The difficulty in accepting sexual diversity

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Prema Devaraj urges Malaysians to try and understand sexual diversity and to work for a more just and humane society.

More than a year ago, I received a phone call from a school teacher.

She wanted to discuss the possibility of a programme for teenage girls in her school. “Aayoh, there is a big problem,” the teacher whispered to me in hushed tones over the phone.

I waited wondering what it could be.

She had great difficulty expressing herself.

I began to prompt her: Underaged sex? Pregnancy? STI? HIV? Suicide? Self-mutilation? Anorexia? Bulemia? Rape? Gang rape? Sexual abuse by a teacher?  By the students perhaps? Extortion?

“No, no, it’s worse than that! There are lesbians in the school!” she burst out.

I listened silently as she complained indignantly.

“You must come and talk to them and tell them to stop it! They cannot do like that. It is wrong!”

In October 2008, the National Fatwa Council in Malaysia issued a fatwa on pengkid (tomboy). The fatwa states that pengkid, that is, women who have the appearance, mannerisms and sexual orientation similar to men is haram, in Islam. “We urge parents and the Muslim community to pay serious attention to this problem. Emphasis should be on teaching and guiding young girls, especially on the aspects of their clothing, behaviour and appearance, so that this problem may be avoided because it runs counter to their fitrah and Allah’s way.” Fitrah is the innate natural sexual inclination that each human is born with and which does not change. In Islam, if a person is born male, he is masculine and is sexually attracted to women; and if a person is born female, she is feminine and sexually attracted to men (New Sunday Times, 23 November 2008 – Sunday Interview: Fatwa on ‘pengkid’ to prevent lesbianism).

Soon after, in December, Pope Benedict XVI in his end-of-year address to senior Vatican staff reportedly said that the defence of heterosexual relationships was as important to humanity as preventing the destruction of rainforests. The Pope suggested that a blurring of the distinction between male and female could lead to the “self-destruction” of the human race. He apparently described behaviour beyond traditional heterosexual relations as “a destruction of God’s work”. He said the Roman Catholic Church had a duty to “protect man from the destruction of himself” and urged respect for the “nature of the human being as man and woman” (The Guardian, 24 December 2008).

Clearly sexual diversity is still unacceptable to many.

Not a western import

But like it or not, sexual diversity has always existed in cultures and societies around the world as evidenced from recorded history including anthropological studies, literary works, poems, paintings, ancient texts and sculptures. Sexual diversity and expressions of different sexual orientations (gay, lesbian, transsexual and so on) is not a new or recent western import. Eastern cultures also have people exhibiting different sexual orientations. We may use different terms to describe them, for example the kathoey in Thailand or the hijras of India or the khanith in Middle East or the waria in Indonesia are transsexuals or sometimes referred to as members of the third gender or third sex (neither man nor woman). In Malaysia, we have our own terminology, albeit not particularly flattering, for people who do not conform to heterosexual norms (lelaki lembut, pondan, bapok, pengkid, mak nyah).

We can all continue to debate whether or not sexual diversity is inherent or learned. A genetic flaw or a variation? A trend or a reality? For some, it is a period of experimentation and personal choice. For others, it is not something which can be switched on or off just like that. They say they are just simply who they are. No amount of counselling, hounding, humiliating or punishing can change the way they are or how they feel.

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It is interesting to note that we accept the occurrence of diversity in so many areas that we come across in our lives such as plant life, the animal kingdom, culture, food, fashion, vehicles, houses, jobs, education, language and political ideology (grudgingly at times!). We recognise diversity in skin colour, hair texture, height, weight and so on. So why is there so much resistance and antagonism towards sexual diversity? Why is there a need to fit people’s sexual expressions or orientations into little boxes and then hammer down the lids? What is behind this resistance?

It would seem that the concept of sexual diversity is unacceptable to those who subscribe to a heteronormative ideology which basically promotes heterosexual relationships as the norm and superior to anything else. This ideology also includes the thinking that people fall into two distinct and complementary categories (male and female), that sexual and marital relations are normal only when between people of different sexes, and that each sex has certain natural roles in life.

The link to patriarchy

Heteronormativity is often associated with patriarchy, a social system which is male dominated, male-identified and male-centred in character, giving rise to female subordination and the control of female labour, in both the public and private sphere (Johnson A.G., 2005; Hartmann H, 1979).

A. Matzner elaborates on how the patriarchal mindset does not allow for sexual diversity. He says, “Regardless of the form a patriarchal society takes, control-oriented culture valorises and normalises the heterosexual male, who is viewed as the human standard against which all else (that is, non-humans such as women and homosexuals) is measured. This normative system of sexuality is enforced by conceptualizing men as either “real” or deviant. “Real men” are sexually attracted to “real women,” who are expected to bear and raise children and take care of the home, hence the sanctity (and legal binding) of marriage. Because neither gay men nor lesbians contribute to the patriarchal structure of the family (which serves to [re]create new workers for the paid and unpaid labor force), they are considered counter-productive to industrial society and hence are stigmatised”. (www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/patriarchy.html)

Heteronormative ideology is reinforced in patriarchal societies where both men and women are prescribed roles that are assumed to be biologically determined and are placed in very distinct, separate categories. With men and women each in their ‘proper places’, society is said to run smoothly because gender rules and roles are followed. Religious institutions, state and national laws, the media, education systems, all serve to instil, maintain or actively perpetuate this heteronormative social ideology.

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The existence of sexual diversity therefore challenges these supposedly ‘natural’ or ‘fixed’ sex/gender categories; hence also challenging the very pillars of patriarchy. It should therefore come as no surprise that in a society such as ours, where societal norms are deeply entrenched in patriarchy, and policies and laws are derived from patriarchal sources, those expressing anything other than heterosexual norms are marginalised, stigmatised and often persecuted.

It is clear that to work towards the acceptance of sexual diversity and even sexual autonomy, one has to overcome structures or systems or beliefs which support heteronor-mative ideology. Despite Article 8 in the Federal Constitution which is about equality (i.e., all persons are equal before the law … and ….no discrimination against citizens on the grounds of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender etc), the reality on the ground is that getting people to accept sexual diversity is a difficult and often painful process.


People’s reactions

In our local setting, individuals and groups who do promote the concept of sexual diversity or argue for the right to sexual autonomy are often deemed as being amoral or not abiding by ‘Asian values’ and instead giving in to decadent western culture and influence. Those who find themselves expressing a different sexuality other than heterosexuality face enormous difficulty in finding the space to be who they honestly are. They are often demonised or treated as subhuman.

People’s reactions against sexual diversity can range from silent or verbal condemnation to harassment and to extreme acts of violence. In some places around the world, it is not uncommon to hear of hate crimes or violent crimes committed against members of the gay and lesbian community. A recent example is the brutal gang rape and murder of Eudy Simelant, one of South Africa’s best known female footballers and equality rights campaigner who had lived openly as a lesbian. Since her murder in April 2008, human right campaigners say there has been a rising tide of violence against lesbians in South Africa in the form of “corrective rapes” committed by men under the guise of trying to “cure” lesbians of their sexual orientation (The Guardian, 12 March 2009).

While there are some extreme reactions to sexual diversity, there are those who are ambivalent over the issue. For some, they accept that sexual diversity happens but thank god their children are heterosexual. Some others have said, “Ya, it’s okay, but I don’t want to see ‘them’ doing it in front of me.” So does it mean it is okay not to be heterosexual as long as one keeps it under wraps, that is, remains celibate?  And of course there are those who do not see sexual diversity as an issue at all.

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I recall a gender sensitisation workshop where the assignment involved the participants breaking into single sex groups to work out what characteristics they would want their ideal partners to have. While everybody was busy getting into their specific groups, a young man dithered. It was obvious he did not belong in the boys group. Before I could say anything, the girls called him over to join them and the boys encouraged him to go. “Tapalah puan, lebih sesuai dia duduk sana”. They sorted themselves out and the session carried on.

Trying to understand

So what do we do about those who are different? What about their feelings and rights? I remember vividly a phone call from a mother, weeping that her son was about to be sent off to RMC by his father in order to toughen up. I think of the young man who was molested by his ‘friends’ in the asrama for being different. How he kept his head down as he spoke of what had happened. I remember the young woman who no longer speaks to her family as they would not accept her sexuality.  Despite the years which had passed, her anger and pain remained so raw and unresolved. How do we support these people? They are human too.

Sociologist A G Johnson wrote: “The human capacity to choose how to participate in the world empowers all of us to pass along something different than what’s been passed to us. With each strand of the patriarchal gender knot that we help to unravel, we don’t act simply for ourselves. We join a process of creative resistance to oppression that’s been unfolding for thousands of years. We become part of the long traditions of people who have dared to make a difference – to look at things as they are, to imagine something better, and to plant seeds of change in themselves, in others, and in the world.”

We all have a choice. We do not have to accept boundaries determined for us. We do not have to let sexual diversity (or any other form of diversity) frighten or antagonise us. We could choose instead to try and understand this diversity and work for a more just and humane society where rights are recognised and differences respected. It will be a complicated uphill process, taking more than a lifetime of education and effort. But it is possible.

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