Malaysia’s sole sexuality rights festival, Seksualiti Merdeka, was banned in 2011.¹ The festival began in 2008, and was held annually until 2011. Until it found itself catapulted into a battleground of political rivalries,² the festival served as a platform for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer/questioning (LGBTQ) and all other gender variant and sexually diverse Malaysians to share their stories and learn their rights. Despite vehement protests from the festival’s organisers, pressure from Muslim non-profit organisations eventually led to the banning of the festival as a deviant and sinful activity. I was saddened by this turn of events, as I had always thought of Seksualiti Merdeka as a sacred queer space which could allow LGBTQ Malaysians to realise their vocations as the persons they were created to be. Through storytelling, LGBTQ Malaysians were actively involved in the ongoing becomings of the Incarnation by revealing God in their flesh in transgressive but expansive ways. Unfortunately, this did not come to pass in 2011. Moreover, although some religious authorities condemned the event and others declared their pastoral stand against LGBTQ-related violence, there was no theological affirmation on the part of Malaysian religious institutions for LGBTQ Malaysians.³
Looking forward to the festival in 2011, I marked the various Seksualiti Merdeka events in my calendar. I was glad for the opportunity to participate in an LGBTQ-themed event in my country which officially frowns upon all non-heteronormative sexual behaviour, desire, identification and expression.⁴ The theme for Seksualiti Merdeka that year was Queer without Fear. The session that I was keen on attending dealt with issues of discrimination at the workplace. I met a friend for an early dinner at a coffee shop next to the venue. Both of us were excited to attend the event, although we had already heard rumours about the banning from various Malaysian news reports. As my friend and I made our way to the venue, we saw that it was surrounded by uniformed police officers and their auxiliaries. It was interesting to note that many of them had sat next to us at the coffee shop. We may not have consciously participated in table fellowship, but we had shared a space in which we openly exhibited some of our most vulnerable human traits – hunger, thirst and fatigue. All of us had ordered teh tarik (frothy tea with milk), nasi goreng (fried rice) and roti canai (bread) – food that was familiar to us as Malaysians. Sadly, the commonalities that we shared during meals came to naught when we became Others to each other at the festival. When it was time for the event to commence, the police were instructed in a loud, grating voice to surround us. We were totally incapacitated. After a few minutes of failed dialogue between the Seksualiti Merdeka organisers and the police, we were instructed to disperse. As we complied, we had to run the gauntlet of disdainful eyes, and I felt like I was a freak of nature and an aberration to God to these police officers. No one was interested to hear our stories or how some of us saw ourselves in relation to God. The banning was a fait accompli condemnation of the most basic and vital sense of who were as LGBTQ persons.
In hindsight, I see the forced dispersal to which we were subjected as a gross insult to my sense of Eucharist. Eucharist occurs when human persons come together just as they are to celebrate the goodness of their lives, a goodness which finds its ultimate source and validation in the God they are celebrating. Eucharist is present when persons of unimaginable diversity congregate to acknowledge the beauty of difference, the power of courage, the strength of integrity and the conviction of grace that is actively operating in human lives. Eucharist takes place when human persons lay their prejudices, grievances and pre-conceived notions at the door to welcome unexpected incarnations of God, as had happened at many of the meals in which Jesus participated. When we were banned from gathering at the festival, we were banned from participating in the Eucharist of our lives.
In 2013, Seksualiti Merdeka resurfaced in a covert manner and repackaged itself as the Together Life Gets Better event, the first letters of which were an obvious play on the acronym of LGBT. Events, dates, times and venues were discreetly announced through social network sites. Once again, possibilities were given for LGBTQ persons to discuss, share and learn issues of negotiating the complexities of LGBTQ living in Malaysia. Topics and events included LGBTQ parenting, discriminatory laws against LGBTQ Malaysians, documentary screenings, mental health discussions and drag shows. I managed to attend an event entitled Undressing Gender: Disrobing Gender Roles and Performance in September 2013, which dealt with the dynamics of gender and sexuality expectations. Using creative methods, the interactive session encouraged a rethinking of the multi-layered, heteronormative expectations of gender and sexuality in Malaysian legalities and societies. As I looked around the queer space that brought some thirty of us LGBTQ persons and our allies together, I couldn’t help but think that some of us there were probably already familiar with many of the issues and concerns. Yet what I held as precious and sacred was the space that allowed us to express our lives in comfort and peace, as persons who could show that we were queer without fear. We could talk openly about our attractions, desires, intimacies and body parts. We were able to relish insights that resonated with who we were as LGBTQ persons. The queer space in which we found ourselves was sacred, because we could freely engage, explore and enunciate a part of ourselves that had been silenced and invalidated. We could say “this is my body, this is my blood” (Mk. 14: 22-25). We were Eucharisting, for we were revealing, sharing and celebrating with others the innermost depths of our diverse, fleshy, sexual humanity. Once again, we were incarnating God in our gendered and sexual selves.
We are uplifted to know that a community in Southeast Asia created a safe, sacred space for expression, connection, and acceptance in the face of violence and intolerance. Let’s keep striving for communities where each of us can feel safe and free to express our identities without fear.
Joseph N. Goh is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Gender, Sexuality and Theology with the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University, Malaysia. He holds a Licentiate in Sacred Theology (S.T.L.) from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, CA. An ordained minister with the North American Catholic Ecumenical Church (NACEC), Goh is also a member of the Emerging Queer Asian Pacific Islander Religion Scholars (EQARS) and the editor of the Queer Asian Spirit E-Magazine (QAS E-Zine).
¹ Nigel Aw, “Police Ban Seksualiti Merdeka Festival,” Malaysiakini, November 3, 2011, http://goo.gl/oOSnvz (accessed September 28, 2013).
² K. Pragalath, “‘Seksualiti Merdeka a Collateral Damage’,” Free Malaysia Today, November 3, 2011, http://goo.gl/B7KG7n (accessed September 28, 2013).