I turned down a seedy alley in Kuala Lumpur's neon-drenched nightlife district Changkat with little more than a dot on maps app that read "gay bar" to guide me. The club, which asked us not to use its name for reasons that will become apparent soon, was dark, small, and cramped. A chandelier of lighting equipment spewed rainbow-colored spotlights, casting lasers and dots of light in a 360 degree radius of the dance floor. There were about 80 to 100 people inside, but the space's small size made it seem like way more. I grabbed a Tiger beer and posted up in the corner to wait for the show to start.
The lights went down around 1 am as curtains on the small stage went up. Four performers, their outfits on-point, leotards and golden tassels, took the stage and launched into a lip-sync performance of the J-Lo and Pitbull hit "On the Floor." The crowd went nuts, roaring and cheering at the every chorus. It was just another night at Malaysia's most-popular drag bar, where everyone parties like it's closing night, because, these days, any night could be the bar's last.
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The place was raided by cops and religious authorities only a few months ago. In a statement the following morning, the Minister of Federal Territory said the raid was conducted to help prevent the spread of LGBTQ culture which he called a "radical belief." Twenty men, all of them Malay Muslims, were ordered to attend counseling sessions by the Federal Territory Islamic Religious Department (JAWI). The government believes sexual orientation is a choice and with guidance, people can be set on "the right path."
Although it is regarded as a moderate Muslim country, Malaysia has two parallel legal systems, one secular and one for Muslims based on Sharia law. On the secular side, sodomy is punishable under a pre-colonial legal code which also prohibits oral sex but is rarely enforced. However, the Sharia system, which applies to more than 60 percent of the population, strictly prohibits homosexuality.
And today, there's signs that the situation is getting worse for Malaysia's LGBTQ community. In September, two women were publicly caned by Sharia authorities after pleading guilty to "attempted" lesbian sex in the conservative state of Terengganu. Both women were struck six times in front of more than 100 spectators. It was the first time anyone was caned in Malaysia for the "crime" of being queer. Justice For Sisters, a grassroots campaign to raise awareness of this kind of violence and discrimination, called the caning "a dark chapter in this nation’s history."
It's hard to get your head around how complicated the situation is in Malaysia. In neighboring Indonesia, the state and police are behind the rising tide of homophobia that's boiled over with a series of raids, failed laws, and claims that the country was in the midst of a "LGBT Emergency" in recent years.
But in Malaysia, the story gets confusing. In August, one month before the raid on this drag bar, then deputy prime minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail told the press that the LGBTQ community had a right to exist in Malaysia as long as they kept their "practices" private. She went on to say that the group should not “glamorize” their lifestyle and cited Section 377A of the Penal Code that criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature."
And here's where it gets strange. Wan Azizah’s own husband, Anwar Ibrahim, who in Malaysia’s bizarre political climate is supposed to due become prime minister any day now, was charged under the very same law and sentenced to prison for sodomy, twice.
Anwar himself has come out against the sodomy law, calling it "completely unjust," but then continued on to say that he supported his wife's views on the LGBTQ community remaining hidden in Malaysia. He told the press "it's what you perform or you display publicly which is against the norms of the majority of Malaysians, not only Muslims, but also Christians, Hindus, Buddhists alike in this country."
Last May, Malaysians voted out then prime minister Najib Razak in a historic election that was supposed to signal a sea change after decades of unbroken Barisan Nasional rule. The election's winners, second time prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and his Pakatan Harapan was supposed to herald in a "New Malaysia."
But for Kuala Lumpur's LGBTQ community, things haven't changed all that much—at least not for the better. The drag bar has been open for some 30 years, but the pressure and raids began after the election and the PH win, according to workers and patrons of the club, all who wished to remain anonymous over fears about their safety in the near future.
“It’s the same country,” said Edwin Sumun, who is also known as Shelah as Malaysia’s most-famous drag performer who has been performing in Malaysia and Singapore since the late ’80s.
“After the election, a lot of my friends, the activists, the satirists, were very happy,” Edwin, said adding that they called him a "debbie-downer" and a pessimist for doubting that progress was coming.
Now, less than a year later, it seems like Shelah might have been right. Mahathir, the country's 93-year-old prime minister who previously promised to "make our human rights record respected by the world," later clarified that the term "human rights" meant something different in Malaysia. Malaysian human rights, he explained, wouldn't include LGTBQ rights.
"It sounds strange to say that there was a sense of optimism or hope," said Pang Khee Teik, an activist and writer who co-founded the Seksualiti Merdeka festival, it means "Independent Sexuality," which was banned in 2011.
Pang characterizes the feeling prior to this election as cautiously optimistic and “more cautious than optimistic,” at that. Pang and other activists are aware that expecting drastic change overnight isn’t realistic and LGBTQ issues tend to rank low in a country rife with institutionalized corruption and racial politicking.
But the "hide yourself" rhetoric of the government means little for Malaysia's trans community. Most of the women performing drag at the bar were trans, and the sheer nature of being trans-gendered means that "they cannot be anything but visible," Pang explained.
The dangers facing the trans community are far worse than raids and religious education programs. Reports of violence against transgender women are on the rise with three murders taking place since November 2018 including the body of a trans woman who was found on the side of the road in Klang having suffered a brutal attack on the first day of 2019.
The trans community is exactly the kind of at-risk group that needs greater protections in a New Malaysia. But the PH government lacks a working definition of discrimination—same as the old, Pang explained.
"The bizarre thing is to be told by the government that we have rights and we shouldn’t be discriminated against and at the same time be told we should not promote ourselves and keep it private," Pang said. "[It] makes me think the government doesn’t understand what discrimination is, because that in itself is discrimination."
The fear of future crackdowns hasn't stopped the party from going on at the drag bar. The crowd was losing its shit to a performance set to Beyonce's "Single Ladies," complete with J-Setting choreography and asymmetrical leotards. But the fear was still there. The bar itself, which was welcoming to the idea of this story and willing to allow photos, changed its mind as the climate took a turn. No one in attendance wanted to go on the record with their names either. There was a palpable sense of uncertainty, and fear, over their future in this New Malaysia.
Later, as the night pushed deeper into the morning and the bar fast approached closing time, I ran into one of the performers hanging out near the bar. I asked what they thought about the raids, and the creeping sense that homophobia and transphobia were on the rise after the election.
The artist, fresh from the stage, stared at me, picked up a drink, and said, "I can't answer. It's too political."