COMMENT | Malaysia’s new government has put out a series of mixed messages on where it stands with regard to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
On the one hand, the minister in charge of Islamic affairs in the new Pakatan Harapan government, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, has condemned bullying and workplace discrimination against LGBT people.
He has suggested that the Islamic authorities should abandon their preoccupation with trans people’s attire, an obsession that in recent years has prompted dozens if not hundreds of arrests of trans women under state syariah laws, which criminalise “a male person posing as a female.” (Trans women are not “male persons,” but since Malaysia will not allow them to change their gender markers on their official documents, they are considered male under the law.)
On the other hand, on July 23, he asserted before Parliament that the government is concerned with the “worrying” “spread of the LGBT lifestyle” and told his critics not to “stand on the Friday pulpit and accuse the Harapan government of being friendly to LGBT.” And on July 29, according to media reports, he said the government would organise “camps” and “seminars” for LGBT people, reportedly adding that, “Parents need to be aware that this can be stopped from the beginning. We are ready to guide and help because we have the expertise.”
Human Rights Watch, in collaboration with the Malaysian trans rights organisation Justice for Sisters, has conducted research on the “camps” and “seminars” on LGBT issues that Malaysian Islamic development authorities, and some universities, have organised in recent years. Such programmes claim to do a harmful, unscientific, and impossible thing in the name of public health - “change” LGBT people’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
In April, we spoke to a number of LGBT Malaysians about efforts to change them, including through three-day retreats known as Mukhayyam, which have been organised by Jakim, the federal Islamic development department, and by state Islamic institutions since 2010. In the midst of pervasive anti-LGBT sentiment, Jakim justifies the Mukhayyam programmes in the name of public health outreach, and they do include sessions on HIV prevention.
But the Health Ministry’s 2016-2030 National Strategic Plan for Ending AIDS lists “giving spiritual awareness through a religious approach (tauhid) to face the challenges of life and abandon the practice of unnatural sex” as one of the objectives of the Mukhayyam programme. And gay and transgender people who took part in Mukhayyam told Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters that, in overt and subtle ways, the camps encourage them to “change.”
“Azim” (a pseudonym), age 27, who attended a Mukhayyam programme in December 2017 facilitated by the Islamic department in Kedah state, said that facilitators sought to stoke fears that LGBT people would go to Hell if they did not repent.
“To make us change,” he said, “they remind us about death. ‘Oh, when you’re dead, what happens?’” Azim said that in one activity, organisers covered the participants with a white cotton cloth used in Muslim funerals, lit incense to create a funeral atmosphere, played unnerving sounds, and asked participants think about their childhood and about death. “It made people start to cry,” said Azim.
Other transgender people and gay men spoke about scare tactics at Mukhayyam programmes. Danisha, a 45-year-old trans activist who attended a session in Johor in 2015, told us that Jakim officials showed a video suggesting that trans women were responsible for natural disasters. She added, “If there’s a typhoon, it has nothing to do with me.”
“Anna,” a 35-year-old trans woman in Kedah, attended Mukhayyam in 2012 and was assured by a Jakim official that the goal wasn’t to change her. After she returned from the programme, a picture of her and other transgender women was published in the local paper implying that they had changed as a result of attending Mukhayyam, with the headline, “Trans women return to the right path.”
Jakim and the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department (Jawi) claim to have returned 3,000 LGBT people to the “right path,” or to cisgender, heterosexual norms. But pressuring LGBT people to “return” to the gender assigned at birth or heterosexuality is, by medical and psychiatric consensus, a harmful and impractical goal. Asking LGBT people to change increases stigma, blame, and social isolation, and can drive people away from crucial public health programmes.
Attempts to “change” LGBT people’s identities, and to frame some consensual sexual acts between adults as “unnatural,” have no place in public health or public life. The idea that LGBT people are sick has been widely discredited in the global field of psychology. The World Health Organization removed “homosexuality” from the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) in 1992 and “gender dysphoria” from the ICD in early 2018.
Any government programme or rhetoric that supports the idea of “changing” LGBT people gives credence to harmful conversion efforts that occur in health care, in the religious sphere, and even in schools and universities. These conversion efforts are pervasive and dangerous for LGBT Malaysians.
In April 2018, students at the Universiti Sains Malaysia organised an event that aimed to correct LGBT people and bring them “Back to Fitrah [Nature].” Jakim officials have advocated for anti-LGBT education in public schools. And transgender women describe being asked to change while accessing health care. “Aliya,” 39, described going to an HIV clinic in Penang that claimed to be friendly to transgender women. A member of the staff asked her, “How long are you going to be like this?” “This was in 2016,” Aliya said, “and I didn’t go any more.”
The Malaysian government should immediately cease all state-sponsored programmes aimed at “changing” LGBT people, and instead support organisations that provide affirming, competent health care and other services to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. It should also seek to change laws that criminalise same-sex relations and transgender identities. Acceptance of LGBT people into health systems, communities, and civic life is a vital step towards a more vibrant, healthy Malaysia.
LGBT people do not need to find the “right path.” The Malaysian government does, when it comes to respecting their rights.
SAGAREE JAIN and NEELA GHOSHAL are from Human Rights Watch.