LGBT tolerated as long as the community stays private and not “glamourised”: Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister

The right of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community to exist in Malaysia will not be denied so long as the community leads its lives under wraps, said Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

Speaking in an interview with the Malay Mail in response to queries regarding a controversial meeting between the Minister in Charge of Islamic Affairs Mr Mujahid Yusof Rawa and transgender rights activist Ms Nisha Ayub, she advised the LGBT community to not "glamourise" the "private lives" of its individuals, considering that, in her view, it needs to bear in mind the sensitivities surrounding Islam as the country's official religion.

Just last week, Mr Mujahid had ordered organisers of the George Town Festival 2018 to take down the portraits of Ms Nisha Ayub, as well as that of gay rights activist Mr Pang Khee Teik, which were part of exhibition called "Strokes and Stripes" by photographer Mr Mooreyameen Mohamad.

Dr Wan Azizah said that "LGBTs have the right to practice whatever [it is] they do in private".

However, she added that “Islam is the official religion [of Malaysia], whereby you have certain practices and it is there in black and white", and that as a practicing Muslim, "I have my preferences as to their rights".

Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation, but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony”.

She suggested that the rights of the LGBT community are similar to that of "the people who do not believe in Islam”.

The narrow and simplistic dichotomy between non-heterosexual orientations and religiosity -- or a lack thereof -- appears to be a popular one amongst Malay-Muslims in Malaysia.

According to Asian Correspondent, an "awareness" programme by the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) at Universiti Malaya resulted in outrage after it was found that the programme had only included Muslims who had purportedly “left” the LGBT community, and not Muslims who continue to identify as LGBT. Many LGBT people of faith in Malaysia remain closeted due to safety concerns, the fear of social stigma, and also internalised homophobia due to religious guilt.

Earlier in March this year, a contest that was organised by the Muslim Students Association (MSA) of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM - University of Science, Malaysia) in March this year, aimed to "convert" gay students through its "Islamic" approach to "return members of the LGBT community to the straight path".

Speaking to AFP, one of the members of the MSA declared that “We will work hard to convert them", adding that “LGBT is like smoking – it is bad for health.”

“We want to be close to LGBT people and influence them via Islam,” the member added.

Founder of Malaysian transgender advocacy group Justice for Sisters, Ms Thilaga Sulathireh, said that such contests deliver a harmful message to the LGBT community.

She said that such contests rest on the assumption that "LGBT people can be changed and LGBT is a form of sickness", which will cause deep psychological harm to the community, such as severe depression and anxiety, as well as suicide attempts as a result.

She warned that "conversion programmes" are futile and damaging as they are largely based on ignorance regarding science and the lived experiences of the LGBT community, and suggested that "more programmes with facts to educate people about (the LGBT community)" should be put in place to ensure that the LGBT community will be able to live in harmony and dignity within Malaysian society.

While Malaysia's laws continue to criminalise homosexual acts under s.377A of the Penal Code, prosecution appears to be rare in practice. Despite that, the LGBT community, particularly transgender individuals, continues to face discrimination by the cisgender and heterosexual majority in the country, as seen in the prohibition of trans women from entering women's public restrooms and to instead be asked to use restrooms designed for people with physical disabilities.

Furthermore, recent events such as the raid of Blue Boy, a popular gay club in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur last Saturday, by local authorities, as well as the assault committed by a group of men against a transgender woman in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan have been a cause for concern, as they signify an increasingly hostile climate for the LGBT community in Malaysia.