and Civil Rights
Never before in Malaysia has homosexuality received so much press coverage, been so much in the public eye, as in the last few months. Thus, despite the best efforts of parents and teachers everywhere to shelter young people from knowledge of "unnatural sexual activities," it is likely that any one old enough to read the papers will have some idea of what sodomy or 'liwat' entails - and some idea, therefore, that straight or heterosexual sex is not the only mode of sexual expression.
So, in a way, homosexuality has been outed; and "the love that dare not speak its name" has come out of the closet. What are the implications of this for issues to do with sexuality, or sexuality rights, in this country? (I use the term 'sexuality rights' rather than 'gay rights' because the events in question have ramifications for other people besides gay people, such as transsexuals, bisexuals or any one who engages in prohibited sexual acts such as sodomy and fellatio.)
Will awareness beget acceptance, will the step out of the closet be a step towards liberation and equality? Or will it lead straight into the courtroom, and towards more persecution of those whose sexual practices differ from the "norm"? And why should we be concerned about this now, when there are so many pressing issues facing us - the economic debacle, political and social unrest etc, etc?
Well, if, like me, you believe that someone's sexual orientation, or their choice of sexual practices, as long as they occur between consenting adults, should not be grounds for discrimination and persecution, there are several reasons why the recent events which have led to all the publicity around homosexuality demands our attention, and demands it now.
One reason is that Mahathir's onslaught against homosexuals, while making homosexuality more visible, has also reinforced notions of it being "unnatural" and "disgusting." As such, it may lead, and perhaps already has lead, to gay people facing even more hostility and persecution, not only because homosexuality has become more visible and therefore more open to condemnation, but also because people may act on the belief that homophobic measures are sanctioned by the Prime Minister.
The formation of PASRAH is an example of what can happen as a result of such a belief. The fact that the group was formed in the midst of the current struggle for power between Mahathir and Anwar rather than last year, or a few years ago, I feel, is no coincidence. Clearly the intention of forming the group was to get political mileage from the situation and brownie points from Mahathir - but at the expense of homosexuals.
Gay people have therefore become a scapegoat in the fight for political ascendancy between Mahathir and Anwar. In fact, when the charges of corruption etc. against Anwar did not seem to sway his supporters, it was likely that the vilification of homosexuality, and the accentuating of Anwar's alleged homosexual tendencies became one of Mahathir's key strategies. Thus at one point after Anwar's arrest, the case against him presented by Mahathir to the press was telescoped so as to focus on the allegations of sodomy. The other charges were sidelined for days on end, while accounts of Anwar's alleged acts of sodomy were splashed all over the front pages of national newspapers. The reason for this is clear - by emphasising Anwar's supposed homosexuality, people would be forced into a situation where supporting Anwar appeared to be tantamount to condoning homosexuality. Nepotism could be forgiven by staunch Anwar supporters, corruption could be overlooked - after all, many public figures had been forgiven similar transgressions - but homosexuality?
Unfortunately, gay people have already experienced some of the effects of being caught in the cross-fire between Mahathir and Anwar. With regard to PASRAH, though its formation may have been politically motivated, the homophobia inherent in forming the group and its objectives is real. So too is the increased fear of persecution and homophobic attacks experienced by the gay community as a result of PASRAH's avowed intention of wiping out homosexuals and targeting gay-friendly places, and the general climate of heightened homophobia.
Another reason for concern lies in the legal aspects of the case, specifically those to do with the use of Section 377B of the Penal Code in relation to Anwar's alleged acts of sodomy. Section 377B, which is one of the laws listed in the "Unnatural Offences" section of the Code, states that "whosoever voluntarily commits carnal intercourse against the order of nature shall be punished with imprisonment of a term which may extend to twenty years, and shall also be liable to whipping." 'Carnal intercourse against the order of nature' is defined in Section 377A thus: "Any person who has sexual connection with another person by the introduction of the penis into the anus of mouth of the other person is said to commit carnal intercourse against the order of nature."
Section 377B has not often been used, and its use has largely been restricted to cases involving non-consensual sex - e.g. sodomy within the context of a rape. Its use in the Anwar case is therefore significant, in that it represents perhaps the first time, or at any rate, one of the few times, that this law has been invoked in a case involving consensual sex.
Given the increased awareness in the country of the supposed evils of 'unnatural' or 'deviant' sexual behaviour, this raises the possibility that Section 377B will be used more often in future in cases involving consenting adults (though of course, gathering evidence will not be easy). And if Anwar is found guilty of the charges of sodomy, and a harsh sentence is meted out, then others charged with the same "offence" in future can expect to be treated as harshly.
I should probably add here that although the Penal Code is popularly misconceived as targeting homosexuality, it does not actually prohibit homosexuality as such, but targets specific acts such as sodomy or fellatio. People who think that only gays stand to lose if there is an increased use of Section 377B in cases of consensual sex in future had therefore better think again - any one who engages in sodomy or fellatio, whether straight, gay or bisexual, can be penalised.
It is not only gay people, therefore, who should be concerned about how issues of sexuality intersect with the current political situation, though this is not to say that had gay people been exclusively targeted, everyone else would have been justified in turning a blind eye. When Anwar appears in court to answer the charges against him, there will be two trials going on - the 'real' trial dealing with facts and hard evidence, with Anwar's future hanging in the balance; and another, a shadow trial, which will in some way affect the lives of everyone whose patterns of desire runs along different tracks than those laid down by the State.
Yet another worrying factor, and one which has been particularly disturbing to me, has been the general failure of groups and organisations working for social justice to challenge the various homophobic statements reported in the press recently. The condemnation of PASRAH by the Malaysian AIDS Council and SUARAM was a positive step, but much more could and should have been done, especially in the beginning, when Mahathir started his attacks against homosexuality.
The only voice raised in defence of gay people then was that of a gay rights group from the Philippines, who wrote to the press here to register their concern at Mahathir's denigration of homosexuals. It is, I think, a matter of shame for Malaysians, especially those who pride themselves on being progressive, that we remained silent on the issue, thus worsening the problem by appearing to condone the incitement to hatred of gays.
One reason this happened, I think, is that groups and NGOs concerned with social justice have still to take on issues of sexuality rights, and to accept them as part of human rights (although the Malaysian Charter of Human Rights does include sexuality-based discrimination as a violation of human rights). Even among those NGOs who have been at the forefront of the fight for civil liberties, few if any, have raised these issues among their members and decided on an official stance against homophobia and heterosexism. Thus when it came to the crunch, no one was in a position to comment on the homophobic statements in the press.
The implications of the events and issues discussed above for sexuality rights in Malaysia are therefore not heartening. This, however, does not mean that there is no room for hope and intervention. Sexuality rights in Malaysia today occupy the marginal position women's rights did a few years ago; and the fact that there is now much more consciousness about women's rights presents us with some grounds for optimism.
In the same way that women's activists had to fight hard to get trade unions, labour organisations, human rights groups etc to take on issues such as sexual harassment, gender-related discrimination and violence against women, people concerned with sexuality issues must lobby for their inclusion in agendas for social justice. We must act now to try and stem the wave of homophobia and intolerance which seems to be sweeping across our country. Only then can we ensure a future in which we will not have to choose between the closet and the courtroom.
Homophobia (noun): hatred or fear of homosexuals; homophobic (adjective)
Heterosexism (noun): the dismissal or ignorance of sexual orientations other than heterosexuality, and/or the assumption that heterosexuality is superior to any other sexual orientation; heterosexist (adjective)
The term "heterosexism" was coined as a result of the recent interrogations into social constructions of sexual identity conducted by (Western based) gay scholars and activists. Borrowing some of the insights and methodologies of feminists who had argued that our notions of what it is to be 'masculine' or 'feminine' are not inherent or natural, but socially endorsed or constructed, gay theorists challenged assumptions that heterosexuality is any more 'normal' or 'natural' than any other sexual orientation.
In a seminal essay entitled "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (1980), the lesbian poet and critic Adrienne Rich examined the ways in which in which heterosexuality has been privileged, and made to seem 'normal' or 'natural' in society. In contrast, other forms of sexual expression or identity have been degraded and repressed. This, she argued, was directly related to the need of those in power to maintain patriarchal systems and ideologies, which are based on institutions such as marriage, the nuclear family and the heterosexual couple.
Since then, other theorists and activists (see, for example, The Straight Mind and Other Essays (1992) by French lesbian-feminist Monique Wittig) have built on Rich's analysis to conduct their own interrogations into the social constructions of sexuality and the privileging of heterosexuality.
The fact that their work
is located in Western traditions of thought, and therefore may not accurately
reflect situations and issues in Asian countries is something we need to
be aware of, although this should not invalidate the importance of such
work. Perhaps it is time for Asian, and Malaysian, thinkers and activists
to enact their own challenges and responses to the heterosexism in our
own cultures and social institutions.