13 Aug 2009

Gay sex acts should not be criminalised: Malaysian Bar Council Human Rights Committee

Speaking to Fridae as Seksualiti Merdeka is underway, Simranjit Kaur Gill, the Co-Chair of AGENDER - a sub-committee of the Bar Council Human Rights Committee - says the committee supports the decriminalisation of consensual sexual acts between adults including gay men.

The Malaysian Bar Council Human Rights Committee (BCHRC) will participate in Seksualiti Merdeka - the second sexuality rights festival to be held in Kuala Lumpur from Aug 12 - 16 - for the first time. 

Representatives from the BCHRC together with representatives from the Centre for Independent Journalism will discuss legislating morality, religious convictions and public law at the session ‘Moral Policing – Is It Justified?’ on Aug 15.

The second session ‘The Law & Our Bodies’ to be held on the same day will have speakers from BCHRC discuss individual rights and the laws that govern sexual practices and sexuality in Malaysia.

Malaysia's Penal Code Section 377 states that “whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” provides for imprisonment of up to 20 years, and fine or whipping.

Section 377A provides for a male person to receive up to two years in prison for any act of 'gross indecency with another male person.'

The country’s Shariah laws also prohibit sodomy amongst other sexual acts between men.

According to Simranjit Kaur Gill who was quoted as saying in The Nut Graph, an independent Malaysian news website, legal records show that only seven charges have been made under Section 377 since 1938. Of the seven, four are connected to Anwar Ibrahim. (Anwar is a former Deputy Prime Minister and currently the de facto head of the leading party in the opposition Pakatan Rakyat  and is currently facing trial for allegedly sodomising a 23-year-old aide. He was tried and convicted for sodomy and corruption in 1998. The sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004.)

Fridae speaks to Gill (who goes by Simran), a lawyer and Co-Chair of AGENDER, a working group and a sub-committee of the BCHRC which deals with issues concerning women, LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer-identified people) , children and gerontology.

Simranjit Kaur Gill, lawyer and Co-chair of AGENDER, a sub-committee of the Malaysian Bar Council Human Rights Committee
æ: What is the Bar Council / Human Rights Committee’s stand on Malaysia’s sodomy laws?
Simran: The BCHRC's stand on sexuality rights is that consensual sexual acts between adults in private should not be criminalised. The BCHRC would like to see this area of law develop in a way that recognises the human rights of the LGBITQ community by ensuring that they are given equal treatment and are not discriminated against in any way in accordance with international human rights norms.

æ: What steps has the BCHRC taken and/or will it take in the future to further the cause?

Simran: The BCHRC has, to-date, conducted an internal training on sexuality rights for its members (we currently have 67 members, approximately 30 of whom attended the last training session). A few members have also attended sexuality rights workshops as well as training of trainers’ workshops.
Going forward, the BCHRC intends to raise awareness amongst the members of the Bar by conducting workshops and forums on sexuality rights. [The Malaysian Bar Council represents more than 12,000 lawyers.]
The BCHRC also looks forward to working with other organisations that are actively working in this area as well as participating in ongoing events such as Seksuality Merdeka 2009. 

æ: What do you think are the biggest challenges for Malaysia?
Simran: It is an unfortunate reality in Malaysia that the LGBTIQ community is frequently perceived as breaching social codes, fomenting dissent and advocating "deviancy" and in particular the perception that they are not "normal". 

Mind you, this perception of "normalcy" is not only limited to the LGBTIQ community but equally applies to any person who is considered as being "different" from the "average" Malaysian. For example, there have been recent reports of persons with mental disabilities being caged and chained for their "own protection". It appears to some, that those who are "different" may be denied their basic human rights.

æ: Gay rights, sexuality rights, human rights… Why do you think it’s important for the LGBT community, activists, etc to discuss gay/ sexuality rights in the larger context of human rights?
Simran: Sexuality rights are an integral part of the personality of every individual.
If sexuality rights are not discussed in the larger context of being human rights, these rights will generally be considered as less important and ignored by the State and non-State actors including human rights activists. This continually happens vis a vis women's rights. And hence, the ongoing advocacy that women's rights are human rights.
Human rights are indivisible - you simply cannot have one right without the other.
æ: But we keep hearing from certain quarters that human rights are not compatible or runs counter to Asian culture. How would you counter that?
Simran: I think that such arguments are absurd. Culture is generally dictated by religions - if really examine religious texts, each professes values of respect, tolerance and understanding, which are all core values of international human rights principles. Proponents of Asian values are simply attempting to formulate yet another argument to justify the denial of basic human rights.
æ: Some sexuality/gay rights writers/bloggers are saying that Anwar’s past and pending sodomy trials had in fact encouraged public discussion of anal sex and promoted greater awareness of gay issues among the mainstream public. Do you think it’s necessary for the average Malaysian to be aware or to some extent understand gay issues before they can accept homosexuality as normal?
Simran: Malaysians need to be aware of the vulnerability of the LGBTIQ community to prejudice, to marginalisation and to public repudiation; and understand that "differences" are not a basis to discriminate. 
æ: I understand that Malaysia’s Shariah laws (which apply only to Muslims) prohibit same-sex relations as well and it’s not something anyone can do to have it repealed. So what can be done in that area?
Simran: By way of brief background, each state in Malaysia has enacted its own Shariah laws, which are generally similar. Using the Federal Territory's Shariah laws as a basis, such laws do not prohibit same-sex relations per se but rather criminalises certain sexual relations for example sodomy. This is similar to the civil provisions.
It is envisaged that Seksualiti Merdeka 2009 will serve as a launch pad for future advocacy work in this area.
æ: As a heterosexual person, how did you become involved in this issue?
Simran: Of late, there have been ever increasing attempts to restrict and limit Malaysians sexuality rights from the fatwas (a decree handed down by an Islamic religious leader) on tomboys, yoga, etc. For me, this culminated in the Elizabeth Wong (an opposition politician) incident. At the time of the incident, Wong was a member of the state assembly and the State Executive Council when explicit photographs of her were distributed over the internet. Her credibility and competency were inter alia attacked on the grounds that as a single woman, it was unacceptable for her to be in an sexual relationship.
At the material time, the BCHRC was comfortable addressing her right to privacy but not her right as a consenting adult to be in a sexual relationship. As a women's rights activist, I felt that it was necessary for the BCHRC to take on the issue on sexuality rights particularly in view of the ever increasing attempts to restrict and limit sexuality rights in Malaysia, be it the straight or gay communities.
It was extremely fortunate that thereabouts the time of the incident, the BCHRC was invited by The Annexe Gallery and the PT Foundation to be a discussant at its regular Queer As Films film review, namely Victim (1961, starring Dirk Bogarde). In the film, Dick Bogarde played a married lawyer who was being "blackmailed" for his homosexuality. Queer As Films is held once a month (First Sundays of each month at 3pm; attendance is by invitation only.)
It was heartening to see the response of the members of the BCHRC to the invitation. Despite our members having different backgrounds and disparate personal convictions, there were zero adverse reactions to the invitation and at the film review. In fact, at the film review, many strongly voiced their support to assist the LGBTIQ community in their advocacy work, where ever possible. And hence, our involvement in Seksualiti Merdeka 2009.
æ: Can you tell us more about what to expect at ‘Moral Policing – Is It Justified?’ and ‘The Law & Our Bodies’ to be held Sat 15 Aug?
Simran: In order to facilitate advocacy work in any area, it is imperative that advocates understand and appreciate both sides of the argument. The debate will serve as a starting point for the audience to be exposed to the arguments in a friendly and conducive environment, and to make their own decisions.
The legal forum will consider certain legal provisions which purport to protect yet appear to curtail our freedom to express our bodies, thoughts and emotions. The forum will also highlight the extent of the scope of moral policing and its impact on Malaysians.
æ: Why do you think anyone – gay or straight – should attend it?
Simran: Whether a person is gay or straight, we all have our prejudices. The event is the perfect avenue to debunk any myths and prejudices we may have. And, both the gay and straight will be represented at this year's Seksualiti Merdeka. 
More importantly though is the opportunity to meet some absolutely wonderful people. As we are all aware, the LGBTIQ community and sexuality rights activists face marginalisation, prejudice, violence and threats to their safety and wellbeing on multiple levels - so imagine the strong personalities you will miss by not attending!

Seksualiti Merdeka

Should we allow the State’s “moral police” to dictate how we should behave? This friendly debate revolves around the role of the State and “moral police” in legislating morality, religious convictions and public law. Debaters include representatives from the Bar Council Human Rights Committee and Centre for Independent Journalism – Fahri Azzat, Adiba Shareen Al’Ayubi, Khaizan Sharizad, Gayathry Venkiteswaran and Shanon Shah. It will be moderated by Simranjit Kaur Gill.
Sat 15 Aug, 2pm, Gallery 3

Do the laws that govern sexual practices and sexuality in our country protect our rights? Or do they infringe upon them? Panel speakers from the Bar Council Human Rights Committee including Saha Deva A/L A. Arunasalam, Simranjit Kaur Gill, Lim Kar Mern and Aston Philip Paiva take a close look at the law and discuss just how restrictive they really are.
Sat 15 Aug, 6pm, Gallery 1

For a full schedule of events, visit seksualitimerdeka.blogspot.com.