3 true Malaysian stories, 5 appeals, and a singular hope for a better tomorrow.
True Malaysian Story No 1: When she turned 13, Alia’s father kicked her out of the house for dressing like a girl. As a child, Alia knew she was a girl, so she couldn’t understand why her father kept scolding and beating her up for it – “You’re a boy, act like a boy!” Alia went and stayed with another transsexual.
They faced constant harassment from police and religious officers and counted themselves lucky when the worst they got was just extortion (some of her friends weren’t so lucky).
Since nobody would give her a job, she was hungry all the time and had to sell her body to survive. When she was 17, she found out she was infected with HIV. She started working for a HIV organisation and saved enough to have a sex reassignment surgery. She also took up a part-time course and received her diploma in draftsmanship.
Alia went back to her kampung to show to her father that she had made something of herself. When she reached her kampung, she found out her father had passed away. She never got the chance.
True Malaysian Story No 2: On the day he was to go back to UK to continue his studies, Chris’s parents asked him, “Son, are you gay?” He told them the truth. That afternoon itself, they kicked him out of the home and cut off his allowance and funding. He couldn’t continue his studies. A month later, however, still not quite settled, Chris received a call from his mom. Let’s reconcile, she said, come back and we’ll talk.
When he got home, his parents had called the cops, who took him to a police station and then to a hospital where his father asked the psychiatric unit to cure his son of homosexuality. But homosexuality is no longer regarded as a mental illness by the psychiatric profession worldwide. Two days later, Chris was discharged, but not before he had to pay the hospital fees with money borrowed from friends.
We like to lament that this country will become too liberal and permissive if we allow homosexuality and transsexualism. We believe that these ‘vices’ are tearing up families and societies. But see for yourselves, my friends, just who is tearing up who.
How many children do we want to kick out into the streets before we feel safe? What kind of a country is this where we consistently subject the most vulnerable segments of our population to more violence and discrimination? We have hatred in the streets, in the parliament, and in the homes. Have we gotten so used to hatred that we need to punish love now?
During a speech at The Annexe Gallery in Kuala Lumpur last year, Marina Mahathir questioned the logic behind the popular assertion that homosexuality causes societal collapse.
She said that if families accepted their children for who they are, there won’t be any breaking up of families. They go on being a family. And since families make up the fundamental units of society, if society consists of loving healthy families, how will it collapse?
If we promote healthy, responsible, respectful relationships, regardless of choice of partners, then we are likely to get healthy, responsible, respectful society.
Appeal No 1: Perhaps families need learn to manage our expectations for our children’s future more realistically and stop imposing our dreams over their dreams, stop being so violent to their hopes. But wait, people would say, we weren’t encouraging violence and hate!
Yet by advocating the idea that homosexuals are somehow “morally disordered” as the Catholic preacher said in his response to Rev Ouyang Weng Feng, we are condoning the prejudice, the disgust, the hatred. How else should people react to those who are ‘morally disordered’?
Even people who sit on their armchairs and surmise, “Oh, I don’t mind homosexuals, but I don’t approve of their lifestyle” are encouraged to assume that their approvals are highly sought after for someone else’s life.
Disapproval snowballs into disgust, disgust avalanches into violence, until somewhere, a family throws its innocent child into the streets to fend for himself, a bunch of guys rape a lesbian to ‘correct’ her, some officers beat up a mak nyah till she lays lifeless in the drain, her life not even worth two paragraphs in the news the next day.
And we say no, we didn’t beat her up, we didn’t condone that violence. Yet our words did that long ago. Words like “sick”, “immoral”, “pervert.” Words we uttered yesterday become sticks and stones in somebody else’s hands tomorrow. The child, the lesbian, the mak nyah were all defenceless against them. So go ahead, tell them you are doing this to them to ‘protect’ traditional family values. It is easy to debate about homosexuality when it doesn’t affect you.
On Malaysiakini recently, folks happily weighed in with opinions, facts, scriptures and outright condemnation, citing everything from theology to biology to the suggestion that people are justified in beating up gays. So macho, kan? Have we forgotten we are talking about real people here? That out there, tragedies are being enacted in the name of “religion”, “national security”, ‘Asian values’ and what have you.
Appeal No 2: Have we taken the time to really understand and listen to the other side? It is easy to condemn others, it is easy to accept a conclusion first and then find justifications later. How prepared are we to accept that not only were we grievously wrong but that our actions have resulted in so much pain and suffering?
True Malaysian Story No 3: For 12 years of my life, I stopped myself from falling in love with men. From the age of 14 till I was 26, I tried to go straight. I took an active part in church, I lead fellowships, I wrote church musicals. I prayed and fasted and went for church camps. I sang the loudest during worship – I was so annoying! – and desperate for God to hear me! Nothing worked.
Now, all of us recall bouts of depression during our teenage years. For LGBTs, (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgenders) our teen years appear like one long nightmarish bout from which we never wake. Statistically, we are six times more likely to kill ourselves than our straight peers.
Trust me, it is that bad, and then some. Most gays realise we are attracted to the same sex even before puberty and in our teens, we soon discover we are unlike our peers. We are also told we are “freaks”, “criminals”, “monsters”, “sinners”, “abominations” and deserve to be punished, rejected and beaten up.
We are confused – we didn’t choose to feel this way, and we certainly don’t want to be so freakish, but the feelings won’t go away. We believe something might be fundamentally wrong with us. Frightened of being an outcast, we conform to social demands. We learn to hide our sexuality, resigned to a life pretending to be what we are not.
Before we know it, we are adults and it gets a little harder to stop the act. The game gets more complex, the web of deception so elaborate we cannot risk breaking one thread without compromising everything we have worked for.
We marry, we have kids, we get promoted, we take on a same-sex lover on the side, maybe find a quick relief with anonymous encounters, a masseur, an escort. Our lives choreographed between two realities, one in which we please everyone else, and one in which we please our inner heart. And we pray that these worlds never collide.
But one day, we get careless and we are found out. Secrets, lies, guilt, shame. The picture is ugly. It is a morally unjustifiable scenario, and this is largely the perception of homosexuality for the rest of the world.
A dirty, shameful affair. Nobody thinks back to how as children, we were first taught that in order to survive, it is better to pretend.
Appeal No 3: Imagine what it is like. Imagine children or teenagers growing up with such profound loneliness, confusion, fear, guilt, self-hatred. Imagine living everyday of our lives being afraid we will lose our jobs, our friends, our families, our homes, our very lives, should someone find out who we really are. Imagine the cruelty of being forced to live this way.
Then there are those who would rather not pretend. They try for a cure. At one point, I joined a Christian support group that promised to help gay men “recover” from homosexuality.
A few of the men in the group have now married to women and have children. But they also told me they never completely got rid of their attraction to men. They just learned to just suppress it, as they now have a family to think of. For most of us, the desires don’t go away. I don’t wish to end up like them.
After 12 years of long lonely nights, I asked myself: What is wrong with a man loving another man? Nobody could give me a satisfactory answer. Is it unnatural? So are nylon, plastic surgery and antibiotics but there are no laws against them. Is it uncommon? So is being albino, but they receive equal rights. Is it sinful? So is living a lie, being a hypocrite. So I decided for myself that 12 years of misery is enough.
I will not marry a woman and pretend to love her and shut up my heart. I will not sacrifice the rest of my life because others are unable to accept my choice for happiness. If your happiness depends on my unhappiness, then I will no longer trust your judgment. I will not live my life according to what someone else thinks is a sin for him.
Appeal No 4: If my relationship doesn’t hurt anyone, doesn’t take advantage of anyone, doesn’t deprive someone else of his or her rights, why does everyone want to take it away from me? If my loving someone doesn’t prevent you from loving who you love, then please let me love. Nobody is forcing you to be gay, so don’t be forcing me to be straight.
Appeal No 5: So stop blaming LGBTs for breaking up families with our “selfish choices.” What choice? Nobody chooses a life of stigma and discrimination! And what are we breaking up apart from our parents’ equally selfish expectations?
Parents of previous generations used to expect children to take on certain approved career choices, marry spouses of certain ethnicity, give birth to children of certain sex. Our parents have defied some of these expectations themselves. Have they forgotten what it was like? Is it not enough for children to be happy, independent and productive?
The truth is, if we are willing to understand more, the information is at our fingertips – just Google: biological and psychological causes, nature and nurture, genetics and epigenetics, interpretations and translations of religious texts.
Many old pop theories have also been debunked: homosexuals are products of domineering mothers and absentee fathers (nope, so many families are like that and most turn out heterosexuals), homosexuality is psychologically unsound (nope, but a lifetime of lying and hiding may result in neuroses), homosexual practices lead to more diseases (nope, no more than heterosexual practices).
Also new insights into historical times have uncovered how the politics of the era produced the early homophobic legislation and Biblical translations we are left with today. Many of these arguments are rational and should appeal to anyone calm enough to see empirical evidences and researched for what they are.
Yet, there is much resistance to these evidences. So maybe some of our reasons are not rational ones but emotional ones. All of us feel we have something at stake. The homosexuals have our lives at the mercy of the majority, and those against homosexuality believe that our families, religion, society, even the future of humankind, are under threat.
Abstract fears sound really scary, they begin in the imagination and end in apocalypse. Those who claim there is a ‘gay agenda’ insist that it is out to seduce vulnerable children and destroy families. However, studies have shown that many children come to their own realisation of their sexuality, and that majority of child molesters are heterosexuals.
Mind you, if you ask around, most gay men’s agenda is to be left alone. As homosexuality affects only a small percentage of the population, treating homosexuals as humans will not suddenly cause people to turn homosexual. That is not even a logical premise.
Naturally, since many of us begin with an emotional premise, it will be hard to be persuaded by any argument if our emotions are not addressed first. Most of our emotions regarding this are a result of a lack of knowledge on the issue which had been used to magnify our fears. But most of the fears are completely unfounded.
So, it is time to move on, accept and learn. Perhaps the media is partly to blame with its tendency to sensationalise. The recent AFP report entitled Gay community begins to push the limits may give the impression that gays are out on the offensive – testing the limits of decency, or as a Malaysiakini letter said, ‘imposing their lifestyles on others’.
Imposing my what? Irony check: For centuries, the state has imposed its lifestyles upon us and now when we resist just a little, we are the ones imposing our lifestyles? If anything, it is society that has pushed its limits into us; we are merely trying to claim back our own lives, a chance to live and love like everyone else.
A few years ago, a minister, commenting on homosexual rights, said that individuals should respect society’s rights to peace of mind. How is that equitable? How can you pitch society against one person? For society’s peace of mind, some innocent people should go to jail, be insulted daily, be beaten up or live their lives forever in fear of all the above?
Here are some suggestions for better things to lose one’s peace of mind to: corruption, racism, chauvinism, increased crime rate, the bursting economic bubble.
To those who believe that homosexuality will cause the collapse of society, let me assure you that it is all these other things we are neglecting while we busy ourselves with other people’s private lives that will bring about our ruin.
Honestly, gays are not your problem. For once, I wish straight people will just take ownership of the way they had screwed up society with their machismo and insecurities and stop blaming gays for it. Then together we can work to repair the problems.
The AFP report also claimed there is such a thing as a ‘gay movement’ in Malaysia. As far as I know, there isn’t one. Malaysian gays are too busy getting by with what little rights they have. For the last three years, what we have had is just a coalition of sexual rights activists, comprising of organisations like Suaram, the PT Foundation, Malaysian Bar Council, Kryss, Empower, as well as many concerned individuals, straight and LGBT.
As many of us don’t even know our own rights, our concern for now is simply to remind ourselves that we have these rights as Malaysians. Especially the right for each person to be responsible for his or her own body.
We just want to empower the community, appeal for understanding, help families come together, create safe spaces, nurse our wounds, sing some songs, hope for a better tomorrow.
We also organise an annual sexuality rights festival called Seksualiti Merdeka where we uphold sexuality rights as part of human rights.
For Malaysians who think that human rights are not Malaysian values, let me break it down for you: the practise of human rights means you cannot practise it while taking away somebody else’s rights, and vice versa. It is a fair deal, no? Unless we are saying being unfair and taking away rights are Malaysian values. No? I hope so.
Yasmin Ahmad once recalled Tagore saying that a strong civilisation is judged by the compassion it shows to its weakest. I believe Malaysia can still be that kind of a country, if we all want it to be.
LB: Pang Khee Teik is the Arts Programme Director for The Annexe Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, where he co-founded the sexuality rights festival Seksualiti Merdeka and the monthly film screening “Queer As Films” to empower the queer community of Malaysia. In 2009, he was co-editor (with Jerome Kugan) of “Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology”, published by Matahari Books. Pang is the former editor of Kakiseni.com, and has been an actor, writer and photographer. In 2010, Pang received the Cross Cultural Champion Of The Arts Award at the Boh Cameronian Arts Awards.
This article first appeared in Malaysiakini. In addition to joining the discussion in our comments section below, do also view the comments generated on Malaysiakini.