The tangled web of politics, queer rights, and seks bebas

November 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

(This was first published in Kakak Killjoy on November 11, 2011.)

Just say no to bans

Seksualiti Merdeka’s name directly translates to mean Sexuality Independence/Freedom, and loosely translates to mean Free/Independent Sexuality. The core message on its website shows that it brands itself as a sexuality movement that attempts to provide a space and public platform for people who identify as non-heteronormative. It allows for people to explore, learn from, and educate one another on all the in-betweens of sexuality and gender that often fall through the cracks or are frequently rendered silent and absent. In particular, it’s a movement designed to amplify the voices of the marginalised. Quite naturally, then, the Inspector General of Police declared an official ban on Seksualiti Merdeka and all events associated with it, and the propaganda machine of the local mainstream media almost lost their shit in falsely and breathlessly declaring it a “free sex” festival (otherwise known as SEKS BEBAS!).

This issue has become a sudden hot-button topic even though Seksualiti Merdeka was launched in 2008, because it’s a convenient platform from which rabid politicians and their acolytes can engage in dubious political manoeuvering. The issue of queer rights allows the far right conservative voices in Malaysia to use the “this is against Malaysian/Muslim-majority values” agenda for political leverage, as they have done in recent times against Christians and communists. In some cases, these voices call for Datuk Ambiga Sreenavasan’s “banishment” for merely being Seksualiti Merdeka’s officiator. In Perkasa’s case, it reignites a long-simmering resentment over her involvement in Bersih through yet another manufactured scare-tactic. This simmering brew of warring factions is a complex mess. Many “oppose homosexuality” on the basis of what they perceive religious and moral beliefs, while political factions and groups put forth their objections under the guise of various populist sentiments like “Malay unity threatened” or “Islamic rights threatened”. This is in order to maintain racial and religious supremacy at the expense of minority groups.[i]

The confluence of law and religious prohibitions is often framed as the “natural” way of things, but Malaysia’s anti-sodomy laws are a legacy of the British colonial laws. Religious prohibitions are something to be navigated by each individual on his or her own terms. But the law, as noted by The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) in a wonderful statement released on November 5 against the Seksualiti Merdeka ban, is something that every individual has a right to disagree with. In the interest of political gain, power, and leverage, the law is often presented as the result of moral and religious pre-conditions, but more often than not it’s just a way of obscuring its historical context and the people and institutions these laws serve to protect. The important question to ask is why colonial laws are still maintained and propagated in more insidious ways in a country that won its independence fifty-four years ago.  This is precisely what Farish Noor points out in his essay “From Pigafetta to Panji” in his book What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You:

Talk of preserving Asian values and Asian identity as a pretext for maintaining and reproducing heterosexist gender distinctions and their accompanying gender stereotypes is something that begs the historian’s response.

For is it not the case that the complex, rich and fertile history of Southeast Asia is a wellspring from which we may draw a counter-factual example of multiple and alternative sexualities at work?

He then proceeds to outline a little bit of this complex, rich, and fertile history for his readers in this essay – providing us with a glimpse of our past that far exceeds the modern imagination of gender politics that exhorts us to merely tick off the boxes of L, G, B, or T, or adhere to a strict, rigid heteronormative existence.

The virulent hate directed toward Seksualiti Merdeka organisers and supporters, as well as to the gay, trans, and queer communities at large, is a particular strain of hate that has found a voice and a public platform through state-sanctioned laws that criminalise varied expressions of human sexuality because it is deemed “abnormal”. I’m not sure how to deal with the hate, to be honest. Some people are hell-bent on despising others because of real or perceived differences. Among some of the tweets about this issue that I found alternately heartbreaking and rage-inducing were the reminders that “LGBT people are human, too.” That we need to remind each other of our humanness is in itself a potent enough reminder that hate and oppression have long been valuable weapons used to keep societies and communities divided and at odds with each other.

But to only view the backlash against Seksualiti Merdeka as the result of “religious extremism” reduces a complex conversation about national identity into an “us v. them” scenario, which is exactly what these politicians want. I’m alarmed by some of the more so-called progressive supporters of Seksualiti Merdeka who have been quick to deride its opposition as Muslim extremists, even though a quick scan through Twitter or Facebook will reveal many Malaysians from diverse religious backgrounds who object to Seksualiti Merdeka. It seems necessary at this point to think about how to separate Islam, as a religion and practice, from forms of political Islam used by groups like Perkasa and parties like PAS and UMNO to gain leverage. The language of “moderate Islam v. extremist Islam” is one that has grown out of a largely hysterical, Islamophobic discourse post 9/11 in the United States and Europe, and it is a language that should be resisted in the Malaysian context. [ii]

As Charles Santiago points out in his article, “LGBTIQ community has rights, too”:

The government, instead of fanning hatred and inciting anger, could move to oppose all forms of stereotyping against the LGBTIQ community.

It should condemn the bullying and name calling the community has had to endure and ensure they have equal access to education and employment opportunities, including enjoyment of basic rights of equality and freedom of expression and association.

The members of the community are targets of verbal abuse, physical and sexual violence, harassed at the work-place, ostracised by their families and face hate crime-related sexual assault.

They occupy the lowest positions in the job market, face discrimination in schools and are unable to access public housing because of their sexual orientation. In fact, they experience the worst forms of discrimination. They need compassion and state support. Not further discrimination.

But, driven by the need to stay in power, the government has fashioned the controversy surrounding the festival for its own political mileage. Clearly the ban demonstrates the ongoing persecution against Ambiga who spearheaded the call for electoral reforms.

The government is playing a dangerous game as it has carelessly pitted different communities against each other, while prime minister Najib Tun Razak trumpets his 1Malaysia policy, which aims at national integration.

But we are not our government, and we should (and can) think and act about this in ways that foster understanding and empathy. In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society still dealing with a potent colonial hangover, it is important that people strive to denounce both hate (whether in the guise of morality or religion) and censorship (in the guise of law, morality, and religion). This is not the same thing as demanding that queer communities should work within systems of oppression and refrain from rocking the boat. The boat should be rocked, and no one should be pressured into “keeping quiet” in order to appease religious or moral chauvinism.

Respecting and understanding the local Malaysian context in terms of religion and culture is not an excuse for those of us striving for a more egalitarian society to overtly or silently support the police ban on Seksualiti Merdeka. In order for people to engage with a movement, a movement must be allowed to exist, and it must be given the space and sanctity to put forth its views. Shutting down Seksualiti Merdeka also shuts down the ensuing debate and conversation. Sexual and gender rights are for everyone, and just because you identify as straight or heterosexual doesn’t mean that this ban doesn’t affect you. It does. It limits your rights as a human being to explore your identity beyond state-sanctioned norms of what is right and acceptable. The rights of one person are contingent upon another’s, and the moment we start thinking in terms of “my rights” or “my community’s rights” as more important or inherently more valuable than the rights of others, we start heading toward a very dark area of insular, hyper-conservative politics and its potentially fascist laws and policies.

"gay couple on the sallon", raphael perez

The complexities of a Malaysian queer movement

On the flip side, there have been numerous criticisms levelled at the Seksualiti Merdeka movement itself for privileging gay rights over others, and for sidelining issues of misogyny, sexism, biphobia and transphobia that affect its lesbian, bisexual, intersex, and transgender members. This was elucidated at length by a fellow Kakak Killjoy, Yuki Choe, some months back in her piece titled, “So What Is Wrong with Malaysian LGBT Movement for Sexual Rights?”. I encourage you to read Yuki’s piece to learn about some of the ways people have felt marginalised and exploited by Seksualiti Merdeka’s agenda.

Seksualiti Merdeka’s mainstream discourse is established along the lines of LGBT identity politics, which may override or elide some of the more complex ways queer Malaysians express their identity. I’ve been thinking about this since reading Akshay Khanna’s superb piece on “Aid conditionality and the limits of a politics of sexuality”, which I also encourage you to read in its entirety. In particular, this passage struck a chord (emphasis mine):

This idea, that ‘who you have sex with defines what you are’ is just about a century old, and arises in a very particular political-economic context where medical professionals claimed a monopoly over defining the ‘truth’ of desire. This peculiar idea is far from universally experienced. In several parts of the global south, South Asia, for instance, people experience and express same-sex desire without needing to think of themselves as in any way different from the next person. In other words, same sex desire is expressed without reference to the idea of personhood. Activism in these parts of the world has recognised this diversity and addressed the politics of sexuality in a far broader way.

In India, for instance, the Queer movement, which has succeeded in overturning a colonial anti-sodomy law, has been critical of an ‘LGBT politics’.

This has been a movement that recognises the politics of sexuality as affecting everyone – not just those who fall into the politically constructed category of LGBT – and being central to the politics of caste, class, race, religious fundamentalism, nationalism and economic development.

As its supporters or would-be supporters, part of a genuine critique and consideration of Seksualiti Merdeka will be to think about how the movement imitates or replicates Western-centric discourse of sexual identity politics. Does one have to adhere to the politics of LGBT to be a part of the movement? In other words, must sexual desire always be thought of and expressed in terms of personhood, as Khanna explains above? The politics of visibility and “coming out” should be interrogated. Not everyone who sees his or herself as queer necessarily identifies as such in public, or feels the need to “come out” and lay claim to an identity, such as it were. For many people, sexuality is fluid and defies easy categorisation. For some, queer may be a state of mind or existence, a means of how one may choose to view and navigate sexual and gender politics at large. Perhaps sex and choice of sexual companions doesn’t even factor into it, especially for people who live and exist in more conservative spaces or with extended family.

Queer activists and thinkers like Judith Butler or Haneen Maikey, a Palestinian activist, urge us to remember that queer politics are not separate from other political and social movements. In envisioning a local queer rights movement that is egalitarian, it will be important to avoid a reductive perspective of “choice” activism that amplifies individual rights over social, cultural, and community systems and structures. This form of choice activism puts the focus on people who are able to articulate their needs and desires and claim a political identity.

Typically, choice activism maintains socio-economic privileges, particularly as it tends to speak to urban, relatively affluent KL-ites who can afford to live on their own or with their partner/others who share the same views, network within the same circles, and enjoy enough social and cultural cachet so as to be able to “rock the boat” and wear it as a badge of honour. The queer movement, just like feminism or anti-racism, is one that must consider all forms of oppression that keep patriarchal, racist, heterosexist, classist systems in place in Malaysian society. It’s a tall order, certainly, and I don’t mean to imply that a local queer rights movement like Seksualiti Merdeka should solve all of Malaysia’s problems in one fell swoop. I’m merely reminding those of us who care about these things to think about ways in which queer rights are not isolated from other rights but a part of it in the wider fight against oppressive power structures. In a recent radio interview, co-founder of Seksualiti Merdeka, Pang Khee Teik, addresses this in the context of jeopardised minority rights in Malaysia. That he situates queer rights among other minority rights is a move that should be encouraged and welcomed.

Haneen Maikey co-authored an article on the International Day Against Homophobia with a fellow activist, Sami Shamali, and while it is written from a Palestinian perspective, the piece is chockfull of valuable, helpful points that is of relevance to Malaysian queer activists, as well. This one in particular is worth quoting at length:

During the past ten years of our work, we have noticed that the dominant discourse around homophobia—be it a gay response to a homophobic charge or a homophobic discourse trying to publicly fight homosexuality, falls within the same cycle; this cycle reinforces the same power relations and determines what is “gay” and what is “backward”. This divides society into two groups only, the same dual polarized categorization that we are fighting in our larger discourse on sexuality (man/women, feminine/masculine).

There is the homophobe, then, who is now the “backward” Palestinian society that persecutes homosexuality and that must feel shame, and on the other hand there are the gays and lesbians that must feel proud, supported by allies and friends with a progressive human rights discourse, which is, unfortunately, a liberal discourse most of the times. There is no space in this polarization for more complex and less public expressions and statements; more importantly, this discourse pushes back any attempt to analyze homophobia deeply enough for the sake of dismantling it.

And the worst thing is that this discourse prevents the gay and queer community from taking an effective role in the general social agenda, because of the claim that our oppression is different and particular. This is a part of the liberal discourse that ignores the analysis of power relations and prefers to look at every issue on its own. And thus it deals with the gay issue apart from all other social issues, turning a blind eye to the fact that the gender and sexual struggle, which includes the gay struggle, is an integral part of a wider resistance agenda that is not “particular” or “different”.

People who fall beyond heteronormative standards of sexuality are not “new” in our society, either. LGBT identity politics, however, is relatively recent development in Malaysia. The modern inception of the global LGBT movement itself stems from the various gay-rights movements that flowered between the late 1940s and 1960s in parts of Europe and the United States. Thinking about the existence of non-heteronormative people in Malaysian society does not necessarily mean that they’ve identified themselves as “person with X sexual preferences” and/or embraced the LGBT identity. Therefore, involvement in the kind of activism and public participation encouraged by Seksualiti Merdeka is not necessarily the only way to show support for or to align oneself with the Malaysian queer rights movement. Precisely for this reason it’s crucial to remember that critique of Seksualiti Merdeka as a movement is not the same as being anti-queer rights.

I want to quote at length another point made by Maikey in an article she co-authored with Lynn Darwich, because I think it really hammers home the point:

Within an LGBT framework, our struggles become issues of representation and privilege. We want those privileges too. We contribute to hierarchies that leave the transgenders, the non-identified, the bisexuals, the intersexed, the disabled, the migrants, the colored, the illiterate, and many more, at the bottom, and unworthy of rights.

Instead of looking at the ways privilege works to undermine any resistance in our societies, we focus instead on how it excludes us, and only us.

When one’s sexual orientation is a site of struggle, there is (little or) no examination of the privilege that still comes with “being a man” in conservative societies and within gendered legal frameworks, for example. Instead of identifying dominant norms that have historically produced exclusions based on any category of identification, we invest in centralizing our marginalized struggles as LGBT, and leave others to do the same for theirs. We forget that “those other struggles” may be ours too.

Instead of critiquing the normative, in all its forms, we apologetically try to prove that we, the gays, the lesbians, are natural/normal too. Accept us. Support us. We ask for LGBT tolerance and acceptance, when we could be working towards justice and freedom from heteronormative patriarchy.

It would be a significant mistake to assume that everyone who objects to Seksualiti Merdeka’s agenda is a homophobe or transphobe, or to view the vehement opposition through groups like PAS and Perkasa only through the prism of religious extremism without considering the various political factors at play in Malaysia. Equally vital is to keep in mind that there are many others who condemn the ban and the homophobic and transphobic hate while remaining critical of Seksualiti Merdeka’s agenda for reasons outlined in the second half of this essay. In this light, perhaps the ban on Seksualiti Merdeka should be viewed as an opening through which an expansive conversation about the local queer movement can take place. A ban can’t stop us from talking. We should not be afraid to keep the conversation going.

[i] Fellow Kakak Killjoy Alicia Izharuddin talks about this at length in her piece published in Merdeka Review, “Seksualiti Merdeka dan pengaruh homofobia Melayu”.

[ii] To reiterate, I don’t consider this a specific problem inherent in Malay-ness or Islam, but an issue that stems from majority politics. In Malaysia, the political majority is Malay-Muslim. If our majority was White-Christian, for example, we’d be the United States and still dealing with similar problems of marginalised minority rights, albeit within a different context of white supremacy and right-wing Christian politicking.

*Image from Raphael Perez’s collection.

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Remembrance day

November 13, 2011 § 2 Comments

Yesterday The day before yesterday was the eleventh of November, which is Remembrance Day in certain countries not including Malaysia. The eleventh of November is also my father’s death anniversary date. Another kind of remembrance day.

When I was living in Canada I couldn’t not pay attention to Remembrance Day, but I tried anyway. For Canadians (or the national, public proclamation of Canadian-ness), Remembrance Day involved a specific exaltation of war that seemed to override its original purpose to remember people who died “in the line of duty”. But even “in the line of duty” is a tidy phrase. It suggests that Duty is a clean, abstract concept that all documented human beings in service of a nation-state come to quite naturally. It carefully elides the narratives of power that fuel state interests and produces war as a necessity.

As far as I know, no one in my family has died while serving in a war. I think I come from a long line of people who kept their head down, did what needed to be done, and tried not to kick up a fuss. Sometimes I see this as unfortunate, but that’s a story for another time. Maybe.

There have been people in my family who have been hurt (and killed) while resisting the forces of war as they tried to keep their head down, did what needed to be done, and tried not to kick up a fuss – when the Japanese forces occupied Malaya, for instance, or when the Sri Lankan army occupied its own country.

The thought of my father as a soldier makes me laugh, and it would have made him laugh. This despite the fact that that I always sensed he was at war with himself and the world. (But really, who isn’t?)

While in Canada, when November 11 came around each year I tried to block out what the world instructed me to remember and tried to remember what I could of what I wanted to remember.

Sometimes panic sets in because I think I’m forgetting. I pay attention to what Barthes[i] wrote in Mourning Diary and feel worse because this is true to my experience, and far more encompassing than the simple act of forgetting:

We don’t forget,

but something vacant settles in us.

The vacant threatens to spread.

My father was religious, but in all the wrong ways. I was for awhile similarly and haphazardly religious until I dabbled with an obnoxious bout of atheism and soon realised it made about as much sense to me as religion. So now I’ve settled into a comfortable agnosticism that alternately disbelieves and believes the gods to be in everything. In the brown pools of my dog’s eyes, for example. Or in my smartphone, when I receive a text from someone I’ve been thinking about for months. In my nephews.

Perhaps I’m like my father in this sense; he adhered to a form of Hinduism that sought gods in everything and everyone. To see gods everywhere is different from recognising the god(s) only in yourself. To see them everywhere, you’re going to have to risk being fool a lot of the time. I mean, you’d probably have to be a blubbering fool. You’re going to have ridiculously high expectations about everything, and as a predictable consequence you’re going be consistently disappointed, hurt, and taken for a ride. You’re likely to be absurdly emotional, moved by all the wrong things and wrong people and touched by some wonderful things and some wonderful people.

I can’t imagine any other way to be. Or, it’s likely that I don’t know any other way to be.

Kalighat painting of Hanuman

I’ve been dipping in and out of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s translation of Kabir’s poems since I bought it some months back. My introduction to Kabir was through my father’s copy of the anthology translated by Rabindranath Tagore, though I’m sure I was too young to appreciate the subtle, quiet dynamics of Kabir’s phrases back then. Since my father’s death (it’s been 11 years, I just realised, though true to the cliché it feels just like yesterday) I’ve been unable to find my father’s book. It bothers me that little bits and pieces of my father, kept alive through a slapdash collection of old watches, old rings, old books, and old documents, letters, photographs, postcards, and birthday cards could one day just disappear. First a book goes missing, then a photograph, and then you forget the face, the grooves and the lines on the skin, the tilt of a smile.

When I can’t remember anything, before I start to panic, I think about where my father might be now. Maybe a sort of ragtag paradise with unlimited dishes of spicy mutton varuval and whisky under palm trees, in a cool breeze, Louis Armstrong singing into the night. I imagine him hanging out with Hanuman; they’d get along with their similar rogue sensibilities.

Mehrotra renders Kabir’s devoted, irreverent style in a way that reminds me of my father’s devoted, irreverent worship of the gods. “He’s a tricky chap,” was his common refrain when I used to tell him as a child that I’d prayed to Hanuman for so-and-so and did not receive what I had requested.  He’d say that, and then place an offering of flowers or fruit at the prayer altar where a row of pictures and statues of the gods sat in a row.

When I try to remember my father I just remember him as he was. I imagine that his reaction to any kind of paradise would echo Kabir’s:

I’m waiting for the ferry,

But where are we going,

And is there a paradise anyway?



What will I,

Who see you everywhere,


Do there?

I’m okay where I am, says Kabir.

Spare me the trip.

I imagine him to be okay where he is largely to remind myself to be okay where I am.

I try to remember his voice and as I do I can almost hear him saying these words: And is there a paradise, anyway? I’m okay where I am. Spare me the trip.


[i] And today I learned that it’s Barthes’ birthday, today. (That would be November 12, because I realise I’m posting this when it’s no longer today. That is to say, it’s November 13.)

*Photo credit: Eye Burfi

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