Since 2003 Malaysia's LGBT community has been negatively portrayed by local media, which has invoked such discriminatory terms as songsang (deviant), lucah (explicit), and jijik (disgusting) to describe LGBT people in a series of Malaysian news articles. This negative depiction of LGBT people again came to the surface in May 2010. At that time journalists who had gone undercover and infiltrated exclusive LGBT parties published articles in the Harian Metro, a daily newspaper, and Kosmo, a daily tabloid that characterized the LGBT community as disgusting, lewd and deviant.
Such negative and abusive depictions against the LGBT community exist in a context in which same-sex activity is prohibited and the human rights of LGBT people do not receive protection. In Malaysia, homosexual acts are criminalized and punishments include fines, long prison sentences and even corporal punishment. The legal sanctions LGBT people in Malaysia face because of their sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) have prevented the formulation and visibility of LGBT groups that work directly on LGBT rights. Furthermore, a 1994 decree by the government bans LGBT people from appearing in the state-controlled media. In this context, discriminatory media articles on the LGBT community are particularly problematic and the LGBT groups that do exist in Malaysia are unable to respond and directly confront such discrimination.
Recently however, discriminatory media articles have prompted a loose coalition of women and human rights activists to write a memorandum seeking to uphold and protect the human rights of the LGBT community by:
- Protesting how the media negatively portrays the LGBT community; and
- Challenging Malaysia's Human Rights Commission – the Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Manusia Malaysia (Suhakam) to put a stop to the media's unethical, biased and systemic discrimination.
In the past the Suhakam, has been presented with similar concerns, as in August of 2003, but failed to provide any redress to the situation faced by Malaysia's LGBT community. In this light, the memorandum (which ultimately was endorsed by 52 individuals and 11 NGOs) clamors for a particularly proactive response from the Suhakam.
The memo, which was read and submitted to the Suhakam on June 10, 2010, stated that the media has been creating and encouraging an environment of hate and violence that is criminal. As a result of such irresponsible reporting, private spaces are being invaded and violated, thus making it harder and harder for the queer community to enjoy their human rights in equality with other Malaysians. The memo urged the Suhakam to:
- Push for the protection of the human rights of individuals perceived or identified as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transsexual, transgendered, and queer under the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- Pressure the government to repeal all laws that outlaw and criminalize mutually consensual sexual behavior between adults.
- Further educate citizens on constitutional provisions for the protection of the human rights of citizens and non-citizens, and to further educate the public on the spirit and core values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Yogyakarta Principles.
- Pressure the government to repeal all laws that restrict freedom of expression and freedom of information.
Following this submission, the Suhakam filed the memorandum as a complaint against the media and has promised that an investigation will be undertaken. On June 16, 2010 the complaint was discussed during the Commission meeting. As a result, the Suhakam will take up the recommendation to conduct a study on Malaysia's laws, particularly those that criminalize a person based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Suhakam's reaction is seen as a small victory in the fight for LGBT rights in Malaysia, especially considering the Suhakam's continued passivity toward LGBT rights even after its attendance at a workshop by the Asia Pacific Forum on the Yogyakarta Principles. The Suhakam admitted that even if the institution was not familiar with LGBT rights issues LGBT people in Malaysia, like heterosexual citizens, should enjoy all the fundamental rights provided for under the federal constitution. The Suhakam also noted the ability of these rights to be granted while still respecting the position of Islam, the country's official religion.
Angela M. Kuga Thas, a member of a coalition of individuals who have been advocating for sexual rights across all sexualities and gender identities, said "It's a small step forward. Hopefully, their final analysis and recommendations will be framed within a human-rights framework and based on, not only ‘the equality of all citizens', but the equal value of all human beings as well."
Another member of the coalition added, "Aside from the memo to the Suhakam, we have also sent protest letters to editors of local newspapers and have put up an online petition to get public support. We are aiming [to obtain] 1,000 signatures from the online petition, which we will use as a supporting document to be submitted to the Suhakam to pressure them to make faster and effective actions."
"We don't know how this will change the media but what is important to us is that people have started voicing their displeasure. We are sure that we will protest again and again until the media stops. It has given us tremendous confidence as we are all very new at this," she concluded.
The coalition represents progress in the fight for the recognition of LGBT rights in Malaysia as well as a testament to the growing support from mainstream women's and human rights groups. These groups are increasingly recognizing the importance of LGBT rights and taking a stand in defending the rights of all people, including those of diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.