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MALAYSIA: Muslim Gay Faces Govt Wrath

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 15 2011 (IPS) - Muslim engineer Azman Ismail has sparked a huge storm of criticism, invited official censure and even death threats by going on and confessing that he is a gay.

The two minute post under the title, ‘I am gay, I am Ok’ is probably the first such public announcement by a Malay Muslim in Malaysia – where any open display of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) behaviour invites immediate censure, condemnation and punishment under both Islamic and outdated secular laws that criminalise sexual conduct other than heterosexuality.

“I am receiving death threats, I don’t know what to expect next,” Azwan told local media after he started receiving dead threats days after posting the nearly three-minute clip in December.

In the clip, Azwan related how it is very tough being gay in Malaysia because of religious and cultural norms that criminalise LGBT behaviour.

He argued for equal rights and argued against norms that “defined our lives, telling us who we can be and who we can’t be.”

“My intention was not to insult Islam,” Azwan told local media. “I just wanted to represent gay Malays in this project. I hope these videos will help to create a more open society and more discussion.”

The LGBT campaign on YouTube that Azwan participated in is inspired by the similar “It Gets Better Project” in the United States, which last year responded to a string of gay youth suicides.

The video series is run by Seksualiti Merdeka that organises an annual human rights festival on sexuality, especially the human rights of LGBT people.

Until Azman made his video, the people in the public video series have been non-Muslims.

What’s shocking to many Malaysians is not the fact that there are LGBT persons or LGBT behaviour, which is common but never in your face, said Michael Lam, an openly gay accountant who had just returned from Australia.

“It is the open admission of being gay and the defence of homosexuality by a Malay Muslim,” he told IPS. “It is the openness that is inviting adverse reaction.”

“LGBT is generally tolerated, but as long as it is not flaunted,” he said.

Even behaviour like hugging, holding hands and kissing in public among the sexes are forbidden and can be punished by local council rules or strictly interpreted Islamic law.

Police regularly raid entertainment outlets, bathhouses and massage parlours looking for gay sexual activities; often, possession of even a condom is regarded by officials as a sign of homosexual behaviour among males.

Anal intercourse is an offence under the penal code and is punished by up to 20 years in jail as an “unnatural” act against the “order of nature” – a provision that many former British colonies are repealing, but Malaysia has not yet.

In extreme cases, even non-Muslims have been fined or taken to court for holding hands in public.

Originally LGBT people and others were exhilarated by Azman’s statement – seeing it as a daring attempt to lift the covers off a forbidden subject and encourage discussion and discourse and put LGBT concerns on the national agenda.

However, Azman’s action also sparked condemnation in the government- controlled media; and the subject was also taken up on the Internet and on blogs, Facebook and in chat groups where Azman was condemned as a deviant and an animal.

“We thought this is the turning point, the one event that would break the shroud and open LGBT issue for public discussion,” a playwright who asked for anonymity for fear of censure told IPS.

“The confession was so daring and so open. We felt exhilarated. But now I feel fear, I want to hide,” she said. “We all had to take down his confession from our sites.”

Despite the support from a few daring individuals and organisations, the overwhelming message is one of censure; and Azman, who declined to be photographed or interviewed because of the death threats, also removed his YouTube post.

Many sites that had supported his pioneering effort also removed his post, largely because of the persistent death threats against Azman. “We are normal people, citizens and voters,” said a journalist who also requested anonymity. “We oppose bigotry in any form but are totally against violence.”

Cabinet Minister for Islamic Affairs Jamil Khir Baharom told national television on Jan. 6 that “appropriate action” would be taken against “gay activists” who were trying to promote homosexuality.

“Azwan Ismail is not the first gay Muslim man in Malaysia nor will he be the last,” said the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, an influential NGO. “Being gay is not a crime; however, hate speech is.”

“We are deeply concerned with the culture of hatred and intolerance bred in our society and against those who are different, be it on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation,” said JAG, one of the several activists groups that defended Aswan.

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