Towards a more inclusive nation

Posted on: July 13, 2013

Tamil Selvan Ramis

| July 13, 2013

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak calling for an end to the anti-homosexuality agenda in Malaysia.


Dear Prime Minister Najib,

Please reconsider your administration’s support for the anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) “activism” and start implementing anti-discriminatory policies to protect the LGBT community in Malaysia.

Let me share examples of problems with the anti-LGBT policies that are endorsed by your administration, share my experiences working with the LGBT community, and suggestions to create a more inclusive Malaysia.

On Nov 3, 2011, the police banned the 4th annual Sexuality Merdeka (a sexuality rights festival organised by a coalition of NGOs, artists, and activists).

The then Deputy Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said: “Police will take action under Section 27 A(1)(C) of the Police Act as well as 298A of the Penal Code to prevent any function relating to the programme.”

He defended himself by saying, “Police received many protests from NGOs, including Islamic and non-Islamic organisations, which feared the programme could create disharmony, enmity, and disturb public order.”

Of course, Khalid did not bother to furnish any statistics in regards to the “many protests” that would offer some legitimacy to the ban.

How would a festival celebrating human rights of people of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity through forums, talks, workshops, book launches, art exhibition and stage performances at the Annexe Gallery, Kuala Lumpur (a closed environment) possibly “create disharmony, enmity, and disturb public order?”

The event organisers confirmed that the festival attendance has been growing, 500 people in 2008 to 1,500 people in 2010; and there were no disruptions in the previous years.

Ironically, the 2011’s festival had the theme: Queer without Fear. Should the ban on the festival be considered a clear warning from the authorities that queer individuals are meant to live in fear in Malaysia?

Research has repeatedly shown that LGBT individuals are more vulnerable to poor mental health such as anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders, psychotic illnesses and suicide attempts.

The government’s ban on one of the very few avenues to celebrate one’s atypical sexual orientation and gender identity would only worsen the mental health of our LGBT citizens.

The question is: Which is more hateful, a commendable festival of sexuality rights or the oppressive and damaging ban placed on it?

Guidelines to identify LGBTs

On Sept 12, 2012, Deputy Education Minister Mohd Puad Zarkashi officiated a seminar on ‘Parenting in addressing the issue of LGBTs’ in Penang. The seminar was later found to be the 10th of its kind in the nation.

Most shockingly, guidelines to “spot” gay and lesbian individuals were distributed to about 1,500 teachers and parents who attended the seminar.

They included absurd “symptoms” such as “muscular body and a fondness for showing off their physique by wearing V-necks and sleeveless tops; preference for tight and brightly coloured clothes.

It also says there’s an inclination them to be attracted to men, carry big handbags similar to the kind used by women, hanging out, sleeping and dining with women; and for lesbians, an absence of feelings for men.

Puad said: “Youths are easily influenced by websites and blogs relating to LGBT groups. This can also spread among their friends. We are worried that this happens during schooling time.”

First of all, the symptoms that are indicated on the guidelines mentioned above are based on a disturbing failure to differentiate between gender and sexual orientation.

Gender is a social label of being man or woman, and is based on the psychological features and role attributes that society assigns to the biological sexes.

Sexual orientation on the other hand is defined as a person’s emotional and erotic orientation toward members of the same or another sex.

Most importantly, it has been established in psychological literature that gender and sexual orientation are independent variables.

There is no linear relation between people’s gender and sexual orientation. There is no scientific basis for the argument that “websites and blogs relating to LGBT groups” will influence and change students’ sexual orientation.

This argument suggests that those students are making deliberate choices to be part of a sexual minority group that is stigmatised and marginalised by an intolerant society they live in.

Above all, there are strong evidences to suggest that sexual orientation has a genetic component which flies in the face of everyone who argues that homosexuality is unnatural.

However, even if homosexuality is unnatural (which is not true), it does not justify our oppressions of the sexual minorities.

Anti-LGBT musical tour

On March 28, 2013, human rights activists in Malaysia were shocked again by news in an international newspaper.

The Asmara Songsang (Abnormal Desire) musical is touring schools, universities and teacher-training colleges (with free tickets provided) with the aim of educating “youngsters and their parents on the bad things about LGBT.”

The director of the musical, Rahman Adam stated: “Nowadays in Malaysia you read so many things in newspaper articles or write-ups about LGBT because [LGBT] are going into schools and influencing the children.

“Children need to recognise that men are for women, and women are for men. They [LGBT] are all out to have homosexual and lesbian sex, and although right now it is not so serious [in Malaysia], we need to act, to do something, to say something, to say that this is bad and not to follow it.”

The musical portrays the lives of three LGBT friends who throw loud parties, take drugs and have casual sex. The musical ends with the depictions of the LGBT individuals who refuse to repent being killed in a lightning storm.

Again, Rahman’s statement suggests that people are just too desperate to be a point of national ostracisation.

The musical story line is capable of planting inhumane prejudices against LGBT individuals in the minds of the attendees. Also, one wonders how it would be possible for the LGBT groups to go into schools and influence children (which is an utterly silly and false claim, of course) without the schools’ authorisation.

On top of that, there is no rational reason to allege that being a LGBT individual is bad.

There is scientific evidence to show that LGBT individuals are capable of having stable, long term relationships (if anything, homosexual partners function better than their heterosexual counterparts), and children of same-sex couples show similar psychosocial adjustment as children of opposite-sex couples.

LGBT individuals are capable of having a fulfilling life like their heterosexual counterparts and the only real problem that LGBT individuals have in Malaysia is the institutionalised discrimination imposed by the intolerant authorities.

In addition, there is no evidence to suggest that the lives of LGBT individuals are more likely to be plagued by “loud parties, drugs, and casual [unsafe] sex” than their heterosexual peers.

Also, it is essential to recognise that the rising rates of illegal drug use and unsafe sex are problems that are affecting all adolescents in Malaysia rather than some crisis that are unique to LGBT individuals, in order to effectively curb the epidemic.

Insights gained from my work

As you are well aware, we Malaysians are constantly taught about the ‘evil’ of being a LGBT person in the school classrooms. As such, I grew up with an idea that being a LGBT individual is both sinful and illegal.

Thanks to the Public Service Department of Malaysia for sending me to the University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada with a full scholarship for my undergraduate studies in psychology.

During the first year of my time at UBC, I realised just how misinformed we all are in regards to LGBT issues. I learnt that same-sex attraction is not a Western invention (as being taught in Malaysian classrooms), but a universal human experience.

Immediately after learning the basis of human sexual attraction, I have changed my stance on LGBT issues. Specifically, I shifted from being a neutral bystander to an active advocate for equal rights of LGBT individuals.

As a part of my passion for working with minority groups, I have been serving as a Community Service Learning student at Qmunity: British Columbia’ (BC) Queer Resource Centre from January to April 2013.

Specifically, I conducted primary and secondary research on adoption policies and procedures, particularly those pertaining to queer-identified couples or individuals in BC.

The final product of my work was a document that outlines important information for queer individuals and couples who are looking to start a family and would like more information about the process, including a list of agencies and contact information.

While working on this project, I experienced a number of critical moments which further inform my understanding about the lives of queer-identified individuals.

For instance, one father mentioned the following during a personal interview: “My three and a half-year old son asked about his birth yesterday. I was telling him how my [same-sex] partner and I embraced him the first time we had him in our hands. And, the smile on his face while I was telling him this story, that is what life all about.”

The father went on to advice future parents not to be discouraged by the adoption process, “You will get a child that you meant to have.” His words showed me how much he loves and values his child.

Honestly, I am not sure if there were any other instances in my life before that have made my heart to feel so warm (both metaphorically and literally). Like most children, I see my mother as the most loving person in the world.

And, I do not think the love the father has for his kid is any different from the love my mother has for all her children. That is, the fact that he has a same-sex partner has no bearing on his capacity to be an affectionate parent.

Sadly, most people are still failing to understand this non-difference. Consistent with the scientific findings that I made reference to earlier, there is virtually no difference between heterosexual and homosexual individuals or couples.

LGBT persons are striving for the very same things that heterosexual individuals aspire to obtain in their lives: Love and peace.

During my time at Qmunity, I also learnt that the new British Columbia Family Law recognises even same-sex couples as the legal parents. That means same-sex couples would no longer need an adoption certificate as they can have their names on a child’s birth certificate itself.

Yes, that is how progressive the province of British Columbia is! It is not quite wise to expect the Malaysian government to even legalise adoption by same-sex partners at this point.

We have a long journey to travel before reaching there. However, there are many immediate steps that we could take to at least stop the ongoing systematic oppression targeted against LGBT individuals in Malaysia.

Towards a more inclusive Malaysia

Article 8 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia states, “All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law.”

This means that there should be no legal discrimination on the basis of who one is born or choose to love. Furthermore, the 1Malaysia national programme that you introduced is supposed to promote fairness to all Malaysian citizens.

Specifically, 1Malaysia is founded on three pillars in enhancing national unity, which are principle of acceptance, principle of national spirit and principle of social justice.

Thus, the 1Malaysia programme demands every Malaysian citizen (including political leaders) to accept different lifestyles and practices, and act in accordance with social justice principles. Alienating a whole sexual minority group is not a manifestation of acceptance or social justice.

This separation will also inhibit the minority group’s contributions in enhancing national unity in Malaysia. As such, I am confident that your administration will be motivated to hold on to the 1Malaysia concept and strive to create a more inclusive Malaysia.

First and foremost, please fully lift the ban placed on Sexuality Merdeka. As I mentioned above, there are not many avenues available for sexual and gender minorities to find social and emotional support in Malaysia.

Thus, a responsible government should praise and support the initiatives of the festival’s organisers, not threaten them with police brutality.

Secondly, please advice your cabinet, especially the Ministry of Education to learn the difference between gender and sexual orientation, and stop endorsing ridiculous guidelines in the future. The ministry is mandated for implementing policies and procedures to produce quality human capital that will drive the growth of our beautiful nation.

Endorsing guidelines that promote hatred to an already marginalised minority groups is not one of their duties.

In addition, please immediately ban the anti-LGBT musical tours that are contaminating the whole nation. The musical is delivering damaging and ill-informed messages to the public.

By right, Rahman, the musical’s director should be prosecuted for promoting hate messages and creating disharmony, enmity, and disturbing public order in the nation. In any case, a considerate government has the responsibility of protecting the public from these anti-homosexuality agendas.

In addition to ending support for the anti-discriminatory agenda in the nation, your administration should also pay special attention to the fact that LGBT individuals have much poorer mental health outcomes than their heterosexual peers.

Undeniably, those mental health challenges are caused by the conversion conspiracies, stigmatisation and marginalisation of our LGBT individuals. Thus, please advice the Ministry of Education to stop investing on counselling programmes that are aimed at converting “effeminate” boys into “macho” ones.

Instead, please urge the ministry to mobilise their resources to provide better mental health support to LGBT students at educational institutions.

Moreover, your administration has the responsibility of launching public awareness campaigns to end the hostility (which was fueled by your administration one way or the other) targeted against LGBT individuals.

Hopefully, the suggestions mentioned above would be able to create a safe and inclusive Malaysia that a LGBT individual can live in as any other Malaysian citizens.

Tamil Selvan Ramis is a fresh graduate of psychology from the University of British Columbia, Canada

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