While life as a gay young person growing up during the 1980s certainly was rough, I know that many people had it much worse. And many still do. As I contemplated living in Malaysia, I had to ask the question What would life be like for me as a gay man in Malaysia? While the Malaysian culture is diverse and split among three major ethnic groups (Malay, Tamil, and Chinese), the majority are Muslim. You see and feel its influence everywhere you go. In large, metropolitan KL, it feels less conservative.
As I pondered my personal question, I broadened my query out to perhaps an even more important one—What is life like for Muslim gay people? Islam is not known for its tolerance of the LGBT community and its lifestyle, even though in many Muslim countries sex between men is not uncommon due to the prohibitions of interaction between the sexes. Relations between women are generally ignored.
I reached out to some friends, and in turn a couple of brave Malays stepped forward to be interviewed.
Saiful* is a 33-year-old gay male who is Malay. Members of the Malay ethnic group basically have no choice in their religion. They are raised Muslim and are expected to follow its principles. He identifies himself as a liberal Muslim, someone who practices his religion sparingly.
Does your family know about your orientation? If yes, how are they about it? Are they accepting? Is it a secret from others?
I am not out of the closet with my family. Though they have an inkling about me because I am 33 and have no girlfriend. They know I am close to a lot of guy friends through the years. I often sleep over at some of their homes. In my 20s, my family did ask whether I had a girlfriend or was interested in marriage and such, but nowadays my mother and father do not touch on the topic anymore. Relatives are usually the most persistent ones who never fail to ask: “So when is your time? When is the big day? Bila lagi (When)? Ada calon, tak? (Do you have any suitors?). A couple of my gay Malay friends also experience such inquisitions during family get-togethers at Hari Raya Aidilfitri (Eid), weddings, and other communal Malay gatherings.
Do you feel that you are able to be “out” in your daily life, or are you only able to be open with close friends?
Depends on where I am. At the office, being gay is an accepted norm as I am in the creative/media line. So most people at my workplace know about my sexual orientation. Generally, outside the office I do not portray myself as gay, or at least try to not do so. I like to go to the gay clubs in KL, like Blue Boy in Bukit Bintang (that’s a really old, run-down place, but it has survived the best and worst of times, unlike many other flash-in-the-pan gay clubs in KL). I bring my boyfriend to Blue Boy sometimes, and he enjoys it because he is still new to the gay world and likes to see what it’s like. I go cruising at KL sauna/spas and the two cruising Lake parks in Kelana Jaya and Tasik Permaisuri in Cheras.
In this sense, I am only “out” with my close friends. And of course I can be myself with my boyfriend.
What is life like for gays in Malaysia?
I like to describe it as “thriving but we have to keep up with appearances”. Of course in urban areas such as KL, gay men and women can be as out as they want. Just as long as they don’t cause trouble and do not disturb the system. Malay Muslims in Malaysia are still generally very conservative. It is still a very conservative community, despite of what people say. So to be gay and Muslim and a Malay requires a lot of tact. It also depends on what his/her line of work is. For me in my life, I am open to friends and colleagues, but I keep up appearances when I meet other people, as interviewing people is part of my job scope.
Sodomy is still against the law in Malaysia, so that is quite clear cut. But the religious state laws, which apply only to Muslims, varies from state to state and usually concern dressing up like a member of the opposite sex, or holding events that have “immoral” things such as drag-like performances. Yes sodomy is a sin in Islam, but prosecution in this offence (as with adultery or fornication offences) requires substantial personal evidence. As far as I understand, one needs at least 4 witnesses to prosecute a Muslim offender of fornication/adultery/sodomy.
I know there was a party in northern state Kedah, some years back, that created headlines because the state Islamic religious authority found out it had drag-show like elements in the party.
My boyfriend and I once checked into a cheap hotel and personnel from the religious authority knocked on our door to check on offenders for khalwat (close proximity). I was very scared, because I am not confident about stuff and feared they might find fault at our being in the same room together. But my boyfriend asked me to hide in the bathroom. When the religious personnel found out there were only 2 guys in the room, instead of finding a guy with a girl, they left.
I believe there was another incident of a reforming-style camp in Terengganu state, or someplace else, for guys who dressed up as women (referred to in the Malay slang as Mak Nyah). I forget the objective of the camp, but it was not that ultra-religious in nature. A deputy minister had also last year condoned a parents conference that, among other things, included a discussion on how to identify youths with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) tendencies. It created an uproar among people as the deputy minister, who also launched the event, agreed to the topics at the talk, one of which was that gay men could be identified by a penchant for wearing V-neck T-shirts, carrying large handbags, wearing light-coloured outfits, and sleeveless shirts. Gay women were identifiable by their habit of hanging out with women all times of the day and night, the conference was noted. I thought the conference and what the deputy minister said was ridiculous as there are many many “closeted” men and women in Malaysia, who look and act like the normal everyday guy/girl. You can find these men cruising in the dark rooms of bathhouses on weekends, or the dark corners of cruising spots in KL.
I suppose the worst off among the gay community are the transvestites and transgender people in Malaysia, as their appearances are more apparent than their “straight-acting” counterparts. I have met many and worked with a couple in a theatre troupe I joined while working in Kedah. I can say their lifestyle is more difficult as they need to make ends meet while putting up with the stigma that still exists for people like them. Of course, their hardships are also related in some ways by their socioeconomic situation and educational backgrounds. But I still regard them as good friends who are just like me. They only look and act differently. They are Malay Muslims also but because they are from the heartland, jobs for them only consist of the typical bridal/wedding planner line, food and beverage or hospitality industries. Though there are many many successful crossdressers and transvestites in the cities, involved in various fields, appearance is still a big problem for them when it comes to finding their place in society, which is a sad thing.
So keeping up appearances is still a big deal in Malaysia I would think, that is if you want to thrive in some sort of way. Thrive in the conventional sense, I suppose. But the advent of social media and smartphone apps like Grindr, Wechat, and others enables gay men to socialise in a more efficient but still private manner. In the late 90s to mid-2000s, Malaysian netizens loved using online chat software like MIRC or the relay chat things. I used to chat on this and exchange photos and phone numbers to get dates. I lost my virginity to a guy I met on one of these online dating sites, which had a high gay following in Malaysia..
One of my friend says there are a few seemingly gay-friendly commercial spots in KL. Pavilion shopping centre seems to be frequented by much of the liberal gay men of the city, and I heard that the younger set of these men have been seen holding hands at the mall, though I am sure those are isolated cases. A restaurant in Bandar Sri Permaisuri in Cheras, which is near to the cruising lake, is also considered an eatery for gay men. I forget the name but is within the vicinity of the old town and Dominos Pizza in the area.
Malaysia has some potentially aggressive policies and laws. Do you ever feel afraid you will be arrested for being homosexual?
Yeah, I suppose I feared that when I was “caught” by the religious authorities, as they can always choose to find some kind of fault with anyone if we are not smart in defending ourselves.Though I know the actual religious offences (in Malaysia’s case, it’s Islamic religious law which is enforced at the respective state level), and these offences are very specific as it target cross dressers, alcohol consumption, and the such. Rarely are the religious department personnel looking out for gay men in close proximity. That is usually the job of local authorities or municipal councils, as they weed out immoral activities or suspected activities.
Gay bathhouses that have been raided are usually booked for having drug paraphernalia or even sex items (condoms, etc.). Newspapers have reported how the customers are clad in only towels and later hauled up to book, but they are usually gay massage parlours which are booked to catch illegal immigrants, or premises without permits. Yes, indecency is also a point that can be used against any offender, but I am not sure of what is the exact law. Patrolling policemen often monitor the cruising areas in the two lake parks in KL. But most times, they ask for identification or give a warning. I have heard of cruisers being brought to the police station but it’s usually for questioning. A masseur I know had been booked by police and stayed in jail a night as he overstayed his tourist pass/permit while working at a gay massage parlour.
As a Muslim, what is life like being both a Muslim and a gay man? Do Muslim teachings and attitudes toward homosexuality make it difficult for you to engage in your faith? Did you ever go through a period where you had a crisis of faith because of what the religion teaches about homosexuality?
The religion is very clear about homosexuality. My best friends, who are Muslim and gay, deal with these issues in their own way. The thing about Malays is that the majority of us are open minded in our outlook, but our religion of Islam is very sacred to us. Many Malay Muslims might be gay or lesbians but they do it discreetly to not upset this sort of “balance” the Malays prefer to keep. Malays in Malaysia, especially in the peninsula, are very progressive in work and business, but when they return home to their hometowns and families, they adhere to the religion very closely. The same Malay guy who might live with his boyfriend in KL, hangs out with mostly gay friends out of work, and outwardly portrays his sexuality (to a certain extent) will keep up appearances when he “balik kampung” or returns to his hometown.
I do that, and my friends who are gay generally do that.
Essentially, a true Muslim would know that even though the religion forbids homosexuality, it does not encourage one to hate or belittle a gay person. My boyfriend is from the kampung, and whenever I sleep over at his mother’s house, I am referred to simply as a guy friend, and no one would make any fuss. Personally I think the genuinely, humble Malay Muslims in rural areas are more open to these so called guy friends as they do not think ill of such relationships as they are not exposed to the gay culture as much as people in the towns.
My mother, who has asked me before when I was in my early 20s whether I was gay (I lied and responded in the negative), is on to me. She will always question about the guy friends I hang out with. You could say I live in a sort of denial with my family. I just keep the balance, not rocking the boat. It is a personal preference
I had prayed to be not who I am when I was younger, but that never helped.
In terms of religious practices for myself, I still say my prayers whenever I can. I regard Islam as something spiritual and I believe in the divine being. I had prayed to be not who I am when I was younger, but that never helped. So now I am at peace with myself most times because I know Islam for me, is more personal, sacred and all embracing and all encompassing. It is not a shallow religion of outer trappings. I feel it is a progressive religion that found its way to the Malays centuries ago and adapted itself with the cultures of this region. Religion is also an ultrasensitive topic for Malays especially in peninsular Malaysia, and this is why it is easily exploited by politicians and their political parties, and certain groups in certain ways.
Have I ever had a crisis of faith? Not really, because despite how gay my life has been now or in the past, my religion was still hanging around somewhere. Not far behind. It is there if ever I decide to say my prayers after a difficult personal situation. And it helps that i have a deeply devout parents, as well as devout friends.
I suppose I had that tumultuous period of balancing my desire to be a good Muslim with my sexuality when I was about 15 or 16. It is a hard time to be in as I was a teenager. But being in boarding school, an all Muslim one, I had hoped to be changed in a way. But you know how when one tries too hard, nothing comes out of it. I ended up having my first sexual encounter at the boarding school (when I was 16) with a guy who was the typical jock, popular, religious-seeming on the outside, but who likes effeminate guys on the inside. I eventually broke up with him because I told him I did not want to lead that kind of life, back then. He told me that I would eventually date many many other men after him. His words hold true till today.
He saw who I was for real. And I, by habit of personality am often in denial with truths. But I got through with that period of denying my true self by slowly easing my way to the gay life, through my best friends. I lost my virginity at 22. and I have been on double dates, even sharing hotel rooms with these close friends when we stay out with our respective partners.I have many gay-friendly straight friends who I got to know through the course of my career so far. So people always help me get by.
If a gay foreigner was considering visiting or moving to Malaysia, what suggestions would you give them?
Get friends who are Malays, Indian, Chinese, Kadazan, Dayak, everything. Or mix with as many of the races as possible. They can live their lives as they want here, but gay culture is still in the closet, generally. It takes a bit of tact and understanding of surroundings.
Do you foresee a time when being gay or lesbian will be accepted in Malaysia? What do you think needs to happen to change attitudes?
Not any time soon as people here are still quite conservative. Gay culture is till under wraps and only thrives at discos, spas, online, behind closed doors.
Regardless of what religion they are, Malaysians are conservative in their cultures. I am in Sabah now, and despite the absence of a Malay Muslim majority, the Bumiputera (indigenous people) here are just as concerned about keeping this so-called balance and not wanting to rock the boat of this brand of, well, peaceful existence with each other.
*Not his real name.