Malaysia’s hostile position on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) is bad for business

In the last few years, we have seen a vibrant global movement to understand and embrace people of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions in almost all sectors, from pop culture to business and politics. Laverne Cox’s TIME magazine cover was truly a historic moment, as it signified a shift in mainstream norms and attitudes towards transgender people, who have been marginalized for generations.

The transgender movement or the struggle of transgender persons for equality has been dubbed as the new civil rights movement, and rightly so. Even in 2014, transgender persons all around the world still suffer oppression and lack recognition as human beings with dignity and autonomy. This lack of recognition increases violence, impunity and discrimination towards transgender persons.

Globally, violence and discrimination towards transgender persons is all too common. All around the world, including Malaysia, transgender people still face rejection from family members and are often kicked out of their homes at a very young age. Young transgender persons also face severe bullying in school, which often goes ignored by school administrations and adults. Ultimately, many transgender students lose interest in education, perform poorly in school, or forced to drop out of school. Adult transgender persons also face a range of societal issues including the lack of employment opportunities, lack of access to much needed healthcare services. In addition, transgender persons are also arbitrarily criminalized, arrested, and imprisoned for their gender identity. This list of the deprivation of rights that transgender persons face goes on and on. Due to the insurmountable and systemic stigma and discrimination that transgender persons face, most transgender persons continue to be trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty.

November 20th is the global Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). Annually on this day, we commemorate the lives of transgender people who were violently murdered in hate crimes. According to the Transgender European Union (TGEU), 226 killings of transgender persons because of hate crime had been reported worldwide between November 2013 and October 2014 alone. In total, since January 2008 the murders of 1,612 trans people have been reported, out of which, 138 killings of trans people have been reported in 16 Asian countries.

Recognizing the structural and systemic violence as well as discrimination that transgender and gender non-conforming people face, state and non-state actors alike are now taking active measures to promote and protect the rights of all and eliminate discrimination as much as possible, especially state sanctioned discrimination, such as discriminatory laws and policies. To this end, the United Nations (UN) launched a global campaign ‘Free & Equal’ to raise awareness and understanding regarding sexual orientation and gender identity as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer persons (LGBTIQ). Further, many countries, including Argentina, Denmark, Malta and others have introduced legislations to allow transgender persons to change their name and gender markers in their official documents.

Discriminatory legislations and responses by the international community

In late 2014, Uganda introduced the anti-gay law, in which both LGBT and allies were criminalized. Under this draconian law, anyone who shelters or employs someone from the LGBT community too can be penalized.

In response to this anti-gay legislation, the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim in his editorial piece in the Washington Post cautioned that such discriminatory legislation towards LGBT persons “can hurt a country’s competitiveness by discouraging multinational companies from investing or locating their activities in those nations”. Following the statement in February 2014, the World Bank decided to postpone its financial aid, worth USD$90 million to Uganda. The law also drew flak from donor countries such as Denmark and Norway, who were ready to redirect aid away from the government to aid agencies.

Uganda’s Supreme Court struck down the law as null and void in August 2014.

Russia also introduced an anti-propaganda law in June 2013, in which any form of promotion of LGBT or ‘non traditional sexual relations’ content is prohibited amongst others. Following the enforcement of the law, a video emerged online of five assailants stripping and violently attacking a transgender person. More often than not, such discriminatory laws have the direct impact on people who visibly do not fit into the man/woman binary or gender norms, including transgender persons and gender non-conforming persons (‘effeminate’ men, ‘butch’ women, etc.).

The discriminatory law, coupled with heavy-handed suppression of human rights including the imprisonment of the members of Pussy Riot, drew sharp criticism from the international media and community.

In February 2014, Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Ban Ki Moon, the United Nations secretary general, condemned the attacks on the LGBT community in a speech ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, “We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they [LGBTI people] face.” Further, the UN consistently called for the repeal of this anti-LGBT legislation.

In the lead up to the games, many called for a boycott of the winter Olympics. The United States of America, Germany, France, Poland and the European Commission in protest chose not to send high-ranking officials to the opening ceremony because of the repeated attacks on human rights and the introduction of discriminatory legislations. Russia’s human rights violations have severed its ties with the United States, and caused the country to be isolated by a number of countries.

With mounting pressure from the civil society in Russia and the international community, Russia announced their willingness to take all required measures to prevent homophobic hate crimes and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation at the 24th UN Human Rights Council, while retaining the anti-propaganda legislation.

Following the campaign by the international community around the Winter Olympics, there is now a concerted effort to address discrimination and violence against LGBTIQ persons in and through sports. Consequently, the UN’s Human Rights Day in 2013 was themed “sport comes out against homophobia”.

Malaysia has announced its intention to bid to host the World Cup in 2026, an opportunity highly coveted by many nations across the world. FIFA has actively taken a part in addressing discrimination and violence on and off the pitch, and specifically bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender. In the last World Cup in Brazil, GLAAD and many other groups campaigned against violence and discrimination towards LGBTIQ persons in sports, with many athletes coming out to support the call for respect of all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.

It is safe to say that Malaysia tries to position itself as a moderate Muslim country and a key player within the UN system as demonstrated by its multiple bids for positions in the Human Rights Council and the UN Security Council. Malaysia is currently a member of the UN Security Council. However, the state needs to realize that its policies and its extreme positions will come under greater scrutiny by the international community as it gains more visibility internationally.

‘I am Scared to be a Woman’, a Human Rights Watch report on human rights violations towards transgender persons in Malaysia, launched in September this year named Malaysia among the worst countries in the world for transgender person to live, for reasons including systematic abuses of arbitrary arrests, sexual assault and extortion by both religious authorities and the police. This reflects Prime Minister Najib Razak’s statement two years ago that the LGBT is a “deviant culture” that had no place in Malaysia.

With so much attention on violence and discrimination towards people of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity, including transgender persons, Malaysia needs to immediately and critically relook at its position on SOGI. As a nation striving towards high-income status, such a hostile position is just bad for business.

Justice for Sisters

Justice prevails for transwomen in Negeri Sembilan after years of violence and discrimination

Justice for Sisters is elated by the historic judgment by Justice Mohd Hishamudin Mohd Yunus, Justice Aziah Ali and Justice Lim Yee Lan that declared Section 66 of the Negeri Sembilan Syariah Enactment as unconstitutional with Article 5(1), 8(1), 8(2), 9(2) and 10 (1)(a). We applaud the judges for taking a bold step in protecting and promoting human rights of all people, regardless of gender identity and gender expression. We are excited by the positive and overarching impact that the judgment will have in the promotion and protection of human rights for all in Malaysia.

“This is indeed a joyous moment for the transgender community, especially the transgender community in Negeri Sembilan, as they have directly experienced the violent impact of Section 66. Section 66 has created severe trauma and distress to the community, as it was continuously used to harass, humiliate, suppress gender identity of transwomen and violate them in the most inhumane and uncompassionate ways. Justice for Sisters commends the resistance of the Negeri Sembilan sisters in leading this challenge for 4 years,” says thilaga of Justice for Sisters.

However, Section 66 is only one out 14 state syariah laws that criminalize gender identity and gender expression.

A survey conducted by Justice for Sisters found 37 out of 76 transwomen had been arrested because of their identity and attire. 23 out of the 37 transwomen had been arrested more than one time. 25 out of 37 transwomen who had been arrested had been subjected to physical, emotional and sexual violence by the state religious authorities, police and local municipal council. State authorities continue to act with impunity, as the law blatantly discriminates and violates the rights of transgender persons.

I am Scared to be a Woman, a report launched by the Human Rights Watch in 2014 further illustrates the multiple forms of violence and discrimination faced by transgender persons, including lack of access to employment, education, and the right to live with dignity, manifestations of the criminalization of gender identity.

We understand that while section 66 is now unconstitutional and void, it will take time to change the hearts and minds of people. However, we are encouraged by the positive changes in the media and solidarity by people regardless of gender identity and gender expression.

“Public education and awareness is key in changing public opinion and perception towards transgender persons. Justice for Sisters is happy to dialogue and have meaningful discussions with government agencies with our experts from the medical field to further explain issues pertaining to transgender persons,” says Nisha Ayub of Justice for Sisters.

We encourage all people to continue to speak up against injustice, oppression and inequality against humanity in solidarity.

Resistance is fertile