I knew when I accepted a job offer in Malaysia last year that I’d be entering a much more conservative society than I was used to in the U.S. And I knew from my research that gay rights were at least a few decades behind most of the developed world here. So it didn’t come as a huge surprise last week when I heard about “Asmara Songsang” (Abnormal Desire) – a state-sponsored play touring in Kuala Lumpur, spreading the word about the evils of homosexuality.
The play depicts gays and lesbians as predatory deviants who recruit straight teenagers into their “club” and force them to forsake their religion and cut off contact with their families and friends. After 90 minutes of casual sex, loud parties, drug abuse and criminal vandalism, the play reaches a thrilling climax. Three of the main characters renounce the “homosexual lifestyle” and affirm their commitment to Islam. Everyone else is struck dead on the spot by lightning — their punishment for refusing to see the error of their ways. (For a full summary, check out this detailed review. It’s pretty upsetting.)
While the ugly stereotypes in the play are bad enough, the disturbing part is that the government is funding the play and giving out tickets for free. (A pretty obvious attempt to spread the message to as many people as possible.) It’s just one more offense in a long line of anti-gay initiatives by the conservative, predominantly Islamic government in recent years.
In 2011, Malaysia made headlines when the government set up a camp to “correct effeminate behavior” in schoolboys. Then the local equivalent of a gay pride celebration, Seksualiti Merdeka, was actually banned on grounds of “national security” concerns. And last year, the education ministry even released a helpful guide to identifying gay and lesbian “symptoms” among youth.
So there’s nothing terribly shocking here, as depressing as the news may be. But the thing is, for all the government propaganda, everyday life here isn’t nearly as repressive as you might think.
I’ve been working in Kuala Lumpur for nearly a year now, and if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about the people here, it’s that Malaysian society itself is actually very tolerant. While technically a majority Muslim nation, the truth is that it’s an incredibly diverse and multicultural society. Chinese New Year, Holi and even Christmas are celebrated with as much enthusiasm as major Muslim holidays like Eid. The celebration of other cultures and belief systems is quite literally a way of life here.
While Malaysia is a conservative nation, most people here seem content to live and let live. That’s especially true in the capital of Kuala Lumpur, which is home to a number of gay clubs and LGBT rights organizations. While it’s not socially acceptable for queer couples to show public affection in the streets, the truth is that most people here just don’t care what’s happening in other people’s bedrooms. Sodomy laws are still technically on the books, but are mostly enforced in extraordinary (and politically charged) circumstances.
The bottom line: Kuala Lumpur is far from one of the worst places in the world to be queer. I know several gay expats from countries with much more repressive attitudes towards homosexuality…and though Malaysia may seem a little stifling to me as an American, it’s actually a step up for them. Even if they’re not accepted and embraced by Malaysian society, no one cares that much one way or the other.
Although it’s still an uphill battle, the tide of public opinion in Malaysia does actually seem to be shifting. In my time here I have met many very progressive Muslims who disagree with the government’s approach to homosexuality. When the guide to identifying gays and lesbians came out last year, a number of local businesses responded by publicly expressing their support for the queer community. (My own employer even encouraged the queer employees to organize a pride party, which was a fantastic success!)
In the end, it’s that very progress which is making the government so afraid. Religious fundamentalists are fighting back harder than ever precisely because they’re afraid of losing popular support. In many ways, Malaysia is struggling to become a modern economic power, and that will eventually require the country to move out of the dark ages when it comes to gay rights. It’s possible that things will get worse for the Malaysian LGBT community before they get better…but on the whole, I have no doubt that attitudes toward homosexuality will continue to improve with time.
Photo credit: scene from Asmara Songsang courtesy of Kakiseni Blog