Photo: Azlan DuPree
My first Grindr date in Malaysia took me to a Muslim wedding. Dressed in a traditional batik shirt, he drove us straight from his office near KLCC to the venue in Petaling Jaya. Keeping his eyes firmly ahead on the rush-hour traffic, he broke the silence and said: “Don’t worry, all my friends from law school are there. Half of them are gay, and even the bride knows. We’ll be fine lah.”
Malaysia’s relationship with its LGBT citizens is sweet and sour. While it’s not illegal to be gay, nor is there any active persecution, the country’s political and legal structures maintain strong opposition.
The prime minister, Najib Razak, recently compared gay people to ISIS. Senior Islamic clerics make headlines condemning their haram lifestyles. “Committing carnal intercourse against the order of nature” (namely oral or anal sex) could land you up to 20 years in prison or a whipping sentence, thanks to the country’s colonial-era penal code left by the British.
Raymond Tai, Chief Operations Officer at The Pink Triangle Foundation (an LGBT charity in Kuala Lumpur), says the Malaysian government uses the subjects of race and religion “to exert anti-gay influence” over the Malay-majority population.
“Decades of social engineering within the education system, national media and government departments, coupled with policies favouring the Malays as the indigenous race, has resulted in a conservative, conformist mainstream population,” he said. “There’s been increasing pressure to curtail the freedom of movement and expression of LGBT people in this way.”
“Most gay men and lesbians even in KL are not publicly out, and many are not out at work or with their families; so they are mostly hidden.”
While this “social engineering” may align with the traditionally-minded, or the politically-uncritical, Malaysia’s youth are increasingly progressive. My date Hafiz, a 24-year-old lawyer, explained: “In Kuala Lumpur people are considered more liberal, and the younger generation is a lot more accepting.
“We’ve been opened up to LGBT ideas in the media, in songs and movies.”
After about 40 minutes of navigating through Kuala Lumpur’s notorious Friday traffic, we arrive at the wedding venue. It is a huge, elaborately decorated hall filled with lavish splashes of pinks and whites. Family, friends, and colleagues make up the hundreds of guests; the men wear smart casuals or full baju-melayu, the women adorned in modernised versions of baju-kurung. Children run around the buffet, which displays all sorts of Malaysian fare; rendang, kuih and ayam goreng berempah, eagerly scooped up by people making their second and third rounds.
Hafiz brings me to his friends’ table. They smile as I say hello with a mouth full of rice. All of them work in the legal field, alumni of a special class who spoke openly about sexuality.
As we eat, Hafiz tells me about his childhood experiences; how he was bullied in high-school and shunned by his friends after he was outed by a former lover. It was at university, where he gained the support of his classmates, that he learned to accept himself; the damage dealt by one side of Malaysia healed by another.
Tai, who is of Chinese descent, explains that race is a key factor to LGBT acceptance. Though a secular country, over 60% of the Malaysian population are Malay — by extension, this means around 60% follow Islam. Tai says most Malay people “would be reserved in expressing their support for the rights of LGBT, for fear of being seen as a lesser Muslim, and out of peer pressure.”
Hafiz, a Muslim-Malay, notes that this severely impacts his relationship with his religion.
“Me liking guys, it’s a really hard thing because I really love being a Muslim,” he said. “At the same time, it feels really a burden because Islam says you cannot be a gay guy.”
“At the end of the day it’s between you and God. As long as you suppress the feeling and you try not to do anything sexual you’re fine — falling in love is natural. But if you act on that, falling into a relationship or have sex, then it’s considered a sin.”
“I dare to say on behalf of all Islamic gay people, we do have a feeling of burden.”
Hafiz’s sentiments are contested by Amir, a 27-year-old Muslim-Malay engineer. Having studied in America for three years, he explains that his “horizons were broadened” by his experiences.
“You can be muslim and gay at the same time,” said Amir. “It depends on how you see it.”
“I still believe in God, I still believe in my religion. I think everybody has their own different way of reading the scriptures and you don’t have to follow what society expects you to do.”
Yet if there’s one thing that Amir and Hafiz can unilaterally agree on, it’s that they will never come out to their parents. According to Amir, Malaysian households are typically conservative, and parents would “not tolerate this kind of lifestyle.”
It’s not uncommon for many gay men in Malaysia to get married to women, just to please their families. Hafiz tells me he will most likely marry a girl one day, because that’s “the way it is.”
“You feel like you have a weight on your shoulders,” said Amir. “You really want to tell your parents but you can’t because you don’t want to ruin the relationship you have with them.”
“They would say you’d go to hell for it. They’d probably try and talk you out of it, or send you to a religious teacher for some brainwashing conversion therapy.”
“My family is very conservative, which is why it’s very hard for me to actually tell them the truth.”
Suddenly the lights dim. To a fanfare of traditional music, the bride and groom make their way to the stage, sharing blessings with relatives. My eyes are drawn to the bride, dressed beautifully in a flowing white gown. Her face is framed by a pink silk hijab, accentuating her bright eyes and joyful expression.
“She’s the prettiest girl from our class,” says Hafiz, smiling at his friend. “You know, she has so many gay friends here. We are all really, very close.”
The fact that Hafiz enjoys a network of supportive friends is not unduly thanks to the city he lives in. With two international airports and nearly 50 universities and colleges, KL is educated, international, and increasingly cosmopolitan; it is in the more remote states where LGBT people have the most difficulty.
Henry, a 25-year-old data analyst, moved from his home state of Sarawak in East Malaysia to study in KL. Reflecting on his past, he said: “It was really difficult back then.”
“My brother caught me kissing his best friend in the car outside our house. Luckily he was more open-minded but told me to never tell anyone about it.”
Despite experiencing more freedoms in KL, mainly the ability to meet other gay men through dating apps or at bars, Henry still feels the need to remain in the closet. He’ll talk about “boobs” with colleagues and pretends he’s engaged.
In reality he’s been in a relationship with a man for nearly two years. But he admits there’s a distinct line between his private and public life: “Yes you are staying together, yes you are sleeping in one bed, yes you call yourselves husbands, yes you’ve bought your own pair of rings,” he said. “But when you go out, you’re separated — you’re not partners.”
Kuala Lumpur’s cosmopolitan tendencies are reflected in its flourishing LGBT scene. Gone are the days of police raids on gay nightclubs. Now, venues like Marketplace and GTower open to hundreds of weekend punters, ready to enjoy nights filled with flashing lights, gyrating men and drag queens.
One of Malaysia’s most prominent drag performers, Rozz Ritzmann, believes that Western perceptions of gay life in her country are skewed. She said: “I think in the international papers, many asinine things that super-fundamentalist religious people say (and these people are in the minority) are often focused on, and taken out of context.”
“International publications love to print this, because it’s fodder. Their perceptions paint a very narrow picture of Malaysia and Malaysians, but this is not at all the climate here in Malaysia.”
“If one were to live in this country, I think one would be very surprised to find that Malaysian society is very accepting of people of all creed and colors. Gay or straight, religious or secular.”
The happy couple give their vows. Proud family members wipe away tears for this joyful occasion. In the respectful silence, it occurs to me that many people in this room, though leading professional lives and enjoying the acceptance of their friends, will never be able to have a wedding themselves.
It reminds me of something Henry said: “You can’t get the life that you want. There’s no happily ever after in Malaysia — it’s just a dream for gays. For us it won’t come true.”