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Homophobia – Will Malaysians Take It More Seriously?


By Arief Irsyad

14 May 2015

In a room full of people, there are those afraid of reality, afraid of themselves. Behind their pretty smiles lies deeper secrets. Secrets of being ashamed to let society know for fear of potentially destroying their reality – for being…different.

Why so? Because in that same room are those who are superficial and connected to a certain social circle that they tend to judge and discriminate ‘the different’ – whether lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). They, are the homophobic.

It’s hard to ignore how the hate crimes around the world against the LGBT community have escalated. Based on a research last year by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project which polled about 1000 people in each of 40 countries and asked them, “Do you personally believe that homosexuality is morally acceptable, morally unacceptable, or is it not a moral issue?”, a top ten list of the most anti-gay, or homophobic countries in the world was created.

Ghana comes in at number one with 98 percent saying it is “morally unacceptable”. And guess what? Malaysia came in at the eighth spot on the top ten list along with other countries like Jordan, Egypt, Palestinian territory, Uganda, Indonesia, Tunisia, Kenya and Pakistan.

IDAHOT- The Global Voice of LGBT?

In the light of these discriminations and ill views toward the LGBT community, Fondation Émergence came up with the ‘International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT)’ to raise awareness and coordinate international events of LGBT rights.

Coordinating grass-roots actions in different countries, promoting the day and lobbying for official recognition, May 17 (which is this Sunday) was the officially chosen date for the annual cause since 2004.

The goals of IDAHOT include promoting growth of harmonious relationships among people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, putting an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in keeping with the charters of rights and freedoms, and setting up a consultation process among its partners.

Last week, the Trans Murder Monitoring IDAHOT 2015 update revealed a total of 1,731 cases of reported killings of trans and gender-diverse people between 2008 and 2014. LGBT activists have raised the rainbow flag, a symbol commonly used in LGBT social movements to demonstrate that the fight for equality is a global issue.

IDAHOT celebrations are widely celebrated in Europe and Latin America, where it is commemorated with public events in almost all countries. Like in Nottinghamshire, UK, over 100 rainbow flags are expected to be flying over the region this Sunday. While the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in addition to the support which the country provides through its Embassies to many IDAHOT activities around the world, will also carry the soaring flag. In Spain, workshops at elementary and secondary schools, photo contests, films screening and the launch of a smartphone app will be part of the celebrations held across the country.

The IDAHOT has evolved over the years with a growing community and in many other countries, including those closer to home like Thailand and Philippines, who have already started prepping up for the day, creating awareness as early as last weekend.

Malaysia and the LGBT Community

By just looking at the global rankings, it is a clear cut that Malaysia has no room for LGBT rights or religious freedom. Same-sex relations in our country is also a crime punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

This was also echoed by Islamist group, Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) that ignored the proposals put forth by a local human rights activist coalition and condemned the showing of support towards the LGBT community.

Last year, its ulama council chairman Associate Professor Dr Aznan Hasan said in an article published on its website, the LGBT community needs to be fought and punished even though it was true that Islam did not discriminate people based on gender, he said, the religion, never recognised the LGBT as a sexual orientation that was acceptable.

“Accepting them who are LGBT and not taking any action against them will be like recognising their wayward sexual wishes and wants,” he said.

These lashings were actually against the words of National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) Law and Policy working committee chairman Datuk Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa, who had said that a person could not be discriminated because of his sexual orientation.

Mujahid and his committee had also drafted three new bills – the Racial and Religious Hate Crimes Bill, the National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill and the National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission Bill, which protects the rights of sexual minorities. In support, human rights activists have called on his council to stand firm against the Muslim groups and politicians.

“This has nothing to do with endorsing the LGBT community. The clause simply says one cannot be discriminated because of one’s sexual orientation. This does not mean recognition. If someone is gay and is fired from his job because of that, then it is not right. That is what we are looking at,” Mujahid fought.

In March last year, the Pink Dot Penang 2014 event that was supposedly a support platform for LGBT was also cancelled due to pressure from Muslim groups apart from Isma, such as the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (Abim) and the Malay rights group Penang Perkasa.

“We will not condone LGBT lifestyle so we will not allow such events to be organised in Penang or even in any part of Malaysia,” Balik Pulau Perkasa information chief Mat Pazli Ismail spoke about the cancellation.

But pointing to Article 10 of the Federal Constitution that guarantees the freedom of expression, assembly and association, doesn’t everyone have the right, individually and in association with others, to discuss new human rights principles, as it could be a platform for those who need help too?

Looking back in retrospect, in early 2013, Deputy Education Minister Datuk Dr Puad Zarkashi described LGBT as an "illness" that can be treated following by at least 21 seminars allegedly held of which the purpose is to curb LGBT “behaviour”.

Other suggestions that followed were by the Director of Jabatan Hal Ehwal Khas (Jasa), Datuk Fuad Hassan who also suggested that theatre would be one of the best approaches to curb LGBT.

But can this “illness” really be cured with stage play? The bigger questions is, “Do we really want to encourage someone to continue hiding behind a character on stage?” Were these statements made even fair? Perhaps so, as there are no laws that regard otherwise, especially in the homophobic world.

Aiyoh, Enough Already Lah!

Initiated by the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG), comprising of ten women’s rights group, in 2012, the ‘Aiyoh Wat Lah!’ awards ceremony was held. The annual event now also serves as a public education tool, used to raise awareness about the existence of misogyny, sexism, homophobia and transphobia in Malaysia.

This year, the awards ceremony which demands accountability from our public figures and institutions was held last Sunday, on May 10 in Ipoh. Basically, the JAG committee sought media reports from 2014, and has handpicked the very ‘best’ statements and actions vying for a ‘win’ in categories that highlight discrimination against women in politics, sexist and misogynistic state or federal policies, and other issues faced in the country.

Categories in the awards list this year are named, ‘Foot in Mouth’,’ Insulting Intelligence’, ‘Policy Fail’, ‘Cannot Ignore’, ‘Least Helpful to the Sisterhood’ and ‘Enough Already!’. And the awards still acknowledge a glimmer of hope with the category, ‘Right on Track’ for public statements or actions that are right on track, a step forward in gender justice, which is always welcomed by JAG.

When contacted by Malaysian Digest, Kristine Yap of Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), organiser of the award speaks of the joint collaboration to raise awareness and particularly about categories directed to the LGBT community.

“JAG is a coalition of ten women’s right non-governmental organisations (NGOs) − All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), Association of Women Lawyers (AWL), Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER), Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor (PSWS), Perak Women for Women Society (PWW), Sabah Women’s Action Resource Group (SAWO), Sisters in Islam (SIS), Tenaganita, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and Women’s Centre for Change, Penang (WCC).

“Each of these organisations work in different areas. For example, WAO works in advocating for and providing services for domestic violence survivors. However, we are also aware and advocate other areas of gender equality.

“Aiyoh Wat Lah! came about in the NGOs wanting to raise awareness in creative ways to engage the public about what constitutes of not just sexism but also misogyny, homophobia and transphobia.

“We compile all statements and actions that are covered in the media, shortlist them and the public can vote and give their opinions,” she shares.

In the 2014 awards, particularly its ‘Enough Already!’ category, nominees included the warning statement by Datuk Dr Puad Zarkashi which likened LGBT to be some kind of plague, “Just like drugs, a lack of awareness will cause LGBT to spread.”

This year, Kristine tells us the winner for the ‘Enough Already!’ category is the discrimination against women in politics. However, among the nominees for the category did include repeated statements and actions implying that being LGBT is unnatural, implying that being LGBT is against Islam, and acts and discrimination and even violence against the LGBT community in Malaysia.

She also expressed how, “The continued ill treatment of the LGBT community in this country is reprehensible.” And touching on the subject of trans people in the country, she feels that, “Malaysia’s federal constitution enshrines the fundamental right of all persons, including trans people, to non-discrimination on the ground of gender. Whether physical, verbal or emotional, the abuse that the trans-community has faced is unacceptable and inexcusable.”

Do We Need More Awareness Against Homophobia?

While efforts like the awards mentioned above are ongoing annually and managed to draw 1,300 voters for this year, there remains a grey area of what is deemed viable to host when it comes to the LGBT community fighting for their rights in the country to cast away the darkness of homophobia amongst the society.

Asking the views of Malaysians in the LGBT community if they were happy leading life as it is, or would they prefer to have more support groups help raise awareness against homophobia. Here’s what they had to say.

“Sometimes it’s tough being gay in Malaysia. I feel like I have to hide my true identity all the time, stay closeted, except when I’m with my friends who accept me for who I am,” claims Adam, a successful gay man working in Kuala Lumpur.

He confesses, “My lifestyle is no different than any other person, except when it comes to love. I’ve dated a few guys before and the feeling is totally different from when I tried dating girls previously.”

In raising awareness over the rights of the LGBT community, “I think it is a good thing because I am sick and tired of people treating homosexuals and trans people like they are some kind of disease, and thinking that there is a cure for it,” he shared.

“I think it’s time for people to stop being homophobic because there is nothing to be afraid of. Rather than shunning and treating us like we are ‘sick’, people should at least try to understand and guide us,” concluded Adam who feels that there might just be a way out with enough understanding and support.

Meanwhile, Lisa, a 26-year-old beautician spoke to us of how society is quick to shun anyone in the LGBT community.

“I don’t really like to label myself a ‘lesbian’ because I think it only creates more tension amongst society, as it is already bad enough. As for my lifestyle, there is nothing different or odd about it. I’m just living my life like everyone else.

“I don’t understand why people would be afraid of homosexuals. Instead of being afraid and shunning us away because you do not understand us, perhaps society should make an effort to understand us.

“Efforts like the IDAHOT is a good start to create awareness to combat homophobia, and I feel like it’s something people in our country really need. More awareness, less homophobia,” she stressed.

We Can Live In Harmony, We Can Be Like the Moon

Kristine says in 'No Need For A Women’s Movement? Aiyoh 2014 Nominees Will Prove You Wrong, Letter To The Editor': "sure, not everyone agrees on the idea of diverse sexual orientations and identifications...At the end of the day, LGBT individuals are human beings who have all the right to be treated as equals and in compliance to universal human rights standards too."

Who’s to say whether we are changing into a more LGBT friendly country in the future? But it certainly looks like we are still very far behind in this present time, and perhaps, efforts like the celebration of IDAHOT would not allow bigotry get the better of us. Plus, any form of awareness in the country is good to help the people who feel like they are mistreated in society for being ‘different’.

After all, all it takes is just compassion and a glimpse of human decency to live in harmony and understand each other.

To end my piece, let me share this beautifully written excerpt about how we should be more like ‘the moon’, written by Henry Rollins in his piece ‘Solipsist’:

“The moon will never lie to anyone. Be like the moon. No one hates the moon or wants to kill it. The moon does not take antidepressants and never gets sent to prison. The moon never shot a guy in the face and ran away. The moon has been around a long time and has never tried to rip anyone off. The moon does not care who you want to touch or what colour you are. The moon treats everyone the same. The moon never tries to get in on the guest list or use your name to impress others. Be like the moon. When others insult or belittle in an attempt to elevate themselves, the moon sits passively and watches, never lowering itself to anything that weak. The moon is beautiful and bright. It needs no makeup to look beautiful. The moon never shoves clouds out of its way so it can be seen. The moon needs not fame or money to be powerful. The moon never asks you to go to war to defend it. Be like the moon.”