Who would have thought that sexuality rights were being celebrated in the historical and cultural heart of the Malaysian capital two weeks ago? Malaysia, like anywhere else (Muslim-majority or not) has long suffered from homophobia and transphobia in the most public of places: unsubstantiated accusations of homosexual behaviour landed one of the most influential politicians in recent times in jail and long-term disgrace. The media, meanwhile, which often sees itself as a moral guardian secondary to religious authorities, takes advantage of Malaysia’s conservatism to paint sexual minorities in the worst possible light. The recent (and very dubious) news report of a “wild” lesbian party attended by Malaysian Muslim women is one such example that smacks of self-righteousness and shameless prurience.
And so I was pleasantly surprised that Seksualiti Merdeka (which roughly translates as Independence of Sexuality) took place without noisy protests or arrests by the moral police. The annual event, launched in 2008, features a program of lectures, workshops, plays, and film screenings demonstrated a kind of unprecedented maturity to broaching issues of sexual identity, sex work, human rights, and moral policing. Malaysia is a country of contradictions, and these contradictions were also present in Seksualiti Merdeka. The event was officiated by Marina Mahathir a human rights activist and AIDS awareness campaigner–and the daughter of the former Malaysian premier, Mahathir Mohamed, who once barred visiting ministers and diplomats who were gay from entering the country and who deposed Anwar Ibrahim for committing sodomy.
Being surrounded by images that would often be regarded as offensive material and people who were interested in sexuality rights (or those brave enough to attend to satisfy their curiosity of how the sexual Other look like in non-stereotypical circumstances, i.e. not in gay bars and massage parlors) was new to me. Sitting at a film screening of Bukak Api (Open Fire, 2000), starring Malay-Muslim transfemale sex workers, in all its uncensored glory, was new to me. Bukak Api brought home the message that even in the most conservative societies, you can’t talk about AIDS, pregnancy, and violence against women without talking about sex. This is illustrated in a scene where one sex worker laments about being aware about AIDS only through snappy campaign slogans (“Love your family, stay away from HIV”) and nothing in terms of modes of infection and prevention, resulting in her unknowingly contracting the virus – sadly true to life.
Witnessing this sea change, I wondered whether the time has finally come for Malaysians to recognize sexual diversity as a non-threatening, normal, and ultimately, acceptable, fact of life. But then I began to notice with every event I attended that Seksualiti Merdeka attracted a crowd of the distinctively urban, foreign/highly-educated, English-speaking, relatively well-to-do, and liberal type. Perhaps not every Malaysian is ready yet. Perhaps not the young, working-class Malay-Muslim couples who get arrested for close proximity in cheap hotels or in their cars because they cannot afford to hire rooms in five-star hotels or go to places abroad where they are beyond the reach of snooping moral guardians.
Seksualiti Merdeka implicitly demonstrated the class divide that divides people’s opinions about sexuality: if you’re young, urban, well-educated, fluent in English and media-savvy you are likely to support open discourse on sexuality rights in Malaysia, and if you’re not all that then it’s likely you’ll find talking about such issues publicly inappropriate.
But leaving Malaysia a few days later, I realized that I was leaving a country with a potential to return power back to the people who, for decades, live under the paternalistic thumb of its leaders. It was great to see the freedom and effort in raising sex and sexuality as issues that concern everybody, hence the popular and highly-accessible venue Central Market. It was better that the event hasn’t yet reached a more representative audience than not exist at all. But real engagement about morality and rights to privacy needs to happen between those whose opinions are at odds with each other, and not between those who openly show their liberal colors.