ABOUT two years ago I was approached by a friend, Mooreyameen Mohamad to participate in his labour of love, “60 x 60”.
It is a book project-cum-exhibition comprising 60 Malaysians from all walks of life and backgrounds posing with the Jalur Gemilang and declaring their love for their country and what they aspire the nation to be 60 years on.
The project featured politicians, celebrities, sportsmen, human rights activists and regular men and women in the street such as coffee shop owners, students and journalists.
Yameen’s (as he’s known to friends) works have been featured in exhibitions including the one currently being held at Dewan Seri Pinang, Penang as part of the George Town Festival.
This time named the Stripes and Strokes exhibition, the 28 exhibits include transgender persons rights activist Nisha Ayub and LGBTQ rights advocate Pang Khee Teik.
Yameen need not worry about garnering publicity for his work, as the present Pakatan Harapan (PH) government made sure to bring national attention to the exhibition.
It is well documented now that the state government had instructed for Nisha’s and Pang’s portraits to be taken down following a call from Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of religious affairs Datuk Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa who had asked for these portraits to be removed.
Following backlash from the public accusing the PH government of homophobia and “we didn’t vote for this”, the trending quote on social media, the minister has deftly turned a negative into a positive by explaining that he was merely concerned for the safety of Nisha and the transgender community as there were many criticisms and cyber-attacks against Nisha.
But instead of identifying those who issued the threats and bringing the full might of the law upon them, Mujahid found it more prudent to just order the removal of the pictures.
“I was informed of the exhibition that showcased their pictures, along with the rainbow pride flag, in a public gallery,” he said.
“I contacted the state government to check if the claim is true, and I have consistently repeated in Parliament that we do not support the promotion of LGBT culture in Malaysia,”
“I took the action to protect them. Can you imagine what would have happened if the portraits were there for the whole month?” he was quoted as saying by the media.
Whether a federal minister for religion can usurp the functions of the local council (in this case the Penang Island Municipal Council – MPPP) and order the removal of photographs in an enclosed space controlled by the local council is a debate on local government jurisdictions for another day.
However, one cannot rely on the popular interpretation (read: mass interpretation by straight people of “LGBTQ culture”) to mean men having sex with men and women having sex with women openly, men dressing as women and vice versa.
When one talks about the LGBTQ community in this country, this is a very private community, some of whom are extremely self-conscious over their orientation due to the conservative environment which they live in and the lack of understanding and acceptance of their life choices by their family, friends and society at large.
Which is why the key issues that need addressing when one talks about LGBTQ is not same sex marriage, mardi gras or cross dressing as the shallow consensus are.
It is about anti-discrimination, equal opportunities, eradication of harassment by religious and security authorities, educational awareness on transgender persons, access to medication, affordable gender reassignment surgery, counselling and even freedom to continue worshipping openly, among others.
In a nutshell, it is freedom from being judged and treated as a lesser human being.
The PH government must be reminded that they also rode on the votes of the LGBTQ community.
But the LGBTQ community must be in the forefront of fighting for their rights. Which is why it is disappointing that Nisha, at the meeting with Mujahid decided to throw Yameen and the organiser under the bus. Just read her statements on Aug 8 when the portraits were taken down:
“They talk about rights as a citizen of Malaysia but yet they are denying people like me to even express our love to our own country. What is happening to our New Malaysia? Is that what we the marginalised community voted for?
“They talk about sensitivity of certain group of people but what about sensitivity of others? Aren’t we a part of the system?”
Now read her statement on Aug 10 after meeting Mujahid:
“I was not informed until I was tagged on my Facebook page and it went viral,” she said.
“My portrait was taken down for a reason. It is not a big issue.
“I have never mentioned being an LGBT activist. I always mention being a trans activist because I don’t have the right to represent to talk on behalf of other people.”
Correct me if I am wrong but LGBTQ to my knowledge stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.
I believe Nisha represents the T in LGBTQ. Her description as an LGBTQ activist in the exhibition is thus not inaccurate. One can only guess why she is back-paddling now and refuses to be lumped in with the other marginalised members of the LGBTQ community – is she also practising discrimination then?
What transpired in that 40-minute meeting with Mujahid? Was she asked to discredit the organisers as it is the only way to move forward with the government in recognising the cause she is passionate about?
One can only speculate but it is a sad day indeed when highly respected activists and advocates such as Nisha is perceived as compromising on her principles as a means to an end.
In the meantime, the silver lining in this whole saga is that the act of removing these portraits, meant to sweep the LGBTQ issue under the carpet, has ironically thrusted the LGBTQ community into the heart of national discourse.
The conspiracy theorist in me would like to believe that this was a brilliant plan by Mujahid to push for the issue to be debated and force the hand of the government in addressing the concerns of this community which are as patriotic as the next Malaysians and have given back so much to the country that they love as much as the holy book-toting activists.
If this is the case, then, my humble apologies.
The writer is a former senior journalist who is now involved in public relations consultancy