Members of the LGBTQ community have the right to live in dignity regardless of their choice of lifestyle, writes Lavaniyan Nathan Jothy.
The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community within Malaysian society has yet again received negative attention.
The most recent episode began when the organiser of the George Town Literary Festival was asked to removed two portraits of well-known LGBTQ activists from a Merdeka Celebration exhibition.
Nisha Ayub’s and Pang Khee Teik’s pictures were removed as a result of the instructions give by the Minister in charge of Religious Affairs, Mujahid Yusof Rawa. The official reason given was simply that “Nisha and Pang were clearly promoting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender activities” which are against the Pakatan Harapan government’s policy.
Before this fiasco, Youth and Sport Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman’s interim press officer Numan Afifi resigned from his post after criticism was levelled against his LGBTQ activism.
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Now, the question is simple: to what extent are members of the LGBTQ community allowed to freely express their choice of lifestyle within contemporary Malaysian society? Should they be allowed to express their choice of lifestyle, which is perceived to be unacceptable in a conservative society like ours?
The LGBTQ issue poses both an ethical and moral question and choice.
The naysayers tend to use the moralistic justification to deny the rights of LGBTQ communities, with religious and cultural restrictions being the most favoured argument. They would suggest that such a practice or choice of lifestyle is immoral in the sense that it is not sanctioned by religion and that what they practise is neither a norm within the society they live nor does it constitute Asian values. They call this a social deviance and construct within that limitation. Members of the LGBTQ community are often argued as having no place in our contemporary society.
But human right defenders have brought up a stronger argument in seeking to legitimise such a lifestyle and giving protection to its practice. For them, it is an individual choice in which the state should not interfere. This argument is fortified by the harm principle, which advocates that the state should only interfere when one’s conduct results in “harm” to another member of society. How does the action of two consenting adults of the same gender having sex “harm” society? According to them, the state should not be the guardian of the moral choice that these consenting adults are making.
This is where the political contentions arise. As these dilemmas continue to be argued out, members of the LGBTQ community have been subject to violence and harassment. The death of Sameera Krishnan, a transgender, and T Nhaveen, who was considered “soft” by his assailants last year, reflect the perils that members of the LGBTQ community have to endure.
The Terengganu Sharia court recently imposed a punishment of caning against two women who were allegedly involved in lesbianism. In Negeri Sembilan, a transgender was seriously assaulted by eight men – and the reason for the assault was simply because the assailants didn’t like the way their victims were!
Such discrimination is practised not just by the ordinary person on the street. Certain professionals too have show some disdain toward the LGBTQ community. Dr Nur Llyani Mohamed Nawawi, a medical practitioner, made disparaging remarks about the LGBTQ community, accusing them of having the highest number of HIV cases in the country.
Should LGBTQ groups be allowed a voice in our new Malaysia? Should public perceptions on such a matter influence lawmakers in their decision-making? If the LGBTQ community is considered an abomination that society should not accept, shouldn’t the same standard be apply to the many other moral issues that society often tends to be ignorant of?
Take, for example, the marriage of a 11-year-old girl to a religious teacher in Kelantan – his third wife. If the argument by the moralists is that members of the LGBTQ community are considered immoral and going against the core value of cultural practices in the society, how we can justify this marriage? The same group of people who protest against the LGBTQ community did not seem to show the same disdain on this issue. Why the double standards?
The problem with moral questions is the pick-and-choose attitude that we show when society is confronted with difficult issues or hard choices. Take, for example, abortion and surrogate mothers. How can one justify the right of women to an abortion but at the same time argue against the practise of surrogate mothers. How can we can justify the strict moral sense that members of the LGBTQ communities are making a wrong choice?
Should we than bend the rule of the majority who feel the LGBTQ lifestyle is immoral and let the members of the LGBTQ community practise their choice of lifestyle freely and without restriction? The unfortunate answer must necessarily be no. Malaysian society has not reached the level of maturity and wisdom in accepting the many different choices that people may be faced with.
Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who also the Minister in charge of Family and Welfare, recently said that the LGBTQ lifestyle is a private affair and it should be remain private, taking into account the sensitivities of the majority-Muslim population in the country.
Members of the LGBTQ community have the right to live in dignity regardless of their choice of lifestyle. The argument is not about acceptability but about the need to be tolerant. The same religious argument that we use to vilify the LGBTQ community also teaches us the value of compassion, love and respect that should be extended to them.
The Federal Constitution has provisions on fundamental rights. Under Article 5 of the Constitution, the right to life or personal liberty of any citizen cannot be deprived except by law. Members of the LGBTQ community are entitled to such protection, including the right to live in dignity and safety. It is the primary role of the state to ensure this basic human right is given to them.
Lavaniyan Nathan Jothy, a regular follower of aliran.com, is currently doing a masters in law at a local university.