Debunking harmful myths & misinformation regarding LGBTIQ persons in Malaysia

The two consecutive anti-LGBT events by the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) in Universiti Malaya and the Selangor State Islamic Department in Shah Alam on October 13th and 14th respectively are a genuine cause for alarm. From their biased content to the use of public funds, and the support by a public education institution along with the Selangor state government, the events reflect a slew of problems. Above all, the myths, assumptions, bias and misinformation shared during the events have a harmful impact on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer persons (LGBTIQ) persons and society.

Disseminating false and harmful information that stereotypes and misrepresents the realities of LGBT persons is a form of discrimination and violence. The event in UM by JAKIM stereotyped and sexualized experiences of LGBTQ persons. The forum featured two repented or former LGBT persons, focused mostly on their sexual experiences, drug use, and personal choices. Both events used the narrative that LGBT persons are lost and confused, hooked on drugs, alcohol and sex, and are morally bankrupt, amongst others. Some of the experiences portrayed had no connection to sexual orientation and gender identity. Meanwhile, some experiences were directly and clearly a result of the lack of acceptance from family members and multiple forms of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. However, these links were not discussed.

The assumptions and stereotypes that depict LGBT persons as not religious, spiritual and/or morally bankrupt are completely untrue. The reality is there are many LGBT persons who actively practice and deeply believe in their religion and spirituality. LGBT persons have the same right to religion and spirituality as cisgender heterosexual people. In fact, it is the rejection and ex-communication by religious institutions (not limited to state Islamic departments) that cause deep conflicts within LGBT persons and sometimes lead to self-harm.

The information shared during the events lacked structural and systemic analysis of the discrimination experienced by LGBT persons. It placed the blame and responsibility solely on the individual, as opposed to the social, cultural, economic and political context the person is in. The discrimination, violence, exclusion and marginalization of LGBT persons do not exist in a vacuum. At the root of this is the continued refusal to recognise the lived experiences of LGBT persons, facts and evidence; discriminatory laws, policies and practices; barriers to access basic rights including education, employment, healthcare; amongst others. As a result, LGBT persons face increased health burden including stress, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideas; increased poverty; lack social safety nets; amongst others. The role of family members and friends are critical for LGBT persons, and has a life changing effect. Without affirmation and support from family members and/or friends, LGBT persons face increased challenges, including withdrawal of emotional and financial support, isolation, domestic violence, and conversion therapy, amongst others.

The session in Shah Alam, part of a religious talk series by the Selangor State Islamic Department, featured a pantomime performance by school children. It is extremely disconcerting that school children are being brainwashed and used to promote anti-LGBT messages. Indoctrinating children with feelings of prejudice and hate is dangerous. If we have learned anything from the recent cases of deaths in schools, bullying on the grounds of gender expression can be deadly. In June 2017, Nhaveen, a young person from Penang died as a result of physical assault by some former schoolmates. Underlying the violence, amongst others, was the on-going bullying Nhaveen experienced based on gender expression, later revealed by Nhaveen’s friends, family members and teachers.

The organizers stressed that LGBT persons should not be discriminated, teased and bullied, and that family members should love their LGBT children. In line with JAKIM’s “soft approach”, attendees were advised to embrace LGBT persons, but advise and encourage them to suppress themselves to prevent them from ‘terjebak dalam LGBT’ (getting sucked into LGBT). What JAKIM, the Islamic state departments, and organizers fail to recognize is that suppression of our identities and who we are is a form of discrimination, violence and torture. Forcing people to confine themselves to the binary constructs of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and heterosexual norms is harmful, unrealistic and more importantly amounts to the erasure of our identities and diversity. This forced suppression results in internalized oppression, self-harm, mental health issues, and forced marriages among other things, that have a destructive and systemic impact on society in general.

Finally, the talk in UM included screenshots of social media accounts of actual or perceived LGBT persons in the presentation session. This raises concerns of outing, or non-consensual disclosure of sexual orientation and gender identity, privacy, and violence towards LGBT persons.

DEBUNKING MYTHS

Myth #1. Five factors that make one LGBT

JAKIM claims that there are 5 factors that make one LGBT: parenting, traumatic events (sexual violence), pornography, bullying, and environmental factors. These are myths that have in fact been debunked.                        

Historical and anthropological evidence show that sexual and gender diversity have always existed across the world. This includes hijra in Indiacalabai, calalai and bissu in Indonesiaasog/bayugin in the Philippinesmukhannathun in Makkah and MedinaFa’afafine in Samoa and New Zealand; Māhū in Hawai’I; two-spirit in North America, and more. Michael Peletz in his book Gender Pluralism in South East Asia documents the existence of sida-sida,[1] gender-diverse identities similar to present-day transgender persons, in the palaces of Negeri Sembilan, Kelantan, Johor, and other parts of the Peninsula Malaya and parts of Indonesia. In Borneo, there are accounts of identities such as manang balibasir, and balian[2] are described as people who were assigned male at birth, who embodied female identity and performed gender roles performed by cisgender women.

It cannot be stressed enough that diversity of sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions and sex characteristics are normal occurrences in life. Just like cisgender heterosexual persons, LGBT and people of other identities also exist. There is no evidence to support the claim that childhood trauma, experiences of abuse in childhood, parenting skills, absent fathers and domineering mothers or tension in the family are factors that cause one to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, or anything other than cisgender heterosexual.

In 1975, the American Psychological Association (APA) removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), as “research has found no inherent association between any of these sexual orientations and psychopathology” and “heterosexual behavior and homosexual behavior are normal aspects of human sexuality.”

While gender dysphoria[3] is in the current DSM 5, it has undergone major revisions to provide further clarification and guidance to healthcare providers as well as to remove stigma in relation to trans persons. This includes the replacement of “gender identity disorder” with “gender dysphoria” in DSM 5, and clarification that ‘gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder. The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with gender dysphoria”

The gender dysphoria diagnosis also includes “a post-transition specifier for people who are living full-time as the desired gender (with or without legal sanction of the gender change). This ensures treatment access for individuals who continue to undergo hormone therapy, related surgery, or psychotherapy or counseling to support their gender transition.” At the same time, it is important to note that people are able to determine their own gender identity without a diagnosis by healthcare providers. The diagnosis of gender dysphoria facilitates access to hormone replacement therapy and other trans specific healthcare services. In many countries, including Malta and India, medical evidence, including diagnosis by mental health professional of gender identity is not required in order to change the details in legal documents. The changes are made based on self-determined gender identity, as individuals are capable of recognizing and identifying their own gender identity based on their lived experiences.

Reality of sexual violence experienced by LGBTIQ persons

LGBT persons experience increased risks of sexual violence because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristic. In some cases, LGBT persons are sexually assaulted as a form of correction, to exercise power over and amongst others. In many cases, LGBT persons’ first sexual experiences are sexual violence. In many situations, LGBT persons across age groups are not able to share their experiences or report cases of sexual violence because of victim-blaming, self blame and rationalization, lack of friendly and affirming services, lack of information, amongst others. This creates an environment that disempowers and silences LGBT persons and emboldens perpetrators.

It extremely problematic to distort experiences of sexual violence; not only does it effectively silence LGBT persons from sharing their experiences but also increases barriers for LGBT persons in seeking services and working through trauma. We emphasize that the experience of sexual violence do not make one LGBT. However, LGBT persons experience increased vulnerabilities of sexual violence and face increased barriers to report cases of violence.

The issues that need to be addressed, amongst others are agency of people across age and diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics to share or report experiences of sexual violence; comprehensive and inclusive sex education of diverse identities; friendly services for LGBT persons of all ages to report sexual violence.

Myth #2. LGBT persons can be corrected or return to the ‘right path’

A central theme in JAKIM’s anti-LGBT messaging and efforts is that sexual orientation and gender identity can be changed through rehabilitation/ conversion therapy and the suppression of sexual orientation and gender identity. JAKIM categorises LGBT persons who are Muslim into 3 groups: those who have repented, those who are repenting, and those who are firm in their LGBT identities. The two former sub-groups should be assisted, guided and not discriminated. Meanwhile, the third group must be reasoned with rational arguments.

Gender, sex characteristics and sexual orientations are not binary instead they are a spectrum. All persons should have access to information regarding gender and sexuality, and feel safe to explore, understand and express their gender and sexuality. While we respect the choices of people who choose to change their sexual orientation and gender identity, the notion of “former” LGBT persons and what compels people to change needs to be further analyzed.

The Mukhayyam programme, a rehabilitation programme by JAKIM for LGBT persons claims to be a strategy to reduce prevalence of HIV, among other things. While there is an appearance of change by the participants of the programme, the Global AIDS Response Progress Report 2016 notes that there is no evidence to prove the efficacy of this programme.

Mukhayyam is a special program aimed at creating awareness on principles of Islamic teaching, self enhancement apart from HIV awareness. Targeting key populations, enrolment to this program is voluntary. Many who attended this program have reported change in behaviour to less risky or risk free but there has been no data to support this claim. (page 17, Global AIDS Response Progress Report 2016)

Not only is rehabilitation and corrective therapy ineffective, but it also creates more harm. All major national mental health organizations have rejected and expressed concerns regarding therapies that aims to correct or change gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, as there is a lack of evidence that support the efficacy of these efforts or therapies.

In 2009, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a report concluding that the risks of conversion therapy practices include: depression, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, shame, social withdrawal, suicidal tendencies, substance abuse, stress, disappointment, self-blame, decreased self-esteem and authenticity to others, increased self-hatred, hostility and blame toward parents, feelings of anger and betrayal, loss of friends and potential romantic partners, problems in sexual and emotional intimacy, sexual dysfunction, high-risk sexual behaviours, a feeling of being dehumanised and untrue to self, a loss of faith, and a sense of having wasted time and resources.

In 2012, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) stated that purport to “cure” people with non-heterosexual sexual orientation lack medical justification and represent a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people. Additionally, PAHO also emphasized that therapy to change sexual orientation brings ‘a serious threat to the health and well-being—even the lives—of affected people.’ In the same year, Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, a former advocate of conversion therapy, issued a public apology, and retracted his support for conversion therapy.

In the context of Malaysia, the UN Special Rapporteur on health, during his visit to Malaysia in November 2014, expressed concern over the “so-called “corrective therapies” by the state agencies.

Such therapies are not only unacceptable from a human rights perspective, but they are also against scientific evidence, and have a serious negative impact on the mental health and well-being of adolescents. State-led programs to identify, “expose”, and punish LGBT children have contributed to a detrimental educational environment where the inherent dignity of the child is not respected, and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is encouraged.”

It is extremely concerning that public health policies are being made based on ineffective and non-evidence based approaches. It is misguided and naïve to assume that prevalence of HIV will decline via rehabilitation of LGBT persons, that is making LGBT persons suppress their gender identity and sexual orientation.

Myth #3. LGBT persons are the leading cause of HIV

The claim that LGBT persons are the leading cause of HIV is untrue, counterproductive and simply irresponsible. Such statements, especially in an environment where LGBT people are already stigmatized, risk increasing stigma, discrimination, stereotype and misinformation regarding HIV and LGBT persons, and could lead to rollback of rights of people living with HIV. For example, in 2017, a local college in Selangor explicitly stated in its admission criteria that admission would be revoked or rejected for applicants who are HIV positive or experience mental health issues.

The Global AIDS Response Progress Report 2016 reports a shift in trend of prevalence from transmission through unsafe injecting practices to transmission via sexual intercourse. Another concerning pattern that was observed is in relation to age. The report notes that the bulk of infection involves young people between ages of 20 and 39 years old. A media release by the Malaysian AIDS Council in October 2017 notes:

“… Malaysia is facing a sexual health crisis. Of the reported 3,397 new HIV infections last year, 84 per cent or 2,864 were sexually transmitted – 1,553 homo/bisexual (46 per cent) and 1,311 heterosexual transmissions (38 per cent) respectively. The rise in sexually transmitted HIV has come to characterise the national AIDS epidemic since 2010 when, for the first time, new HIV infections attributed to sexual transmission superseded unsafe drug injecting practices and other modes of transmission.”

LGBT persons are not inherently at risk of HIV. It is crucial to examine the correlation between the rise in prevalence of HIV among gay men and transgender women and the rise of anti-LGBT activities, criminalization, legal, socio-political and economic barriers and discrimination faced by LGBT population in general. Evidence shows that LGBT persons face increased vulnerability and health risks, including HIV, STI, mental health issues amongst others as a result of the multiple forms of discrimination that LGBT persons experience. Thus, the biggest contributor to HIV is stigma and discrimination, not LGBT persons.

A report by the United Nations Country Team in 2014, “The Review and Consultation on the Policy and Legal Environments Related to HIV Services in Malaysia” provides an overview of the HIV epidemic in Malaysia. Notably, the removal of criminal laws and discriminatory practices being critical in transforming the global AIDS response:

“In Malaysia, the HIV epidemic continues to be concentrated among key populations, who often represent highly ostracized and stigmatized segments within all societies. Members of these communities are not only rejected socially, but further marginalized through legal frameworks that cast them as criminals. Criminal laws and discriminatory practices based on moral judgment, superstition, ancient beliefs, fear and misinformation, punish instead of protect. They drive at-risk communities underground, preventing them from accessing lifesaving treatment and prevention information and services, heightening their risk for HIV.

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law (2010-2012), a high-level initiative launched in 2010 by UNDP Administrator, Helen Clark, examined how law and practices can transform the global AIDS response. The Commission’s findings and recommendations reveal that evidence-based laws and practices firmly grounded in human rights are powerful instruments for challenging discrimination, promoting public health, and protecting human rights. The benefits are felt beyond HIV responses to encompass health and development outcomes more broadly.

Furthermore, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Resolutions 66/10 and 67/9 recommended that punitive laws and policies targeting key populations be abolished to reduce levels of social stigma, discrimination, violence and broader human rights violations.”

Terminologies

Assigned sex at birth – identity assigned based on genitals, typically, female, male, etc. however, sex or sex characteristics refer to a combination of chromosomes, internal and external sexual organs, secondary sex characteristics, and hormones.

Gender identity – personal sense of identification (typically, girl, boy, gender fluid or queer etc.) based on how one feels and sees themselves. Typically, gender identity is also assigned at birth according to genital based on assumption. However, gender identity and sex are two separate things, and do not have be consistent, aligned or match.

Cisgender – a person whose sex assigned at birth ‘match’ their gender identity

Transgender – a person whose sex assigned at birth ‘does not match’ their gender identity

Trans woman – a transgender person whose gender identity is a girl/woman

Trans man – a transgender person whose gender identity is a boy/man

Gender queer – a person identifies as neither girl/woman or boy/man, non-binary, combination of gender categories or other forms of gender identity

See gender bear for more information

[1] Sida-sida resided in the inner chambers of the palace, and were ‘entrusted with the sacred regalia and the preservation of the ruler’s special powers’. Further references to sida-sida can be found in the Hikayat Melayu, such as Hikayat Amer Hamzah. Professor Datuk Dr. Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, a Malaysian anthropologist, also provides a first-hand account of seeing sida-sida in a palace as a child, describing them as people who were assigned male at birth, who dressed and performed gender roles of women.

[2] Basir, in Gender Pluralism in South East Asia, are described as someone who “dresses like a woman in private life as well, and parts their hair in the middle of their forehead just like a (cisgender) woman.” Manang bali, basir and balian were also ritual specialists, shamans and healers, among others.

[3] Gender dysphoria is a diagnosis for people whose gender at birth is contrary to the one they identify, including but not limited to transgender persons.

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