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2 Sep 2008

In the spirit of merdeka: Malaysians hold first ever sexuality rights festival

Some 400 people are estimated to have walked through the doors of Central Market Annexe over the weekend to attend Seksualiti Merdeka, Malaysia's first ever sexuality rights festival. Update: Audio clip added.

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.

Middle pic (left to right): Sivarasa, MP for Subang and a vice-president of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People's Justice Party) and; Dr Wan Halim Othman, a clinical sociologist; Nisha, a transsexual social worker with PT Foundation; academic Dr Teh Yik Koon; and moderator Shanon Shah. Photos by Sylvia Tan.
"This is a moment in history. This is the first time anything like this has ever been done in this country. This is the first time a panel that has been constituted in this way has come to talk on the same issue from a variety of perspectives; that we can get a vice-president of Keadilan Rakyat who is a people's representative human rights lawyer to come and talk to us. It's a citizen's duty to start engaging MPs on larger issues like these." Said Shanon, a well-known writer-musician-activist, at the forum on violence faced by transsexuals. He had stepped out of his moderator's role to make the comment.

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)



3. 2008-09-02 04:24  
The African's have a saying :-"It takes a village to raise a child". And I feel that was what happened during this event. The child was our basic rights and the village were those who took part in the event.

Things were said, people with different views had their say , peopled came with open minds and learned, people were inspired and people got support from strangers who ended up being friends. I was a voluteer for this event and it insipred me to see people from all walks of life, regardless of sexual orientation, race or believes helping one another and just being there for one another. If that did't show how much a success this event was, i don't know what is.

Looking forward to next year and many more events such like this which empowers the LGBT community to understand and know that we should not label ourselves as LGBT but instead know that we are just being Human.
4. 2008-09-02 07:07  
it is about time that even in some religious muslim states human rights must be recognized which is including sexual preferences.. we take this step as one of the achievement of 21rst century civilization..
5. 2008-09-02 07:47  
As a Malaysian, I am proud that it is taking a step forward in the LGBT acceptance! I personally like this quote:

"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."

It is good to educate people on the LGBT world, and with the help of artists such as Nikki (go girl!) is phenomenal to even touch on subjects that were considered taboo!
6. 2008-09-02 09:08  
Mari kita bersama kemerdekaan :-) !!!!!!
7. 2008-09-02 11:30  
Bravo to Pang, Jerome, Shanon and all the rest who had made Seksualiti Merdeka a success! Not forgetting those who took the courage to participate, you too had made a difference! Keep up the good work!
8. 2008-09-02 12:39  
am so happy to read thi article..I am not a malaysian...my b/f is..and we have often wondered how long it would take....am..so glad that first step has been taken to address these 'issues'...ALL THE VERY BEST....
9. 2008-09-02 15:11  
Congratulations to Sylvia for finding the Malay spellings for the article...


I hope our Southern brothers and sisters enjoyed themselves up here in KL. And yes, the Seksualiti Merdeka events were a success.
10. 2008-09-02 17:12  
fantastic stuff. kudos to the organisers and participants for taking the step forward. as a msian such an event represents hope for diversity and understanding in the country. great to see an MP in the house.
11. 2008-09-02 17:56  
That's amazing. I dont think such event can happen in Indonesia. There are extreme moslem organizations such as FPI who will destroy anything that they think are immoral. Anyway good for Malaysia. Malaysia is always better than Indonesia.
12. 2008-09-02 17:59  
I was surprised they were able to hold this sexuality rights festival in Malaysia. A big step for them.
13. 2008-09-02 19:35  
BTW, the term is "sex reassignment surgery" - we don't re-align anything.

How cruel the product of religious intolerance and ignorance in Iran - to try to cure a feminine gay man by giving him an extra hole! That makes as much sense as the Ayatollah Khomeini's statement that being a bottom is against Shariah - but not being a top.
14. 2008-09-02 20:03  
in respond to therd9:

Not sure about the Syariah law in Malaysia, but what we can see now in Malaysia, a top (like Anwar) can be charged for sodomy and a bottom (like Saiful being sodomized for 8 times as what he claims) can get away and turn his back to sue the top.

Hmm... may be its good time to be a powered bottom then...
17. 2008-09-02 23:25  
The use of the term 'Gender Realignment Surgery' follows the guidelines set by the TransActive Education & Advocacy group (www.transactiveonline.org)

GRS: Acronym for Gender Reassignment Surgery. Sometimes referred to pejoratively as the "Sex-Change Operation", it is also, equally inaccurately known as SRS (Sex Reassignment Surgery). A more respectful and medically correct term would be Gender Reconciliation or Gender Realignment Surgery

18. 2008-09-03 01:45  
We will a Call for Love dinner soon to gather all PLU to get to know God and may this event will be fruitful to reach out youths in Malaysia.
19. 2008-09-03 02:17  
Congrats to everyone who made Seksualiti Merdeka a success!

Here's my two cents: it's hard to draw a line between sexuality and religion and it's apparent here in Malaysia where Islam is supposedly the official religion and has its whole body emerged into our political system. The question on everyone's mind is how are we able to address issues like this when religion is part and parcel of what makes our governmental body.

Despite that, Seksualiti Merdeka is a big step towards diversity in Malaysia and we should continue this long journey in hope for our voices to be heard.
20. 2008-09-03 11:16  
I saw some NTV crew filming the event.. was that shown on TV? Or just as some sort of archiving by the organisers?

Kudos overall for an incredibly inspiring weekend! It was full of new learnings, new friends and a blossoming solidarity of Malaysian PLU. See you all at the next one!
21. 2008-09-03 23:09  
It was an eye-opening and amazing weekend ...many thanks to Pang and friends for organising this ...for those who missed this historical moment ...make sure you join next year ...being gay is not about men-men-men and whats in their pants ...all of us have a duty to fight in our very own way to ensure our voice are heard ...to speak up !
22. 2008-09-03 23:10  
It was an eye-opening and amazing weekend ...many thanks to Pang and friends for organising this ...for those who missed this historical moment ...make sure you join next year ...being gay is not about men-men-men and whats in their pants ...all of us have a duty to fight in our very own way to ensure our voice are heard ...to speak up !
23. 2008-09-04 01:58  
Argh, I missed the entire event :( my friend said it was really good, so althou I'm a bit bitter I missed it, way to go for LGBT in Malaysia!

Seems like there's hope living as a PLU in Malaysia in my future instead of moving abroad. Too soon to say, but progress is still progress :) Kudos to the organizers!
24. 2008-09-05 19:45  
i also missed the events :((
25. 2008-09-06 01:42  
go Malaysia! ;-)
26. 2008-09-10 13:37  
One must applaud those who take the necessary steps brought about from courage and vision, it's an ongoing process but holding steadfast and not being ridiculous and unnecessarily confrontationist as the so called 'queer' activists would have us do can lead to infinite possibilities being realized.
27. 2008-09-15 09:48  
Malaysians in Malaysia???!!!
MY GOD! Where was I???

I missed this?!
I am so proud of you guys! If only I knew I would be there to support you guys!
28. 2010-10-26 02:12  
From Holland I would say to you, officials en participants : Congratulations with getting notice of the first festival in your country, and making the event happen. Keep inform society of equal rights and human warmth in sexuality and social tolerance and acceptance.




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