What's it Like To Be LGBTQ in Malaysia?

LGBT Asian lesbian couple |
LGBT Asian lesbian couple | | © Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock
Photo of Michelle Leong
21 August 2018

In a country where sodomy is still a crime and newspapers offer checklists on “how to spot a gay,” it can be too easy to get lost in political drama. But perhaps the more pertinent question is — how does the average LGBT person experience living in Malaysia? If you don’t know the answer, you probably haven’t asked the question.

“I am the L in LGBT,” says one 20 year old, who prefers to remain anonymous. “It sucks because we get dirty looks easily.”

When dating her girlfriend, they were caught by the police for “hugging and kissing” on New Year’s Day after the fireworks. “I can tell you that being LGBT is definitely difficult in Malaysia. You can’t be open at all.”

Her girlfriend’s parents also found out about the relationship, and were not approving of it. Her girlfriend ended up having to move out.

“I have considered moving to a different country that’s more familiar with the LGBT community, especially with legalized gay marriage,” she says. “At least we don’t have to deal with [being considered] haram.”

She is not the only one. Lee* has already moved to Singapore, a country where sodomy remains illegal, though this law is rarely enforced.

It is still “nearby,” says Lee, “but it’s out of Malaysia’s reach. Each time I return to Malaysia for a break, I need to act ‘straight.’ I cannot act on simple intuitions like holding hands or even pecks without getting stared at or having my partner get catcalled.”

Another interviewee, Jay*, has been on the receiving end of unsolicited judgmental comments, including “God won’t forgive you,” “You will definitely end up in hell,” and “You have committed a great sin.”

To Jay, it’s the older generation that tends to be more condemnatory. “My dad doesn’t have a positive mindset about those whom we call pondan in Malaysia. He says things like they are not ‘man enough’ or they have small penises.”

No thanks to threats of judgement, some have preferred to live their LGBT lives almost invisibly.

“People don’t know I’m LGBT,” says a 25 year old, who also prefers to remain anonymous. “There have been instances when people say things like ‘LGBT should be punished and pukul sampai mati (beaten to death)’ in front of me. My only reaction even until now is to be like, ‘Oh, hmm.’ And then smile. I’ve never actually stood up for myself, because I might lose my job [in the civil service] over this.”

An LGBT person in Malaysia has to face a lot of challenges.

“Coming out to people [was challenging],” says Lee. “Imagine going through the same terror each time you want to let a person know who you truly are. Imagine having to go up to everyone you know and telling them you’re straight, just that now, you’re not straight and who you are is not widely accepted yet. You don’t know what the end result [would] be.”

Jay agrees. “We’re no different from other people. We feel, we love, we cry, we get angry, and we get sad. But if the most basic thing which is acceptance isn’t even there, it’s less likely that we will get equal rights.”

*Real names have been concealed to protect anonymity.

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