-Article by Maneesha Khalae
Last June, the Malaysian government announced a competition on the health ministry’s official website where participants submit videos dedicated to teenagers embracing “gender confusion.” The winner will receive up to 4282 Malaysian ringgit ($1000) when the competition ends in August. The overarching topic of the contest being “Value Yourself: Healthy Lifestyle Practice,” the government-selected themes are focused on prevention, control, and the issues and consequences of homosexuality.
Despite the outcry from local LGBTQ activists such as Nisha Ayub and Pang Khee Teik who denounce the contest as alienating and dangerous for an already vulnerable demographic, the Malaysian deputy director general of health, Lokman Hakim Sulaiman, declares it is aimed to “tap the creativity” of teenagers’ minds about sexual and reproductive health. However, while homosexuality prevention is one of Malaysia’s main social concerns, instructive sexual education for teenagers is still missing. According to a 2011 report from the Southeast Asian Journal of Tropical Medicine and Public Health, 65% of teenagers in rural areas of the country, such as Kelantan and Terengganu, claimed that their main source of sexual information was friends.
This competition announcement comes when conditions for LGBTQ Malaysians have been worsening due to the rapid rise of social and religious conservatism, which marked a shift from the more liberal attitudes in the 1970s and 1980s. It is important to note that in addition to being socially taboo, homosexuality remains forbidden and punishable by law.
A few months ago, Malaysia gained a certain notoriety for intending to ban “Beauty and The Beast” for a purportedly “gay moment” between the characters Le Fou and Gaston. The film was eventually allowed to be screened in full without any cuts. However, the screening of a 2011 Vietnamese film, ‘Lost in Paradise,’ depicting a romantic relationship between two men, was canceled at a local Penang Performing Arts Center after State Religious Affairs Committee Chairman Datuk Abdul Malik Abul Kassim sent an official letter to the organizers regarding its “sensitive” content. The Chairman of Muslim Network of Penang, Hafiz Nordin, quipped: “If they really are Malaysians, they should know that such movies should not be screened for the public. This can be construed by some as a way of promoting homosexuality in our country.”
Malaysia remains a state which criminalizes homosexuality on many levels, even going so far as to organize seminars, in 2012, for parents on how to “spot” indicators of possible homosexual tendencies in their children. The government-established signs of potential homosexuality were intrinsically based on clichés: men wearing tight clothes and carrying large handbags, and women spending large amounts of time in the company of other women.