Malaysia Seksualiti Merdeka


by Sylvia Tan

Some 400 people are estimated to have
walked through the doors of Central Market Annexe over the weekend to
attend Seksualiti Merdeka, Malaysia’s first ever sexuality rights

As thousands of Malaysians marched in a
massive parade at Merdeka (Freedom) Square on Sunday to celebrate the
country’s 51 years of independence from Britain, the LGBT community
created its own slice of history with its first ever sexuality rights
festival held across the Klang River at Central Market Annexe.

The festival comprised film screenings, talks, workshops and the
closing event Malaysian Artistes for Diversity which featured Nikki, a
former Malaysian Idol contestant; Shanon Shah, an award winning singer;
and Rafidah, a popular TV show host.

Middle pic (left to right): Sivarasa Rasiah, MP for
Subang and a vice-president of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat
(People’s Justice Party)
and; Dr Wan Halim Othman, a clinical
sociologist; Nisha, a transsexual social worker with PT Foundation;
academic Dr Teh Yik Koon; and moderator Shanon Shah. Photos by Sylvia

“This is a moment in history. This is the first time anything like this
has ever been done in this country. This is the first time a panel that
has been constituted in this way has come to talk on the same issue
from a variety of perspectives; that we can get a vice-president of
Keadilan Rakyat who is a people’s representative human rights lawyer to
come and talk to us. It’s a citizen’s duty to start engaging MPs on
larger issues like these
.” Said Shanon, a well-known
writer-musician-activist, at the forum on violence faced by
transsexuals. He had stepped out of his moderator’s role to make the

At the first forum on Saturday were four panelists: Sivarasa, Member of
Parliament for Subang and a vice-president of the opposition Parti
Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party); Dr Wan Halim Othman, a
clinical sociologist; Nisha, a transsexual social worker with PT
Foundation; and academic Dr Teh Yik Koon, a researcher and author of The Mak Nyahs: Malaysian Male to Female Transsexuals.

Sivarasa Rasiah

Transsexuals in Malaysia face harassment and/or even police brutality
as cross-dressing is punishable under Islamic laws or the Minor
Offences Act under the Penal Code for non-Muslims. In July 2007, a
male-to-female transsexual was so severely beaten by Malacca Religious
Affairs Department (Jaim) enforcement officers that she required a
hernia operation.

Dr Teh further highlighted that while Malaysia has disallowed Muslims
from having gender realignment surgery since 1983 and post-op
transsexuals including non-Muslims are unable to have their new gender
reflected in their identification documents, Islamic countries such as
Iran and Egypt permit gender realignment surgery and legally recognise
post-op transsexuals who are permitted to marry someone of the opposite

Reports from Iran have however suggested that sex change operations
have been prescribed as a “cure” for effeminate gay men as
homosexuality is punishable by lashings, imprisonment and/or execution.

Dr Farish A NoorSpeaking to a crowd of about 100 on Sunday was historian Dr Farish A
who highlighted the Panji Tales, a collection of ancient mythical
Javanese tales which incorporate themes of gender bending and cinta sejenis (meaning same-sex love in Malay).

Referencing Malaysia’s colonial-era Section 377 which prohibits
“unnatural” sex as well as commonly used refrains that homosexuality is
a western import, Dr Farish appealed to the audience to be acquainted
with the sexual geography of pre-Islamic Southeast Asia as it is
“evidence of what we today term ‘alternative’ lifestyles which was then
perfectly normal.”

The prominent political scientist and human rights activist further
cited anatomically correct and sexually explicit stone carvings which
prominently depict male genitalia at the Candi Sukuh and Candi Ceto
temples in Central Java which are believed to have been built in the
15th century.

“The sad thing is that the Panji stories depicting much of social life
in much of Southeast Asia at that time have been completely forgotten
(today)… Like the Kama Sutra, its Southeast Asian cousin Serat Centini
is a text about sexual conduct which normalises sexual and emotional
attraction that go beyond the simple male-female dichotomy. The Serat Centini
openly talks about the conduct of same-sex love and attraction. And if
all these stories right up to the 15th century – the idea of same-sex
attraction was seen as the norm – what is the ultimate moral tale of
the Hikayat Panji Semirang, is that love overcomes everything else. The
entire quest of Panji Semirang is to consummate this love.”

Although Seksualiti Merdeka might be construed to be somewhat
provocative, co-organiser and Arts Programme Director of The Annexe
Pang Khee Teik says its aim is mainly to empower the community. “There
are those of us who long to be a part of the nation’s Independence
celebration, even if the nation has persistently persecuted, ignored
and forced us into the closets.”

As same-sex relations are forbidden under both Shariah (Islamic) laws
and the Penal Code, he says many gays and lesbians mistakenly believe
that it is against the law to be gay when the law “simply targets the
sexual acts and not the identity.”

Having read his gay stories in public over the last few years without
any ramifications, he says he believes that the perception of
persecution “can be countered with an increase in the amount of
positive role models and stories that we put out there.”

The three-day also included a forum on sexual diversity in Malaysia by
Dr Sharon Bong on sexuality, faith and family relations; Benjamin McKay
on cruising in malls in the Malaysian capital and Wong Yuen Mei who
highlighted the pengkids (Malay vernacular to mean masculine lesbian)
culture; a lecture on homophobia by Singaporean Anj Ho; a
“Heartbreakers Anonymous” storytelling session; an interactive workshop
on sexuality; film screenings and music performances.

LGBT organizations in Malaysia

No interest group exists to promote LGBT-rights solely.

Instead a loose coalition of NGOs, artists and individuals have
formed under the pretext of organising the annual sexuality rights
festival Seksualiti Merdeka.
Seksualiti Merdeka, meaning “Sexuality Independence”, is an annual
festival consisting of talks, performances, screenings, workshops, and
forums, to promote sexuality rights as a human right, to empower
marginalised individuals and communities, and to create platforms for
advocacy. Besides organising the programmes of this annual festival,
members of this coalition are also involved in letter writing
campaigns, organising regular film screenings and discussions, academic
advocacy and training of trainers.

The groups involved in Seksualiti Merdeka have also on their own
advocated for the rights of LGBT within the framework of human rights
advocacy. These include established human rights organisations such as
the Human Rights Committee of the Malaysian Bar, SUARAM, PT Foundation, KRYSS, Women’s Candidacy Initiative, Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower), Purple Lab, Matahari Books, and The Annexe Gallery.

Several other groups such as [Sisters In Islam], Women’s Aid Organisation, Amnesty International also have sexuality within their advocacy.

Several other organizations also exist to address the AIDSHIV pandemic, which has allowed for greater public discussion of sexual orientation, gender identity and human rights.

PT Foundation, originally called Pink Triangle, focuses on
“providing HIV/AIDS education, prevention, care and support programes,
sexuality awareness and empowerment programes for vulnerable
communities in Malaysia”. The communities include MSM (men who have sex
with men), transgender, sex workers, drug users, and people living with
HIV. They are joined by other organizations, such as “LPG” (for gay
men) and “OutDo” (for lesbians) which organise regular activities for
their target communities.


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