Civil society groups have much to do to nurture a better understanding of sexuality rights and gender diversities in the country, say Julian Lee and Yeoh Seng Guan.
Sexuality rights have not figured strongly in the agenda of the human rights movement in Malaysia thus far. Compared to the political detainee, refugee, and migrant worker, the shadowy figure of the ostensible “sexual deviant” has not elicited the degree of attention that it deserves.
Partly, this state-of-affairs can be attributed to the dominant heterosexual norms encoded in legislation and religious traditions criminalising and demonising “unnatural sex”. The central thrust of these pronouncements is that if these “deviants” are allowed to co-exist, the institution of the family would be seriously jeopardised and human society would disintegrate. However, for those familiar with historical realities in the region and with pioneering scholarship on human sexuality in the last few decades, this apocalyptic view of things is problematic.
Sexuality rights festival
On 3-17 October, Seksualiti Merdeka 2010, a sexuality rights festival, was held in the Central Market Annexe Gallery in Kuala Lumpur to address and de-mystify some of the misperceptions and fear about sexual orientation and gender identities in human society and to advocate for better recognition of the rights of “sexual minority” groups and identities. Civil society groups which supported the event included Amnesty International Malaysia, Bar Council Malaysia, Empower, PT Foundation, Suaram, United Nations Theme Group on HIV and Women’s Candidacy Initiative.
This year’s edition was the third in the now annual event. Seksualiti Merdeka first unfolded in August 2008 when it coincided with that year’s Merdeka celebrations. Well-known cultural artists Pang Khee Teik and Jerome Kugan are the co-founders and organisers of the annual festival. Inspired by human rights activists like the late Zaitun (“Toni”) Kassim, they wanted to create a space to have open dialogues about sex, sexual identity and rights given that these are taboo topics in Malaysian society. They also felt that the usual tactic of the LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-sexual, inter-sex and queer) communities of lying low was not the answer to their problems given that so many others are experiencing the effects of homophobia – abuse, violence and discrimination – in Malaysia.
As its moral compass, the festival refers to ‘The Yogyakarta Principles’. A collection of 29 articles, “The Yogyakarta Principles” outlines an array of rights and freedoms with respect to gender and sexuality which are founded in international human rights covenants to which most countries are signatories. These rights are seen as extendable to LGBTIQ individuals based on these international agreements and decisions of authorised UN bodies (such as the Human Rights Committee which monitors the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). These rights include the right to universal enjoyment of human rights; right to recognition before the law; right to privacy; protection from medical abuses; right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and the right to found a family.
Edmond Bon, chair of the human rights committee of the Bar Council, launched the 2010 event by saying that it is high time that the relevant discriminatory clauses in the Malaysian legislation on “unnatural sex” be decriminalised in accordance with international human rights standards and progressive societies elsewhere in the world.
All-women punk band
As in previous years, Seksualiti Merdeka 2010 had a menu of creative and interactive events based on the theme of “We are family”. Weeks before the festival, internationally acclaimed artist Liew Kung Yu had led a workshop for five young individuals with diverse backgrounds on a journey of self-discovery to produce two artistic installations. Their thought-provoking works were on display throughout the festival. On the first night, ‘Family Outing’, a play specially written for the festival by award-winning Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at, was performed. It centered on the dilemma of a young college boy who is unsure as to whether to reveal his sexuality to his mother or not. The audience was invited to provide suggestions to the characters at various points of the play on how to resolve the situation. The play had also toured several local colleges and universities earlier.
Over the last three nights of the play, ‘Rainbow Massacre’, an exuberant musical feast was staged. Hosted by ribald and hysterically funny drag queen, Shelah, the concert featured numerous solo artists and bands whose performances sought either to affirm the need to fight for sexuality rights or which celebrated sexual diversity. Among the performers were Tony Eussof, Peter Ong and the crowd favourite, the all-woman punk band Shhh…diam! who sang about French fries and bathrooms.
A somewhat more pensive event was the screening of five short films produced by the women’s art collective, HerStory Malaysia. The theme which these films sought to reflect on was ‘Love, Sex and Desire’. The film-makers comprised Bernice Chauly, Crystal Woo, Mien Ly, Sharifah Amani and Mislina Mustaffa. Among the stand-out productions were Sangkar (by Sharifah Amani) and Happy Massages (by Mien Ly). In the latter film, Mien Ly cooperated with Ruby to tell her story which drew on her experiences as a sex worker. Through the film, the audience gained an insight into the difficult lives of sex workers in Malaysia and their negotiations with customers and AIDS.
On the last day of Seksualiti Merdeka 2010, Dr Farish Noor, representing The Other Malaysia, gave a historical review of the changing notions of ‘modesty’ in Southeast Asia. With the arresting title of ‘From modesty plates to peranakan lingerie’, Farish observed that unlike current sexualised preoccupations with the female physical form, ‘modesty’ in pre-colonial Southeast Asia was more linked to decorum and balance, to a host of attitudes, behavior and decorum befitting her status. To illustrate how changing notions of female modesty have imprinted textile culture in the region, the packed hall was also treated to a collection of kembang and peranakan female dresses worn by models.
Later in the same afternoon, several activists and scholars shared snippets of their research findings to illuminate the topic, ‘Even educated fleas do it: Sex, sexuality and diversity in Malaysia’. While covering diverse topics, all the presentations in the panel complicated the narrow claims of ‘Asian family values’ as the basis for definitively deciding what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
Dr Julian Lee (Monash University) debunked the popular view that homosexuality or sex simply for pleasure (instead of reproduction) was not part “of nature”. He provided several well documented cases of animals and insects performing “un-natural sex”.
Angela Kuga Thas (Knowledge and Rights with Young People through Safer Spaces – KRYSS) read excerpts of interviews conducted among the LGBTIQ community in Kuala Lumpur. Human rights activist Thilaga described to the audience of over 100 individuals some of the abuses of transsexuals in Malaysia. She did this with the help of artist Shieko, who illustrated Thilaga’s stories with highly entertaining drawings on a whiteboard. Shieko also lent her skills with the forum’s co-organiser Jac SM Kee’s (APCWomen.org) input on the evolution of Malaysia hantu and pontianak myths.
Amir Muhammad (Matahari Books) and Andrew Ng (Monash University) meanwhile all looked at a selection of locally made films of different periods and genres to discuss how female, male and queer sexualities were depicted. Dr Yeoh Seng Guan (Monash University) shared a short ethnographic clip of transgender hijras taking part in a Hindu festival in honour of their patron goddess.
Judging from the enthusiastic discussions that were generated during Seksualiti Merdeka 2010, it is evident there is much interest among Malaysians in advancing sexuality rights. In keeping with their mission to build more democratic and humane space, civil society groups have much to do to nurture a better understanding of sexuality rights and gender diversities in the country.
Yeoh Seng Guan is an Aliran exco member while Julian Lee lectures in international studies.