‘I’m extremely scared,’ says Khairul, a young gay man from Brunei.
‘Khairul’ (not his real name) would only speak to GSN under the condition of anonymity out of fear of persecution in his home country.
‘Being gay in Brunei is something which means keeping it to ourselves and trying not to be open about it. There’s an invisible pressure which keeps us hidden,’ he says.
‘It really scares me to think that if they find evidence that proves I’m gay or conspiring against Sharia Law [by virtue of being] LGBT, then I’m scared that they might actually take action, and have the reasons to, I don’t know… Put me through conversion therapy, a trial, jail, a fine, or maybe execution.’
Tucked away on the island of Borneo and surrounded by the East Malaysian state of Sarawak, the tiny country’s majority-Muslim population of around 420,000 live under the absolute monarchy of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.
In May 2014, Hassanal announced that Brunei would begin the full implementation of Sharia law, to be introduced in stages over a number of years. The strict Islamic laws carried harsh sentences for a number of actions deemed offensive.
There was, perhaps, no group more affected than the LGBTI community: those found guilty of homosexual sex, the law decreed, would face punishment of death by stoning.
Almost overnight, Brunei was thrust under the global spotlight. The backlash against the anti-LGBTI laws was swift; with the international press leading the charge of shared outrage, celebrities and public figures began voicing their shock and revulsion, promising to boycott businesses with ties to Brunei.
But real political action against the oil-rich nation was virtually non-existent. The initial shock soon faded, and the media cycle moved on.
In the four years since, the country’s move towards implementing Sharia law continues. For Brunei’s already marginalized LGBTI community, the possibility of prosecution, and perhaps a gruesome death sentence, is a lingering fear which never goes away.
In the space of a generation, various nations around the globe have seen rapid gains for LGBTI rights. This has largely been achieved through persistent political campaigning, relying on public visibility, and mobilization of the LGBTI community and its allies.
In Brunei, such forms of activism are an abstract concept. The mounting pressure has essentially forced the LGBTI community underground, to the point where it becomes a logical stretch to use ‘community’ as an accurate descriptor. Any attempt at open advocacy in Brunei is met with severe legal and social repercussions.
The pressure to conform can force many people to forcefully reject or suppress homosexual feelings. In some cases this can manifest in extreme forms, with gay men undergoing conversion therapy in attempts to ‘cure’ themselves.
‘I know one person who went through conversion therapy, and [he’s] acting as a straight man now, and married to a wife and has children,’ says Khairul. ‘I’m not sure what kind of therapy — I don’t even want to know, because I’m too scared to know what he went through.’
In Khairul’s experience, attempts at community building or reaching out to other gay men is restricted to the online space.
‘Social media is a good medium. But public social media, like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, if we were to say that we’re from Brunei and we’re gay, and we don’t tell our real identity, the Brunei community will actually go immediately on a “riot” and give extreme negative comments to everything,’ Khairul says.
‘I wrote an (anonymous) article about being gay, and reading some of the comments then I felt attacked, like “The ministry of religious affairs should deal with this,” or “You should be converted – it’s not too late,” or “We can save you if you come back to your religious roots”.’
Real connections are also difficult to build. The fearful climate leads closeted men to look to the online space to seek out secretive, non-committal sex over genuine relationships.
‘We were raised in this controlled community, and if we know that we’re gay then we have no rights, to be married, to have children, so we might just opt to have just sex with other men; we don’t care who they are,’ Khairul says.
The challenge of advocacy
‘Brunei [is] certainly the most conservative country in Southeast Asia,’ says Matthew Woolfe, founder and director of The Brunei Project, the only group whose main focus is advocating for LGBTI rights in Brunei.
‘I think that conservatism extends to the LGBT community. In general, the LGBT community in Brunei is much more low-profile than most other countries, and, whereas many of Brunei’s neighbors do have strong LGBT advocacy networks that have been quite vocal and have been campaigning for LGBT rights for some time, then, unfortunately, that just isn’t there in Brunei.’
A native of Australia, Woolfe founded The Brunei Project in 2015 after hearing about the country’s adoption of Sharia law.
‘Something just clicked with me when I heard about these laws that were being implemented, and how unfair they are, and certainly how unjust and terrifying some of the laws are,’ says Woolfe.
The current reforms to implement Sharia law are still ongoing. Implementation of the second stage of the three-stage process — which includes the laws which can see the execution by stoning for homosexuality — is expected to begin within the next year.
Although the burden of proof for death by stoning is high – at least four people must testify to having seen the individual commit a homosexual sex act – and the law has not yet been implemented, just the thought of it has pushed the LGBTI community further into hiding.
‘I think people in Brunei, in general, are very afraid to take a risk,’ says Khairul. ‘Everyone wants to see change, they want things in the country to improve, they want their basic rights like to speak out, and so forth, but while they want those rights and they want to change, there are very few people who are actually willing to take the risks necessary to push for that change, and to advocate for that.‘
‘In general, I do feel extremely frustrated about the people who are don’t even want to fight for their rights for being gay, as they feel like it’s impossible,’ Khairul adds.
‘That’s one of the big challenges with LGBT advocacy in Brunei,’ says Woolfe. ‘People are relying on their private networks, and keeping it within those networks for support, but they’re not reaching out to these other organizations where they could potentially draw from their experience to start forming some sort of advocacy movement within Brunei.’
Reaching out to Southeast Asia’s LGBTI community
The Brunei Project has firsthand experience of the challenges in trying to organize for such a cause in the country.
In 2016, the group hosted a low-key get-together for members of the LGBTI community in a hotel in Brunei. Though it went off without incident, when Woolfe later attempted to reenter Brunei he was stopped by immigration officials and told he had been effectively blacklisted and barred from re-entering the country.
‘Initially, I thought: “OK, where do I go from here?”’ says Woolfe. ‘Hopefully one day I’ll have it overturned. It does make it harder doing this work.’
Since then, Woolfe has begun developing ways to conduct his work for The Brunei Project in absentia.
‘A lot of the work that we had done, and continued to do, we based on social media,’ he says. ‘I continue to make new contacts through social media [and] continue to work with these contacts who are based in Brunei, it just means that I can’t visit the country myself.’
The situation has also added urgency to the group’s efforts to forge connections with LGBTI groups in neighboring countries. Recently, The Brunei Project has begun building ties with LGBTI community support group Oogachaaga based in Singapore, offering gay Bruneians a nearby community to reach out to for help and support.
‘We have received a small number of clients connecting with us from Brunei, talking about feeling isolated with no local LGBTQ community resources, finding it difficult to live closeted lives, which in turn impacted their relationships with loved ones,’ Leow Yangfa, Oogachaaga’s executive director, said via email.
‘Not surprisingly, there were also concerns about their mental health and psychological well-being. The Brunei Project recently reported that there has been an increase in the number of suicides. Hence, in addition to offering our online counseling services, we also connected The Brunei Project with suicide prevention hotline and email services in Malaysia (Befrienders) and Singapore (Samaritans of Singapore).’
‘I feel like it’s going backwards’
While spreading the word and building connections with neighboring human rights groups is a necessary step, it is still very much a start. Brunei remains a conservative and closed-off country, where the fear of legal and social persecution has become nigh-on instinctual in the mindsets of many LGBTI Bruneians.
This is also at a time of heightened fear for the country’s LGBTI community. Though the transition into Sharia law has encountered delays, the Bruneian government is expected to see through its full implementation within the next few years.
In this respect, optimism is in short supply when considering the future of LGBTI rights in Brunei.
‘Unfortunately, I don’t see any sort of mobilization coming in the near future,’ says Woolfe. ‘I think that there’s a fear that if they do become more vocal and more active that may actually be to their detriment. From what I’ve gathered, there tends to be a feeling that if they keep a low profile and not get noticed, then they may be able to get through it.’
‘I feel like it’s going backwards and getting to a worse situation,’ says Khairul.
‘In all honesty, I feel like I can’t do much. I feel like I can’t even help my community by protecting them. If someone was out openly and they get attacked I’d feel like I’d need to protect them, but I’m scared that I can’t.’