Last edited: November 06, 2004

Coming Out in the Open

Anwar may be in jail for alleged sodomy, but Malaysia is growing more tolerant of its gay community

TIME Magazine, October 2, 2000
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By David Liebhold, Kuala Lumpur

Critics of the Malaysian court decision last month to convict Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges argue that the prosecution was all about politics. The battleground was homosexuality, however, and the charge against the former Deputy Prime Minister was "carnal intercourse against the order of nature." But while Anwar’s nine-year sentence sent shivers down the backs of many Malaysians, one group that hasn’t been cowed is the country’s gay community. Indeed, it seems to be growing. "More are coming out €" especially young people," says Ashley Lee, an openly gay 26-year-old journalist. "Gay clubs, discos and saunas are sprouting up all over the place." Anwar’s two-year sodomy trial even boosted Ashley’s sex life, he claims: "A lot of guys started experimenting with gay sex."

Many Malaysian gays initially feared that Anwar’s prosecution would mark the start of a crackdown against homosexuality. Such concerns have proven unfounded. Despite a growing number of gay bars and "cruising" areas in Kuala Lumpur and other cities, the police rarely launch raids. "The government knows there are a lot of gay people here," says Douglas Chee, the regional manager of a multinational company. "But they don’t really bother us much." And despite Anwar’s harsh sentence and an ongoing Islamic resurgence in the country, Malaysian gays are becoming more open about their sexuality. That is partly due to the Internet, where popular chat groups like "gaymalaysia" and "sayangabang" (darling brother) have provided a meeting place for homosexuals who would not otherwise dare to mix in public. It may also be related to Malaysians’ increased exposure to foreign attitudes, as more students go abroad and more tourists come in, according to Hadi Zachariah, a sociologist at Kuala Lumpur’s University of Malaya. Two years of regular references to sodomy in the mass media also appear to have left an impression on the local population. "The Anwar controversy has provoked unparalleled discussions on sex and sexuality €" sparing not even the minds of the young, who demanded to know what the fuss around sodomy was all about," Tan Beng Hui, an activist on women’s issues, has written.

But there’s no denying the fact that Islam €" to which 57% of the population adhere, at least on paper €" regards sex between men as a grave sin. The Islamic Affairs Department operates a kind of morality police, with the power to arrest Muslims for transgressions against religion. Usually in response to tip-offs, officers arrest several gays each month, generally for being in a room together. "I know there is very little effect," concedes Abdul Kadir Che Kob, the department’s head of education and research for the Kuala Lumpur area. "Only one in 100 changes." Despite the Anwar affair, sex remains a touchy subject in Malaysia. aids prevention groups are forced to operate almost covertly, while the Department of Health’s public education mostly stops short of explaining that condoms can prevent the transmission of hiv. "On the one hand, we have the gay community that wants more rights," says Nik Fahmee, a program director with the Malaysian aids Council. "But in Malaysia you cannot talk about sex, so we find it difficult to talk about hiv and aids." That said, official prudishness is selective. A day before Anwar’s arrest, the government-controlled press published lurid front-page stories on two of Anwar’s alleged victims, who were charged with committing acts of "gross indecency" and went on to explain them in graphic detail. A few days later Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told gaping reporters that during the act of sodomy, Anwar had been "masturbating this man."

The charges brought against Anwar are rarely raised in Malaysia. There is no centralized record of sodomy cases that have come before the Malaysian courts, but lawyers say there have been only a few instances concerning consenting adults, and no one can recall a sentence of more than three years. Given this official lenience, many gays believe it’s better to keep a low profile than risk a backlash. But there is a more outspoken faction. "Whose business is it what two people do in the privacy of their bedroom?" asks Chee, who says gays should press for the sex laws to be changed. "They call it ‘sodomy,’ but for me it is two people expressing their love." While Islamic leaders may never accept homosexuality, there are deep wells of tolerance in the ethnically diverse nation — even among the Muslim majority, who are mostly Malays. "There is a Malay culture and there is an Islamic culture," says sociologist Hadi, "and they are not quite the same. Malay culture is very tolerant." Of homosexuality, that is. Political dissent might be a different matter.

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