LGBTQ Pride Carries a Greater Burden (and Danger) in Malaysia
In May of 2016, when Beauty and the Beast was released internationally, Malaysian officials took issue with the film. They wanted to remove the final scene, the one where it became clear that LeFou (Gaston’s right-hand man) was gay.
Shairazi Bahari, a 33-year-old transgender woman from Kuala Lumpur, wasn’t surprised. There’s no real LGBTQ representation in Malaysia, and the government keeps it that way. "Here, for a film or a drama to portray an LGBTQ character, the character has to repent or die from HIV- or AIDS-related illness," she said. (Disney wouldn’t delete the scene, and they scrapped the flick in Malaysia.)
This kind of censorship, plus some state-sponsored discrimination, makes the month of June a particularly trying one for Bahari. Right now, her social feeds are flooded with images of Pride celebrations abroad, symbols of freedom for gay people. But at home, she feels persecuted on a daily basis.
"LGBTQ HAS ALWAYS BEEN ADVERTISED AS SOMETHING WE INHERIT FROM THE WESTERN COUNTRIES."
Bahari went to pride celebrations while living in Melbourne, Australia, in her twenties. She remembers the rainbow balloon arches and the devil costumes, and said the most outrageous images are the ones many people in Malaysia have come to associate with the community. “LGBTQ has always been advertised as something we inherit from the Western countries,” she says.
From her view, Pride shouts to the world that freedom of expression for LGBTQ people is pervasive, and overlooks deeply-ingrained prejudice in anti-LGBTQ nations.
Malaysian culture is grounded in Islamic custom, and much of the society remains strongly conservative. If someone’s gender expression differs from the sex assigned to them at birth, they can be prosecuted under the government’s Sharia law. Beginning in the 1980s, these laws forced LGBTQ people underground, and since then, Human Rights Watch has extensively documented violence against transgender individuals by state religious officials, police, and private citizens.
“There are gay and trans NGOs,” said Bahari. “But we can’t openly talk about LGBTQ rights. The NGOs have to disguise themselves as defenders of general human rights.”
Within the community, transgender people regularly face the most state-sanctioned discrimination and violence. Justice for Sisters, one the most prominent groups in Malaysia fighting against LGBTQ discrimination, called out the rising tide of violence across Malaysia in a recent post on their website:
In 2018, Skuad Badar Sungai Petani [a community policing group] emerged on social media, urging religious authorities to take action on trans women. We have also received information that this group has harassed, arrested, and attacked the trans women in the community, including shaving the heads of trans women in their custody.
Other incidents include workplace harassment and job discrimination, which Bahari experienced firsthand when she applied for a job at the Kuala Lumpur location of Nobu, as well as severe violence often in remote regions and at the hands of anti-LGBTQ groups.
Despite legal obstacles, there’s a burgeoning movement for greater acceptance of LGBTQ people in Malaysia, but not enough to lend itself to an annual Pride celebration.
Bahari said Western Pride’s inclusion of risqué costumes and promiscuity, with little recognition of the charitable framework of many events or the causes of said charities (like proceeds going to the Trevor Project or the Human Right Coalition to combat LGBTQ suicide or violence), can be damaging.
“I understand there is excitement,” she said. “But from countries with conservative views, the message is misconstrued.”
She wonders if the tribal qualities of the LGBTQ movement, how there seems to be one dominant (Western) image of liberation, are deprioritizing the experience of far-off communities. It may not be an intended consequence, but it’s felt, she says.
IT MAY NOT BE AN INTENDED CONSEQUENCE, BUT IT’S FELT.
Many transgender people in Malaysia feel like second-class citizens, she said. Instead of creating a platform for freedom of expression, she worries Western pride may be further provocation of the stereotypes LGBTQ people in Malaysia fight every day.
Bahari’s conviction to fight stereotypes developed as her transition ferried her through bouts of guilt and uncertainty. Society told her to retreat from her feelings or invite social alienation, which she felt in her interaction with schoolmates and many members of her family. She grew up stomaching the challenges of not feeling masculine—brushing off laughter from her siblings for wanting to try on her mother’s dresses or design outfits for her sister’s Barbies. She now works as a chef in Kuala Lumpur and advertises her own clothing designs on social media.
The residual hostility towards transgender people has made Bahari consider leaving her homeland, where she said true progress for LGBTQ individuals might still be a decade away. Instead, she shows her defiance by staying.
“To me, every day when you don’t have to hide who you are is an expression of pride.”
Bahari has no expectation, or desire, for pride celebrations to become chaste affairs with a hardline focus on activism. “I just want Pride in the U.S. and other developed countries to better show some solidarity with LGBTQ people who are still struggling to live authentically in their country.”
She's noticed the fanfare and pageantry has developed to a point that nurtures the thought among many Malaysians that LGBTQ culture is a deviant import, propaganda from Western countries. “We need liberated countries to help people here understand that LGBTQ people are human and that starts with the images coming from the most viewed LGBTQ events of the year.”
While she’ll follow pride festivities on social media, Bahari will look for the more subtle acknowledgements of LGBTQ progress—like improved access to healthcare and hormone therapy research for the trans community—the proof in a shared lived experience, and a recognition that not all in this global community are free.
Betsy Joles reports on migration and religion. She is based in East Asia. You can follow her on Twitter at @betsyjoles.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.