Seksualiti Merdeka: Coming to Terms With the Love that Dares not Speak its Name

Who would have thought that sexuality rights were being celebrated in the historical and cultural heart of the Malaysian capital two weeks ago? Malaysia, like anywhere else (Muslim-majority or not) has long suffered from homophobia and transphobia in the most public of places: unsubstantiated accusations of homosexual behaviour landed one of the most influential politicians in recent times in jail and long-term disgrace. The media, meanwhile, which often sees itself as a moral guardian secondary to religious authorities, takes advantage of Malaysia’s conservatism to paint sexual minorities in the worst possible light. The recent (and very dubious) news report of a “wild” lesbian party attended by Malaysian Muslim women is one such example that smacks of self-righteousness and shameless prurience.

And so I was pleasantly surprised that Seksualiti Merdeka (which roughly translates as Independence of Sexuality) took place without noisy protests or arrests by the moral police. The annual event, launched in 2008, features a program of lectures, workshops, plays, and film screenings demonstrated a kind of unprecedented maturity to broaching issues of sexual identity, sex work, human rights, and moral policing. Malaysia is a country of contradictions, and these contradictions were also present in Seksualiti Merdeka. The event was officiated by Marina Mahathir a human rights activist and AIDS awareness campaigner–and the daughter of the former Malaysian premier, Mahathir Mohamed, who once barred visiting ministers and diplomats who were gay from entering the country and who deposed Anwar Ibrahim for committing sodomy.

Being surrounded by images that would often be regarded as offensive material and people who were interested in sexuality rights (or those brave enough to attend to satisfy their curiosity of how the sexual Other look like in non-stereotypical circumstances, i.e. not in gay bars and massage parlors) was new to me. Sitting at a film screening of Bukak Api (Open Fire, 2000), starring Malay-Muslim transfemale sex workers, in all its uncensored glory, was new to me. Bukak Api brought home the message that even in the most conservative societies, you can’t talk about AIDS, pregnancy, and violence against women without talking about sex. This is illustrated in a scene where one sex worker laments about being aware about AIDS only through snappy campaign slogans (“Love your family, stay away from HIV”) and nothing in terms of modes of infection and prevention, resulting in her unknowingly contracting the virus – sadly true to life.

Witnessing this sea change, I wondered whether the time has finally come for Malaysians to recognize sexual diversity as a non-threatening, normal, and ultimately, acceptable, fact of life. But then I began to notice with every event I attended that Seksualiti Merdeka attracted a crowd of the distinctively urban, foreign/highly-educated, English-speaking, relatively well-to-do, and liberal type. Perhaps not every Malaysian is ready yet. Perhaps not the young, working-class Malay-Muslim couples who get arrested for close proximity in cheap hotels or in their cars because they cannot afford to hire rooms in five-star hotels or go to places abroad where they are beyond the reach of snooping moral guardians.

Seksualiti Merdeka implicitly demonstrated the class divide that divides people’s opinions about sexuality: if you’re young, urban, well-educated, fluent in English and media-savvy you are likely to support open discourse on sexuality rights in Malaysia, and if you’re not all that then it’s likely you’ll find talking about such issues publicly inappropriate.

But leaving Malaysia a few days later, I realized that I was leaving a country with a potential to return power back to the people who, for decades, live under the paternalistic thumb of its leaders. It was great to see the freedom and effort in raising sex and sexuality as issues that concern everybody, hence the popular and highly-accessible venue Central Market. It was better that the event hasn’t yet reached a more representative audience than not exist at all. But real engagement about morality and rights to privacy needs to happen between those whose opinions are at odds with each other, and not between those who openly show their liberal colors.

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  • Safiyyah

    interesting post Alicia, however I’d just like to say that “deposed Anwar Ibrahim for committing sodomy.” is not correct, as Anwar was wrongly accused of the crime…thought I’d just say that because I admire Anwar’s thoughts and ideas, especially on Islam
    and Democracy, as well as women’s issues.

    otherwise, enjoyed reading :)

  • siew eng

    this is preparation for the real engagement :)

    a small step and a big one. paradoxically malaysia!

  • budlee

    indeed i agree with your view of the crowd that attends the function, alas its a start

  • Maria P.

    It’s always amazing for me to think about what a difference a line on a map makes.

    I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I work at a prestigious Islamic high school in Thailand, about an hour north of Kota Bharu. A couple weeks ago, I was griping about a knot of loud boys outside the office, and one of the older homeroom teachers explained that they’re “like [our openly gay coworker].” Not in any awkward way — just to explain why nobody else was concerned about the noise level.

    I then told her that, actually, I had been happily surprised to see how matter-of-fact people in the south were about sex and sexualities. She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Well, of course; there’s people like that everywhere. Why would it be different here?” And this is no touchy-feely school — one of my 8th graders is going to be expelled for snacking during Ramadan and students who play hooky during prayers are publicly punished.

    Wouldn’t that be some fascinating research, if someone looked at perceptions of and discourse around things sexual in both Kelantan and Narathiwat? I know, the original post is about KL, but Kelantan would be even more dramatic for its proximity — geographic and cultural — to southern Thailand and its conservatism. It might be a bit of a reality check for those elements in Malaysian Malay-Muslim society who would claim that “people like us” don’t talk about (or do or whatnot) such things.

    Or it would convince them, more than any century-old colonial treaty, that Patani is actually Siamese. :P

  • Sara Yasin

    I agree. I didn’t know about a lot of this! Great work :)

  • Cycads

    Ops. I didn’t realise that that was the impression I was giving! Sorry, I didn’t phrase that very well. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • Cycads

    I’m not sure what happened to my comment, it looks like it’s either disappeared or deleted. Anyway, I just wanted to say…

    That must’ve been a mistake in my phrasing and wasn’t the impression I intended – very sorry about that! Anwar was deposed under very suspicious means that involved some below-the-belt political maneuvering. The accusations of sodomy was merely a ruse to take advantage of the homophobia in Malaysia.

  • Pingback: Seksualiti Merdeka: Coming to terms with a love that dares not speak its name « Cycads()

  • Safa

    Interesting post. I don’t agree with homosexuality or homosexual muslims – but interesting to see different views and opinions. (Note: This isn’t gay bashing, I don’t hate anyone who is gay just homosexuality in itself is what I do not agree with)

    [This post has been edited to fit within moderation guidelines.]

  • Felix Liew

    Alicia, thank you for a nice write up to highlight the Seksualiti Merdeka events in Kuala Lumpur. I attended several of those events myself both for personal growth and solidarity with the queer community. You have keen observations there. And you have a point about the class divide. Education and exposure to sexual diversity is key to understanding it. And your last point about engaging the opponents, it’s kinda hard for me to imagine a peaceful dialogue between the proponents and opponents of sexual diversity among Muslims in this country. Anyone who has solid ammunition would not hesitate to engage in open conversation, but those who base their opinions on prejudice and preconceptions are less likely to engage. So it becomes sort of a monologue. But at this initial stage of Seksualiti Merdeka, it is expected that events are attended predominantly by agreeable liberals. A sense of community that is inclusive is what is being fostered here if nothing else. It is a safe space for people to gather and talk who otherwise may be closeted and insecure about their sexuality. If such an event were to be cracked down by the moral guardians, I don’t know how Malaysia can defend its human rights record. Once again, Alicia, you did a good job here!