Article on LGBTQIA people faces backlash

In February, leading Malaysian daily newspaper Sinar Harian published a checklist on the characteristics of LGBTQIA individuals.

The list described gay men as loving to wear tight, brand-name clothes and having facial hair. It depicted lesbians as hating men and loving to walk around hugging each other or holding hands.

“I think that by having this kind of article or things in the media, it really just normalizes how people view the (LGBTQIA) community in a negative way,” said Irving Zavaleta Jimenez, assistant director for multicultural education and Latino community coordinator. “It normalizes heteronormativity and it further marginalizes (LGBTQIA) people everywhere.”

The article prompted backlash from both the international community and Malaysian activists. Malaysian YouTuber and activist Arwind Kumar commented on what he views as the absurdity of the traits published by the newspaper.

“How does having facial hair make someone gay?” said Kumar in a four-minute video posted to YouTube and Facebook, which has been viewed over 200,000 times between the two platforms. “I know a lot of priests. I know a lot of (religious scholars). I know a lot of really, really religious and spiritual people who love keeping long beards. Are you trying to say they’re gay?”

Kumar believes that the article was not only inaccurate, but also detrimental to LGBTQIA people.

“With an article like this you’re only going to take away lives,” said Kumar. “There are much more important issues in this country that need to be addressed, and this is not one of them.”

According to Grace Poore, regional program coordinator for Asia and the Pacific islands for LGBTQIA rights organization OutRight Action International, the article published by Sinar Harian is only one example of homophobic rhetoric in Malaysia. One of the main contributors to this attitude is the Malaysian government itself.

“The Malaysian government is not only complicit with religious conservative groups in portraying (LGBTQIA) Malaysians as deviant, diseased and dangerous to religion and culture, but since 2011, the government has sponsored and funded public education programs that single out (LGBTQIA) people,” said Poore to NBC.

These programs include handbooks on how parents can identify LGBTQIA people, a self-help book on how to change one’s sexual orientation and a health ministry competition where Malaysian youths were asked to discuss the prevention and consequences of being LGBTQIA.

In addition, sodomy is illegal in Malaysia, punishable by prison sentences of up to 20 years.

According to Poore, these programs have had serious consequences.

“The Malaysian government has received numerous recommendations from international governments and (LGBTQIA) activists to remove discriminatory policies against (LGBTQIA) people, but it has refused and instead continues to fuel dangerous conditions that have led to bullying, death threats, verbal denigration, physical violence,” said Poore to NBC.

Last year, 18-year-old Malaysian student T Nhaveen was beaten and burned to death  by several classmates after they accused him of being gay. 27-year-old transgender woman Sameera Krishnan was stabbed in her flower shop, and then murdered in a targeted attack a few months later.

Associate Professor of Political Science Maria Rosales believes that these programs and policies not only have consequences for LGBTQIA people, but for Muslims as well, since Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country.

“There’s a really widespread problem of people treating things that happen in predominantly Muslim countries as if they show something deep about Islam and why Islam is a problem,” said Rosales. “I think that that could be used in this case, even though actually anti-gay policies and laws are much, much, much more widespread than Islam is.”

Regardless of the far-reaching outcomes of the policies and programs of the Malaysian government, both Zavaleta Jimenez and Rosales believe that the advancements of LBGTQIA rights in Malaysia are possible in the future.

“I think the general framework I would apply to any kind of injustice around the world is act in solidarity, don’t act from a savior mentality,” said Rosales. “Where there are people there who are acting against these kinds of laws, if they want support, support them, but don’t come from the outside saying, ‘We’re going to fix this for you.’”

Zavaleta Jimenez expressed similar sentiments.

“Advancing (LGBTQIA) rights in such countries looks different than what advancing (LGBTQIA) rights in the U.S. looks like,” said Zavaleta Jimenez. “If we want to advocate, we need to check with those people who are affected first, and then ask them how we can support them.

“(LGBTQIA) people, by the sole fact of being themselves fully, they are advancing (LGBTQIA) rights in a way.”