Interviewed by Ong Jo-Lene
Very much like in-the-heat-of-the-moment sex and an accidental pregnancy, Angela Kuga Thas is an accidental sexuality rights activist and feminist. She’s a hardcore believer in sexual rights and she became more engaged in local sexual rights activism in 2002 after questioning her own role in global and regional activism.
Her passion and commitment to sexual rights and sexuality issues in Malaysia were further ignited with the passing of the late Toni Kasim. Often seen as the voice of diplomacy by friends and colleagues, she has been invited to speak at and has conducted numerous workshops, seminars, and fora in the Asia Pacific Region. She is the co-founder of KRYSS (Knowledge and Rights with Young People through Safer Spaces) and the Gender Evaluation Methodology Research and Business Services Coordinator at the APC (Association for Progressive Communications).
In this interview, Angela speaks about the annual Malaysian sexuality rights festival – Seksualiti Merdeka that took place at The Annexe Gallery from 13 – 17 October this year. The coalition has also spearheaded the “It Gets Better Malaysia” project which has recently received a lot of press with its series of videos with the tagline “Saya Gay, saya OK” or “Anda gay, saya OK”
1. Whenever I tell people about Seksualiti Merdeka – a sexuality rights festival, many end up giggling and asking “Sex also got rights meh?” Can you explain to us what is meant by the term “Sexuality Rights”?
It’s a pity that I don’t get to meet these people. I would have had a good laugh too. But if we really think about it, yes, one of our rights under sexuality rights is our right to have mutually consensual sex with an adult.
It is certainly not a common term nor commonly heard. The women’s rights movement advocates for “sexual rights.” It is the accepted concept and term within the human rights framework, and it includes the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity.
For Seksualiti Merdeka, we chose to emphasise Sexuality Rights because often, stigma and discrimination occurs based on a person’s exercise of their sexuality when it falls outside of the socially expected “norms.” It’s not only people who are lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexed or queer (LBGTIQ) who will face abuse and violence, but it can as well be any woman, young or old, who choses to be sexually active with a man before marriage or outside of marriage. Sometimes, the issue that the woman is sexually active outside of marriage is further exacerbated by the fact that she is having sex with a man who is of a different ethnicity or religion or class.
2. What is the purpose of this Sexuality Rights festival?
We recognised that Malaysians were shying away from talking about their sexuality and the stigma and discrimination that some groups face because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
We wanted to create a platform of different “actors” who would organise a range of activities that celebrated sexuality as a huge part of our humanity and our basic rights as human beings.
We want people of all forms of sexual orientation and gender identity to feel comfortable and accepted. We wanted people to feel free to come over and ask their questions, to engage in dialogue with others like them and to engage with others not so like them, to be able to debate and if and when necessary, to agree to disagree, but to be able to walk away still respecting one another.
We want people to understand and appreciate the core values that underlie each and every human right – the values of choice, dignity, diversity, equality and respect.
We wanted to advocate against the State and other actors in policing and controlling our sexuality and our own bodies in the expression of our sexuality and gender identities. We wanted the exercise of our bodily integrity to be ours and ours alone.
3. Do heteronormative people have anything to worry about in terms of sexuality rights? Do they have a place in Seksualiti Merdeka?
Yes, they do.
One of the most controversial rights for heteronormative people is the choice of when and how many children to bear, if they choose to have children. They may also have children who are non-heteronormative. Heteronormative people also sometimes face the obstacles of whom they want to marry or to decide when they want to marry.
Seksualiti Merdeka offers people who are heteronormative to understand, appreciate and claim their own sexual rights and to help them understand and appreciate the sexuality of others who are non-heteronormative. There are more similarities than differences between the two.
4. Share with us how and why did you get involved with Seksualiti Merdeka?
I felt it was timely and much needed, but more than that, Seksualiti Merdeka was a very exciting proposal. When I first learnt of it, I could already see the start of a sexual rights movement more progressive than any other that I’ve seen in any other country.
One that works across all sexual orientations and gender identities, all kinds of communities that are minorities and who have been marginalised, one that embraces diversity and strives to remain inclusive despite the many challenges. And to be in a position to support and contribute to building such a movement, it was an opportunity that comes only once in a lifetime, an opportunity that I could only dream about until then.
5. How has Seksualiti Merdeka grown and evolved over the past 3 years?
Since 2008, we have attracted a range of allies and supporters from groups such as Bar Council Malaysia, United Nations, Amnesty International, SUARAM, KRYSS, etc. and many individuals too.
Sometimes think, our growth has been quite organic. A loose coalition of organisations and individuals are behind the organising and we’ve grown in numbers. Other times, I think maybe there is some sort of structure in our growth, some sort of strategic targetting, but when I sit down and really think about it, we have approached groups and individuals with a lot of faith and nothing much else to offer, except for what we say we are committed to achieving, with very limited and often insufficient resources, and armed with a lot of love, our passion and our time. In return, we gain their trust and their willingness to work with us, to build on each of our strengths so that we are closer to achieving what we’ve set out to do.
Our audience has also grown in the three years. The only possible explanation that I can come up with for our growth is our shared values, the way we uphold human dignity for all who come to the festival, and our ability to appreciate, accept and respect diversity. We are very Malaysian in that way. I really believe this are the reasons why we have managed to grow, despite the odds stacked against us.
6. Tell us more about this year’s festival and its theme, We Are Family.
I love this theme. I’d like to keep it as a theme, but I am sure, collectively, we can think of something else that’s just as good for next year.
I thought it was a very apt and timely theme. Families do not break up because of sexual diversity. Families break up because parents cannot accept their children as who they are. Families break up because parents sometimes find themselves feeling lost and afraid – fearing that stigma, discrimination and social ostracisation would be targetted towards them from the larger society.
This is a very real fear, and we should stop to ask ourselves, “Why exactly should parents have to fear from the larger society?” Are we not all equally human beings with equal rights? Sexual orientation and gender identity are so integral to a person’s identity, yet, there are various members of our Malaysian society who would willingly condemn, persecute and encourage others to do the same.
The theme We Are Family is meant too, for all of us in Malaysia. It is meant to help us remember that we are family, that we can be there for each other, that we can and do have the time to try and understand one another and appreciate the issues each of us struggle with and the abuse and violence that we may face in our lives. It is meant to help remind all people in Malaysia who have suffered one form of abuse or another based on gender identity and sexual orientation, that there are other people in Malaysia who understand what they are going through and will respect and accept them as who they are.
7. What stood out most for you in this year’s events?
What stood out for me most wasn’t the activities or the different events – which were of course, fabulous! It was my own realisation that I have a growing family with old friends who make Seksualiti Merdeka such a positive, loving energy. And just as much with new friends as well, people whom I’ve met at this year’s Seksualiti Merdeka or at events leading up to it. All these people, both old and new, have made my life so much richer with their humanity and I love them for it. Hmm… maybe next year’s theme can be A Growing Family :o)
8. Could you elaborate further about the support and allies that help make Seksualiti Merdeka a success?
We have a number of human rights-based NGOs on board, which include organisations like Amnesty International, SUARAM, Women’s Candidacy Initiative, EMPOWER and PT Foundation. We also have the Malaysian Bar Council and a number of individual but progressive academics who are experts in their respective fields. We have individual activists who have worked on issues in relation to violence against women, women’s rights in Islam, women’s political participation, HIV and AIDS, media, right to information, communication rights, etc.
I love experiencing the continued growing support we receive from people of all walks of life. It’s a very colourful sea of people and organisations that I get to work with every year.
9. Sexuality rights is …… ?
Cautiously. We do not take unnecessary risks. We take calculated risks, and there’s a difference. We consult each other as best as we can. We consider all the different perspectives on what could go wrong just as much as what can go right. Those who come for Seksualiti Merdeka must be willing to respectfully engage in dialogue or debate. It’s a standing and unique invitation that the festival sends out.
10. What do you envision for Seksualiti Merdeka in the next 5 years?
Always bigger and better, with more people coming to support and to speak about sexuality and sexual rights for all. I see the festival going to different cities in Malaysia, and where others are taking the initiative to organise mini “Seksualiti Merdeka” festivals or sexuality rights activities of their own in their respective cities that would lead up to a grand national festival. I see the festival taking different forms and different types of initiatives as more and more people take collective ownership over the achievement of the goals of Seksualiti Merdeka.
11. What are your own hopes for Malaysia and the changes you would like to see with respect to sexuality rights and the acceptance of our sexual diversity?
I would love to see more parents, siblings and friends of lesbians, gays and transgenders join us. I would love to see these parents, siblings and friends finding the courage within themselves to initiate their own activities during Seksualiti Merdeka that speak to these issues of unwarranted stigma and discrimination.
I would love to see a more sincere discussion on the issues of unwanted pregnancies and baby dumping that will go beyond talking about criminalising those who have sex out of wedlock to non-judgemental sex education that begins at home.
I would love to see education that encourages men and boys to stop seeing women and girls as their personal playgrounds, and to regard them with respect as fellow human beings.
I would love to see people of authority taking responsibility and seriously re-examining their role in the suicides that have taken place because of their relentless persecution.
I would love to see people of authority taking responsibility and seriously re-examining their role in the perpetuation of sexual abuse when transgenders and sex workers are arrested.
I would love to see laywers and judges upholding equality before the law and to recognise the unconstitutionality of any law that criminalises anyone based on sexuality or sexual orientation and gender identity.
I would love to see Malaysians stand up and say “Discriminating against someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity or sexuality, is just as bad as discriminating against someone based on their ethinicty, disability or religion.”