Sunday June 19, 2011
Overcoming our phobia over sexuality
By AUDREY EDWARDS
The May 29 launch to mark the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia aims to mobilise more Malaysians, whether lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, questioning or straight, to stand up for their rights.
IT is a fact that some people have a phobia, be it a fear of cockroaches, heights, and closed-off spaces, among others. Some are known to even fear clowns, and this is called coulrophobia.
And then there is another type of phobia, that of acting and feeling negatively towards those who are seen to have a different sexual orientation or, basically, those who are non-heterosexual. The common terms for this are homophobia and transphobia.
While homophobia refers to negative attitudes and feelings towards the lesbian and gay communities, the latter is the term for phobia towards transgender people.
Efforts to get pockets of people in the community to overcome this particular phobia is perhaps a daily challenge. And so, like other major global issues where a day has been dedicated to reminding people “Hey, we need to solve this problem”, May 17 was chosen for homophobia and transphobia.
Around the world since 2006, countries and communities have commemorated International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) on May 17 in conjunction with the World Health Organisation's action to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders since 1990.
The IDAHO committee notes that about 50 million people in 50 countries were exposed to campaign messages that called for an end to discrimination and violence against people on grounds of their sexual orientation and or gender identity.
Organisations in countries including China, Iraq, and Indonesia, and individuals like pop star Lady Gaga and United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton took part in commemorations of IDAHO this year.
In nearby Singapore, the Pink Dot campaign by Community Focus was launched in 2009 “to show support and love for same-sex attracted and gender diverse community members”.
For Malaysia, Seksualiti Merdeka (SM) together with their allies recently launched “29 Ways: Towards a LGBTIQ-friendly Malaysia” to commemorate IDAHO on May 29.
SM co-founder Pang Khee Teik says the time for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning (LGBTIQ) rights has arrived. “Even Asian NGOs are realising that they cannot claim to support democracy and human rights yet alienate LGBTIQ rights. We are all part of humanity and deserving of the same dignity,” he says.
The May 29 launch also aims to mobilise more Malaysians to stand up against homophobia and transphobia, he adds.
Associate Prof Dr Alvin Ng Lai Oon, head of the Health Psychology Unit at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, observes that there are men “who are even afraid of being touched by other men by accident in a public place”.
“It is an irrational fear that stems from ignorance and lack of knowledge,” he says, adding that one step towards overcoming the phobia is to not see the communities as a threat.
“There are more things to fear, such as crazy drivers on the road or robbers who can actually harm you,” he points out.
“Being transsexual, gay or lesbian is not infectious.”
“What is worse is the distorted and destructive view of morality, which is to hate them. That seems to go against any religion, which professes kindness, compassion and peace,” he says.
Amnesty International (AI) Malaysia director Nora Murat says lack of understanding and awareness has led to the phobia against the LGBTIQ communities.
“They also see the LGBTIQ itself as a Western influence,” she says.
Nora feels that creating awareness on sexuality and gender needs to be carried out at the grassroots level to address the problem. “The call to reduce the phobia has to be made by the communities themselves. The international community cannot do anything if it is not supported by the locals,” she explains.
However, she says, it is more difficult to do this in Malaysia as there is a dual legal system that treats the community differently depending on their religion.
“It makes things complicated because the law sometimes comes down so hard on them,” she says, citing the Minor Offences Act 1955, which can charge a person with indecent behaviour for cross-dressing.
In the two years of AI Malaysia's existence, it has received four reports relating to homophobia, Nora reveals, citing the tendency to “correct” those deemed to be lelaki lembut (effeminate men) or tomboys and discriminatory acts against transsexuals as examples of the phobia.
Bar Council human rights committee chairperson Andrew Khoo agrees that there are certain laws that criminalise the conduct of those in the sexual minority.
“That, in some sense, creates a stigma and to criminalise their conduct suggests that something they are doing is unacceptable. There is also moral policing that adds to the stigma,” he says.
“It is saying that being different is punishable. You are denying a person their right to live his or her life in the way they want to. People have a right to live their lives in the way they want to, so long as it doesn't harm others.”
Malaysian criminal law, he adds, was inherited from the British and reflects that country's Victorian values of the 19th century.
Britain has amended its laws, leading to the decriminalisation of sexual activity between males and subsequently laws that provide greater support and protection of their rights.
Dr Julian C. H. Lee, an anthropologist, says the pre-colonial society in Malaysia was more tolerant of the community.
“Historical and anthropological research shows that there was greater openness to sexual diversity in the past, which is a contradiction to what currently prevails. We have regressed.”
As an example, he cites Malaysia and Indonesia as having a past where transsexuals were highly regarded by society and had a ritually important place. This social standing can still be seen in the form of the mak andam (an individual who assists the bride on her wedding day).
“Far from not being part of the culture of our region as it is sometimes asserted, sexual diversity has a historical legacy here, especially when it comes to important social rituals including weddings,” says Dr Lee.
Another example can be seen in wayang kulit (shadow play), where the masculine character may be easily defeated by one that was portrayed as being effeminate, he adds.
“My Penang friend told me how, when he was a boy, he was taken to and from school by a transsexual hired by his parents. No one batted an eyelid.”
He observes that while the roots of homophobia are complex, the current scenario was influenced by the British when they sought to create an image that their men were masculine and heterosexual.
Dr Lee, a lecturer in international studies at Monash University Malaysia and author of the soon-to-be released book, Policing Sexuality, adds that in the 1980s, there was another shift in defining what was considered Asian values. This subsequently caused areas such as sexual promiscuity and homosexuality to be associated with the West.
“Instead of thinking of ways to overcome various problems, those in the religious or sexual minority are often made the scapegoats despite having nothing to do with the problem,” he says.
If the trend continues, it could result in society losing out on the richness of diversity and its capacity for creativity, he cautions.
There is also the possibility that investors could shy away from the country if they perceive Malaysia to be a homophobic and transphobic nation, he says.
Towards a more tolerant society