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LGBT life in Malaysia

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 12.19.48Malaysia is widely considered one of Asia’s must-visit destinations with one of the continent’s richest and most diverse cultures, and has increased in popularity with holidaymakers over the past decade or so, rivaling the likes China, Japan and Thailand. However, for LGBT travellers, Malaysia may not seem like the ideal place to visit and for those living there, life can be hard. Below we will tell you why but also offer advice to those who do still intend on going there, which we highly recommend you do if you are interested.

First off, it is worth noting that while the Malaysian constitution says the country does allow freedom of religion, the official state religion is Islam, and it is a strict Muslim country. Furthermore, Malaysia still holds the law from pre-colonial times that criminalised sodomy and if caught, punishments vary from fines and caning to imprisonment or even death. For Malays, who are immediately considered Muslim upon their birth, they may also be trialled in Sharia courts and charged under Islamic law.

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 12.22.29On top of the government and its law, politicians and the state-controlled media have also outright condemned homosexuality: in 1994, the government banned anyone who is homosexual, bisexual or transsexual from appearing on the state controlled media; in 1995, 7000 people were arrested for engaging in “unIslamic” activities, of which homosexual acts were one; in 2001, the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned that any visiting foreign cabinet ministers, or diplomats who are openly gay would be deported and also told them not to bring their partners if they were; in 2005, the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) chief Mohd Anwar Mohd Nor stated that the Navy “would never accept homosexuals”; and most recently in 2010, the Malaysian Film Censorship Board said it would only allow the depiction of homosexual characters in films as long as the characters “repent” (turn straight) or die.

As well as gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender at risk of persecution in Malaysia, cross-dressers are too; many have been arrested under civil laws for “public indecency” and for “impersonating women”, despite the fact that cross-dressing is not technically a crime. In 1998 and 1999, over sixty Muslim transvestites and other transgender people were charged and convicted in court for dressing as women, many of whom were consequently imprisoned.

One of the most prolific incidents regarding LGBT rights in Malaysia was the prosecution of its former deputy Prime Minister and current leader of the opposition party, Anwar Ibrahim who was charged with corruption and sodomy in 1998 and sentenced to nine years in jail. However, after a national and international uproar and campaign, he was released four years later when the Federal Court of Malaysia acquitted him of all charges. But that wasn’t the end of it. In 2007, the former Prime Minister accused Anwar of sodomy again and called him a “homosexual”, leading to more investigations and another arrest a year later, although was again released on bail not long after. Although he has repeatedly denied all allegations against him, Anwar has spoken out against the national laws against homosexuality, saying they ought to be reformed to protect consenting adult’s right to privacy, but also believed that “gay marriage is going a bit too far”.

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 12.33.59Thankfully, although LGBT rights do not yet exist in Malaysia, there are people who are trying to fight for them. The annual “Seksualiti Merdeka” (Independent Sexuality) festival, which was launched in 2008 and is held in Kuala Lumpur, is similar to that of a Pride event – there is no parade, but talks, screenings, performances and workshops are held to help promote and campaign for LGBT rights. There is also the PT (Pink Triangle) Foundation – an organisation that is there to help and support those most vulnerable to and affected by HIV and Aids but is overlooked by the government. These people are: gay and bisexual men, transgender people, sex workers and drug users.

While life may be dangerous for Malaysian citizens who identify themselves as LGBT or are too scared to come out, especially Muslims, for visitors to Malaysia, it is not so bad, that is if they respect the country’s laws and understand the punishments they could face. Gay visitors, particularly men, should be aware that public displays of affection will not be looked upon kindly and that as long as you keep your private life private, you should not have to worry. It is usually believed that Muslims are in fact targeted more when it comes to laws against homosexuality, while Chinese and other races are let off lightly, although in general society it is still seen as a taboo and rarely talked about.

Screen Shot 2013-07-12 at 12.19.10Gay life however, does still exist in Malaysia, even if it is very much “underground”. The majority of gay-friendly and gay-owned (far rarer) businesses, including bars and clubs, restaurants and cafes, hotels and inns and health and fitness centres, will mainly be found in the big cities, predominantly Kuala Lumpur and Penang – both of which are seen as the most liberal places. Gay Homestays has a few hosts in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, including one with a beautifully built and maintained bed and breakfast not far from the city centre. 

In summary, although Malaysia is continuing to attempt to further improve its economy and move forward, much of its laws still hold it back. Gay life in the country is hushed but is emerging within its own world, despite it being a tough life for many. Fortunately though, with organisations such as Seksualiti Merdeka and the PT Foundation, as well as support from prominent figures (including the former Prime Minister’s eldest daughter who defied her father’s own beliefs and has helped campaign for LGBT rights) and the Democratic Action Party, LGBT rights for Malaysians could at least be brought to the forefront of issues in the future, rather than simply silenced and pushed aside. The country’s lack of LGBT rights however, should not be something that deters visitors from travelling to and exploring the positives of what Malaysia has to offer, which include: a very mixed, interesting and multinational history and culture; areas and landscapes that vary from pristine beaches to wild jungles and from bustling metropolitan cities to wide green mountains and countryside; and of course, amazing cuisine.

For those that do still want to travel to Malaysia, some tips for you would be:

  • Avoid public displays of same-sex affection and activities
  • Abide by all laws and policies.
  • Acknowledge and respect local cultures and religious ideals
  • Stay safe and vigilant and keep personal belongings close to you at all times and in secure places