Photo from here
Three Saturdays ago, 4000 Singaporeans gathered at a park dressed in all known and unknown shades of pink, acessorised with pink umbrellas, pink balloons and pink pets. No, it is not a Hello Kitty convention. It was a gathering of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) individuals, and their friends, families, lovers and ex-lovers.
This event, Pink Dot, took months of campaigning involving straight-identified celebrities speaking out on popular media, viral videos featuring interviews with parents of GLBTs, mainstreaming the phrase “freedom to love”, and more. They employed every creative outlet within their means and created an event that was quintessentially Singaporean by design. I mean, how more Singaporean can you get than expressing the freedom to love as a dot?
A friend of mine in Malaysia was inspired. He wanna try something similar here. A pride march in Malaysia? I am happy just to be able to hold my boyfriend’s hand in public without having to worry what others think. But yes, I too dream of a day when we can gather as a titik merah jambu, or a jalur pelangi gemilang, either in Dataran Merdeka or Tasik Permaisuri, and celebrate the life of a free Malaysian.
Alas, I don’t think Malaysia is ready. Because darling, we have not sufficiently laid the yellow brick road over this rainbow yet. If we went and tried something like this now, Perkasa, UMNO Youth, PAS Youth and a whole load of other very vocal very conservative groups, plus the police, the FRU, RELA members, will surely join us on the field and it won’t be to join us in the chorus of “YMCA”.
Most of the media, with the exception of a few, are not expected to do much apart from report in the biased manner they are used to doing — “Demo Songsang”. And what if the gathering consists of only those 10 openly gay people of Malaysia — myself included? The public would just say, look, it is only a small minority of western-influenced deviants. We all know this country is full of deviants, but have we done enough to get them to join us on the merdeka side?
These are a few things I feel that probably need to be in place before something public.
Photo from here
Enough public support
According to this survey, you can see that Malaysia’s acceptance rate of homosexuality is one of the lowest at 8%, or one in every 12 persons. Yes, Mali & Egypt are even lower at 1%. Sweden, where same-sex marriage is legalised, is the highest at 86% (which also nicely refutes the claims that homosexuality and its acceptance causes social collapse). Interestingly, Israel’s acceptance is at 65%, with openly gay politicians, even though it is Judaism that gave us the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, from which laws against homosexual acts have been derived and sustained in countries whose official religions are the very ones which evolved from Judaism.
For some reason, Singapore is not on that list.
What does public support entail? It means any number of celebrities, artists, media, leaders, lawyers, doctors, politicians, parents, and even members of the public, are able to speak up for us. If the media dares print an iota of negative press about the GLBT community, if the authorities unfairly targets GLBTs with homophobic policies, hoardes of folks will rise to defend us. Presently we have Marina Mahathir, a few regular letter writers and bloggers, maybe the ADUN in Penang who recently spoke about helping transgender, but not many else. Perhaps the difficulty in getting well known figures and celebrities is their fear of possible backlash to their careers, even if many of them work with GLBT people or have a huge number of GLBT fans.
Another good place to start is with parents. But when we ask folks to invite their parents to a function, it is hard to get anyone. We have so far met only 3 parents. Maybe most GLBT individuals are not out to their parents, or their parents are not comfortable to meet their friends. Younger GLBTs are lucky, they get to come out to their friends and splash their status all over facebook with no qualms. Parents however don’t have many opportunities to talk about their GLBT children, and therefore remain lonely and socially awkward when dealing with these subjects. What then can we do to get our parents to support us more publicly?
This beautifully edited video of this year’s Pink Dot offers this quote from a mother: “This is god’s gift to them. I think to tread this road alone is not easy for anyone. So as mothers, we should stand by them to overcome social prejudices.”
For a while now, I have been able to bring my boyfriend home for family dinners. But it wasn’t always so. When I first came out to my mother, she couldn’t accept it. Is this her fault? she wondered. She imagined a life of loneliness, humiliation and misery. She thought of Leslie Cheung jumping to his death. She didn’t want that for me. But I told her, my misery begins and ends with you. I can face anything, I said, if I know my mother loves me and blesses the person I love. It took a little time and a lot of tears, but she came around. I hope one day I can take her to something like the Pink Dot and show her how much respect there is among respectable people.
Enough communal support
But before the public can learn to accept GLBTs, perhaps the GLBT communities need to come together. We need to have a sense that there is even a community, and want to be a part of it. Sure, many different small groups already exist, including LPG (which organises sport games), groups which meet through online profile sites, BigBoysMalaysia (for chubby guys and those who like them), OutDo (for gay women), etc. Even PT Foundation, which does work in HIV/AIDS, has 6 communities. But I refer to something bigger, something more akin to a collective movement.
Because we have long been so marginalised by the legal system and silenced by homophobic policies of Malaysia, GLBT individuals, instead of fighting back, tend to ignore politics all together. Many are happy to live a life of contented resignation, just going to work, hoping our bosses don’t find out who we really are, sneaking into a gay massage centre occasionally, hoping the police doesn’t come raiding. How did we ever learn to accept this as a tolerable life? To get used to being afraid of losing our homes, our families, our livelihood, just because of who we love? And that is if we don’t give up and just pretend to love somebody of the opposite sex, or worse, jump off a building somewhere? It is my sense of outrage as I see my brothers and sisters subject themselves to such a life of inequality that eventually led me to believe something needs to be done.
The launch of Seksualiti Merdeka 2009 by Marina Mahathir
One of the projects we have carried out is Seksualiti Merdeka, an annual sexuality rights festival organized collectively by various groups and individuals. Seksualiti Merdeka is an indoor event and is not a pride parade or a Pink Dot. Though in my estimation, it is as good as it gets for now. We have successfully held it at The Annexe Gallery for two years already.
The first year we had about 400-500 people. The second about 800-1000 people. Some of the activities we had done at past Seksualiti Merdeka fests include workshops on legal rights, forum on violence against transgender, talks on history of the sodomy law, debate on moral policing, lecture on history of alternative sexuality in the region, launch of Malaysia’s first queer anthology, sexuality rights training, storytelling, theatre and concerts. This October, we hold our third one. You can find out more by joining us on Facebook: look for Seksualiti Merdeka.
Besides creating an opportunity for heterosexuals and queers to work together, we also try to bring together gays and lesbians and bis and trans, which have tended to keep their own till now.
We are also joined by many human rights groups which love justice as much as they love acronyms: SUARAM, EMPOWER, KRYSS, JAG, PTF. Significantly the Malaysian Bar Council’s Human Rights Committee is also an ally. Lots of love to go around. Malaysian activists recognise that sexuality is one of the last frontiers of the human rights battle not fought yet and have decided to jump aboard. In Malaysia, everybody’s rights are screwed. We need to look out for each other’s asses. When we fight for the rights of our fellow Malaysians, we become a vital part of the social fabric, harder to ignore, harder to cut down. Already a few GLBT individuals work in civil societies, fighting for orang asli, for refugees, for women — I hope there will be more. Before we can think about gathering in public, perhaps we need to support those who are fighting the Illegal Assembly legislation. I subscribe to the self-serving altruism: when we help others, we are helping ourselves.
Part of the multi-layered planning we do involves figuring out how to protect those who come, to prevent a backlash, to work within existing laws and yet push them, to strike a balance between the confrontational and non-confrontational strategies. But as pointed out by someone, while we do our best to look out for each other, there is no guarantee there won’t be trouble. The reason we even need to do what we do is simply because we live in a country that sucks for human rights. Progress is not a natural byproduct of history – as some people assume when they say, “Things will get better.” No they won’t. Not if we stay silent to injustices.
For something more regular, there is a monthly film screening called Queer As Films: we show a GLBT film with socio-political perspectives, followed by a discussion after. This is helpful in giving folks the language to articulate and defend their own identity. The first step is sometimes as simple as finding the right words, to stop using disempowering words, or to subvert the existing negativity.
Speaking of which, there is nothing like a mainstream film to affect public opinion. My sincere wish is that Malaysian artists (and artistes) will be able to come out, if not as a GLBT then as a GLBT-supporter, and make a difference. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, we are all a part of the Malaysian landscape. But who will tell our stories? Yes, the current film censorship guideline that stipulates gay characters need to repent or die, but surely as artists we can creatively tread around that barrier. There is nothing like seeing our stories represented. As gay actor-director Harvey Fiernstein (Torch Song Trilogy, Mrs Doubtfire) said, “The hunger I felt as a kid looking for gay images was not to be alone.” Sometimes I look at Malaysians, and all I see is that hunger.
Enough Out Individuals
While we obviously don’t need a 50% acceptance rating before we declare a movement, we should at least aim for double of what we are now, a modest 16-20%, one in every five or six persons within the next five years. Studies have shown that changing social acceptance is partly the result of more members of the public knowing someone who is GLBT personally.
So we need more GLBT folks of Malaysia to start coming out. Of course I am not forcing everybody to come out. It is truly nobody else’s business what we do in our bedroom — as long as we are not hurting anyone, not doing it with minors, and not preventing anyone else from doing whatever they want to in their bedrooms. But in so far as the state makes it their business what I do in my bedroom and continues to get on my case about it, then I will make it their business what I do in my bedroom, until it is really, truly, legally, nobody’s business what I do.
Before society becomes more accepting, GLBT folks need to come out. Before they can come out completely, they need to come out bit by bit. Before they can even think of coming out to others, they need to come out to themselves. It is a loooong process.
In my opinion, empowering community and shifting public opinion is a 5-10 year project. Within this first 5 years, we should focus on enlarging the community, empowering more individuals and creating platforms for advocacy. Within these 10 years, we should aim for more public figures speaking up for us, mainstream movies or songs that portray us, if not positively at least a little more truthfully, getting families and friends to support us, get more positive media coverage, etc. When the time is right, to repeal those laws that criminalise us, as well as create anti-discrimination laws and privacy laws.
Photo from here
So when is the right time for us to do something like Pink Dot? When we have enough openly GLBT individuals from members of the public to well known figures. When we have a sense of community, supportive networks, countless allies both non-governmental as well as governmental. When we have more public support. I suppose there is no way to know when for sure. We will just have to keep working until we all agree the time is right.
The Pink Dot wasn’t something decided upon impulsively. Some years ago, there was the popular outdoor circuit party catering for gays on Sentosa Island on the eve of Singapore’s National Day. When this was banned, they started organising the InDignation pride festivals aimed at expressing outrage and gathering the community. It was a momentum to which Pink Dot was a natural outcome. Perhaps it took an event getting banned first. Perhaps Malaysians need all our rights robbed before we start doing something. I hope not.
So before we step onto the Dataran Merdeka, let’s step out of the closet first. After that, let’s join the movement to free this country of its chains. Malaysia can still be a country where we can fall in love and not be afraid to love.
Pang Khee Teik is the co-founder of Seksualiti Merdeka and arts programme director of The Annexe Gallery. Most recently, he is honoured with the Boh Cameronian Cross-Cultural Champion of the Arts Award 2010.
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