As thousands of Malaysians marched in a massive parade at Merdeka (Freedom) Square on Sunday to celebrate the country's 51 years of independence from Britain, the LGBT community created its own slice of history with its first ever sexuality rights festival held across the Klang River at Central Market Annexe.
The festival comprised film screenings, talks, workshops and the closing event Malaysian Artistes for Diversity which featured Nikki, a former Malaysian Idol contestant; Shanon Shah, an award winning singer; and Rafidah, a popular TV show host.
At the first forum on Saturday were four panelists: Sivarasa, Member of Parliament for Subang and a vice-president of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People's Justice Party); Dr Wan Halim Othman, a clinical sociologist; Nisha, a transsexual social worker with PT Foundation; and academic Dr Teh Yik Koon, a researcher and author of The Mak Nyahs: Malaysian Male to Female Transsexuals.
Transsexuals in Malaysia face harassment and/or even police brutality as cross-dressing is punishable under Islamic laws or the Minor Offences Act under the Penal Code for non-Muslims. In July 2007, a male-to-female transsexual was so severely beaten by Malacca Religious Affairs Department (Jaim) enforcement officers that she required a hernia operation.
Dr Teh further highlighted that while Malaysia has disallowed Muslims from having gender realignment surgery since 1983 and post-op transsexuals including non-Muslims are unable to have their new gender reflected in their identification documents, Islamic countries such as Iran and Egypt permit gender realignment surgery and legally recognise post-op transsexuals who are permitted to marry someone of the opposite sex.
Reports from Iran have however suggested that sex change operations have been prescribed as a "cure" for effeminate gay men as homosexuality is punishable by lashings, imprisonment and/or execution.
Speaking to a crowd of about 100 on Sunday was historian Dr Farish A Noor who highlighted the Panji Tales, a collection of ancient mythical Javanese tales which incorporate themes of gender bending and cinta sejenis (meaning same-sex love in Malay).
Referencing Malaysia's colonial-era Section 377 which prohibits "unnatural" sex as well as commonly used refrains that homosexuality is a western import, Dr Farish appealed to the audience to be acquainted with the sexual geography of pre-Islamic Southeast Asia as it is "evidence of what we today term 'alternative' lifestyles which was then perfectly normal."
The prominent political scientist and human rights activist further cited anatomically correct and sexually explicit stone carvings which prominently depict male genitalia at the Candi Sukuh and Candi Ceto temples in Central Java which are believed to have been built in the 15th century.
"The sad thing is that the Panji stories depicting much of social life in much of Southeast Asia at that time have been completely forgotten (today)... Like the Kama Sutra, its Southeast Asian cousin Serat Centini is a text about sexual conduct which normalises sexual and emotional attraction that go beyond the simple male-female dichotomy. The Serat Centini openly talks about the conduct of same-sex love and attraction. And if all these stories right up to the 15th century - the idea of same-sex attraction was seen as the norm - what is the ultimate moral tale of the Hikayat Panji Semirang, is that love overcomes everything else. The entire quest of Panji Semirang is to consummate this love."
Although Seksualiti Merdeka might be construed to be somewhat provocative, co-organiser and Arts Programme Director of The Annexe Pang Khee Teik says its aim is mainly to empower the community. "There are those of us who long to be a part of the nation's Independence celebration, even if the nation has persistently persecuted, ignored and forced us into the closets."
As same-sex relations are forbidden under both Shariah (Islamic) laws and the Penal Code, he says many gays and lesbians mistakenly believe that it is against the law to be gay when the law "simply targets the sexual acts and not the identity."
Having read his gay stories in public over the last few years without any ramifications, he says he believes that the perception of persecution "can be countered with an increase in the amount of positive role models and stories that we put out there."
The three-day also included a forum on sexual diversity in Malaysia by Dr Sharon Bong on sexuality, faith and family relations; Benjamin McKay on cruising in malls in the Malaysian capital and Wong Yuen Mei who highlighted the pengkids (Malay vernacular to mean masculine lesbian) culture; a lecture on homophobia by Singaporean Anj Ho; a "Heartbreakers Anonymous" storytelling session; an interactive workshop on sexuality; film screenings and music performances.
Anyone wanting to participate or help organise next year's events can join the the Seksualiti Merdeka Yahoo group or Facebook group (see related links).
Listen to an excerpt of Dr Farish A Noor's talk titled "From Panji To The Present ~ A short history of sexuality in Malaysia and South East Asia" (16mins, 7.4 MB)