anytime soon. In opposition to Francis Fukuyama’s eurocentric assertions of the ‘end of history’, our history of gender and sexuality in Malaysia is only beginning to be told.

In their current usage, we have to pick up and analyse the perceived and ‘real’ cultural connotations of the terms, i.e. as concepts, they are ‘western’. Of course this accusation is true, as concepts ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ emerge out of western philosophy (which was once upon a time, an amalgamation of medicine, politics, mathematics, among other pre-specialised disciplines).

Even the discourse of biological sex did not begin with the oppositional or complimentary notion of sexual dichotomy. In Greek philosophy (and throughout much of western thought), women were considered lesser men or simply ‘incomplete’ as people. For instance, morphologically, the naming of women’s sexual anatomy (vagina, or the invagination of the women’s ‘penis’) was once part and parcel of the discourse that justified women’s inferiority. It would take hundreds of years for feminist theory to pick up on misogynist philosophical texts of a bygone era to develop what we can recognise today as gender theory. There are certainly differences in female and male anatomy, but the way they are talked about have changed during the course of history.

But what of the idea of ‘concepts’ themselves? The methods in the development of an idea are perhaps western in origin, too. Concepts are frameworks for systematic thinking and analysis. They are the vessels in which discourse reside, but they are permeable to other elements – the cultural and historical. Take for instance the differences we see in women and men; how people talk about women and men, and why they dress the way they do. In systematic thinking and analysis, what groups women and men together in how we describe them is gender. How we systematically think and analyse the erotics and legal history of desire is conveniently described through the concept of ‘sexuality’.

Remember, the term ‘gender’ or ‘sexuality’ had not come into popular existence until the last century. This means that gender is a cultural and historical construction as much as it a social construct. Gender is also an analytical construction in that we now have a framework to understand how femininity and masculinity exist as ‘effects’ of political and religious culture. More recently, people have begun to talk about how even sexuality is constructed. The idea and discourses pertaining to homosexuality had only come into existence in the late nineteenth century. Before, what is considered same-sex practices did not have a name. Now, not only does the term ‘homosexuality’ exist, but so does the identity and personhood of the ‘homosexual’.

Accused as more western than ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are perhaps ‘homosexuality’, gay, and lesbian identities. Again, the westernness of gay and lesbian identities cannot be disputed as the origins of the discourse of homosexuality did emerge from the medical annals of European doctors and the reclamation of the discourse by gay communities did take place in the west. More belatedly, heterosexuality is now understood as a construct.

To ignore for a moment those who are still obsessed with the Kipling-esque binaries of east and west, globalisation is now the order of the day and changed how we think about world geopolitics. Globalisation of media and the internet assisted in the travel of ideas and concepts. Among them are the concept and connotations of gay and lesbian identities that were adopted by communities in their quest for belonging, identification, and legitimacy. Those with access to knowledge about gay and lesbian culture are those with class and educational privilege. The greater the privilege, the more savvy one becomes with the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’.

In a way, Malaysian public discourse picks up the terms gender and sexuality halfway in the narrative history of gender and queer theory, when the discourses regarding the two have developed in highly sophisticated ways in the west. By comparison, our own versions of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ remain remotely peripheral to the ways gender and sexuality are discussed in the west and neighboring Southeast Asian countries. As discourses, our ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are non-existent. Only until we develop our own discursive ‘centre’ of gender and sexuality can we begin to talk about decentering western ones.

Currently, we rely on the anthropological data of mainly western academics to piece together a puzzle that is the history of gender and sexuality in Malaysia. But will using the frameworks of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ to look into the past when such ideas may have been non-existent risks being anachronistic? A reflexive historian never forgets that we can only look through the prism of the present and construct a historical narrative using the modern conveniences of theories that help us ‘see’ gender and sexuality of the past.

Thanks to the accommodating nature of the Malay language in its absorption of foreign words, we have the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in the national Malay language dictionary. But surely this is not enough. Behind the definitions of terms lies a lack of depth. We are beset by a number of factors exacerbating the isolation and negative connotations of the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia. First, they are not used enough in the mass media and everyday parlance. Second, there is not enough interest in the studying of gender and sexuality. Third, our academic culture is stifled by rigid institutional barriers against ‘controversial’ and ‘liberal’ topics like gender and sexuality.

As concepts or theories, ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ needn’t be western if we can develop our own concepts and theories for even the notion of concepts and theories can be de-westernised. And with the critical mass of talk, writing, and visualising to develop a local discourse, the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ can be reclaimed from the clutches of negative connotations to become viable, positive, and culturally robust. In the mass of inconsequential commentary, there are gems to be had. During the age of globalisation where nation and local cultures are safeguarded from the ‘outside’, locality and indigenous concepts have greater legitimacy to withstand critique from within.

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