This is the sixth part of a 10-part series on LGBT rights in Southeast Asia, which uncovers the challenges facing the LGBT community in the region and highlights the courageous work of activists there.
Walk into any theater in Malaysia screening a movie with a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender character, and you can expect to watch a similar plot unfold: All LGBT characters will "die or repent” by the end of the film.
In a move that was considered to be an improvement, the Malaysian government’s Film Censorship Board issued a controversial guideline change in 2010.
“We are now allowed to show these scenes,” Malaysian Film Producers' Association president Ahmad Puad Onah told Agence France-Presse. “As long as we portray good triumphing over evil and there is a lesson learned in the film, such as from a gay [character] who turns into a [straight] man. Previously we are not allowed to show these at all.”
Malaysia has long been unequivocal in its stance on LGBT issues.
The country’s embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak has reiterated time and again that Malaysia will not defend LGBT rights. Earlier this year, Razak compared the LGBT community to the Islamic State terror group. Both, he said, are enemies of Islam.
Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, has a divided legal system: There are, on the one hand, federal civil and criminal courts, but at the state level, Muslims use Sharia courts for religious and family issues. Homosexuality is condemned under both jurisdictions.
The country has retained the colonial-era penal code 377, which criminalizes “carnal intercourse,” and includes same-sex sexual activity and other sexual behaviors “against the order of nature.” It carries a punishment of whipping and a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
Arguably the most famous case based on 377 has been the so-called “sodomy trials” of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Since 1998, Ibrahim, who was accused of having sex with a male aide, has been in and out prison as his case has moved through the courts.
In February, Ibrahim lost his final right of appeal and is now serving a five-year prison sentence. He has always maintained that the accusations against him were politically-motivated.
“From behind these prison walls, I feel a great concern and worry for my country,” Anwar said in a July statement. “We have gone through the futile process of changing leaders, but leaving the corrupt and obsolete system intact. We do not want piecemeal solutions but a serious commitment to reform and the end of corruption.”
The Anwar trials were covered extensively -- and sometimes sensationally -- by both local and international media. Thilaga Sulathireh, a Malaysian LGBT rights activist and one of the leaders of the ASEAN Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Caucus, tells The Huffington Post that the trials have had a profound effect on the Malaysian psyche.
“For a sexually repressed state, the Anwar trials were pretty full-on with explicit details," she says. "Given that, the LGBT issues have always been in the center or periphery of Malaysian politics.”
“This has also made it difficult for human rights defenders and activists to push for the human rights of LGBTIQ persons," Sulathireh adds, "as the issues have been politicized and used as a political tool.”
The continued existence -- and enforcement -- of 377 “maintains the notion that LGBT persons are criminals or excluded in some ways in society or have less rights,” Sulathireh says.
There is a general lack of acceptance of LGBT people in Malaysia, activists say. Bullying in schools, discrimination in the workplace, exposure to violence and limited access to health care are some of the many challenges facing the community. There are concerns now that growing religious conservatism may further impinge upon the rights of LGBT people.
In 2011, an “anti-gay camp” made headlines after more than 60 schoolboys were “identified as effeminate” by their teachers and sent off for four days of “religious and physical education.”
An education official said at the time that the camp was meant to guide the boys back “to a proper path in life,” according to the BBC.
The plight of trans women in Malaysia has also been well-documented. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report described the many abuses trans women face, including “arbitrary arrest, physical and sexual assault, imprisonment, discriminatory denial of health care and employment.”
Earlier this year, nine transgender women were convicted by a Sharia court under a discriminatory law that prohibits “a male person posing as a woman.” Such “cross-dressing” laws remain in force in much of Malaysia, and are actively being used to target transgender people, Human Rights Watch said in June.
Despite the bleak outlook for LGBT rights in Malaysia, however, there has been progress, activists say.
As the discourse around LGBT issues and rights has evolved globally, “we are seeing the change in some Malaysian media, civil society, employers and people in general,” Sulathireh says. “There is more visibility.”
Ultimately, the activist says, “education and access to information in diverse languages is crucial” for the community to move forward.
“It is important for us to speak up against extremism, violence and oppression, and the use of religion as a tool to maintain the status quo and further oppress people," Sulathireh adds. "I believe solidarity is important.”
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