Artist Carmen Rose used to perform regularly in Malaysia, until a police raid last year put an end to the veteran drag queen’s act and fueled the fears of the LGBTQ community at a time when Islamists are rapidly gaining political clout.
Since the raid, during which several party-goers were arrested, Rose has stopped doing shows, and rarely ventures out in public in costume.
“It’s always a risk going out in drag. If there was a raid, who do we call? Do we bring our boy clothes just in case?” said Rose, who declined to disclose her non-drag identity due to fears of reprisal. “They see us as sexual deviants or sinners.”
Queer Malaysians and rights groups told Reuters that LGBTQ communities face increasing scrutiny and discrimination under Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government, despite the longtime opposition leader’s reputation as a progressive reformer.
Analysts say Anwar, who took office after a November general election, is under pressure to bolster his Islamic credentials among the Muslim majority in the face of an increasingly popular ultra-conservative opposition that has steadily gained more political ground since the vote.
Malaysia’s opposition bloc includes Islamist party PAS, which promotes a strict interpretation of sharia law and opposes LGBTQ rights. The party holds the most number of seats in parliament for the first time ever, and its gains in state elections this month reinforced its political influence.
A PAS lawmaker recently said LGBTQ people should be classified as “mentally ill.” Another PAS leader urged the government to cancel a concert by Coldplay because the band supports queer rights.
“Anwar doesn’t feel politically stable, so he has to be more Islamic than the other side,” said James Chin, a political analyst at the University of Tasmania in Australia.
Sodomy is a crime in Malaysia, which also has Islamic sharia laws banning same-sex acts and cross-dressing. The multi-ethnic, multi-faith country has a dual-track legal system with Islamic laws for Muslims running alongside civil laws.
While Anwar has never expressed support for the LGBTQ community, activists say they expected him to show more tolerance as he advocated for an inclusive society during his 25 years in the opposition.
“There was some hope when Anwar came to power that the reform agenda would seep in to some extent,” said Dhia Rezki Rohaizad, deputy president of JEJAKA, an organization that supports gay, bisexual and queer men.
“It’s disappointing that it has not happened. At the very least, we had hoped that they would just leave us alone, not be actively persecuting us.”
Discrimination and threats
Anwar vowed this year that Malaysia would never recognize LGBTQ rights.
His government has banned books for “promoting the LGBT lifestyle”, detained demonstrators expressing support for queer rights and confiscated Pride-themed watches made by Swiss watchmaker Swatch.
Last month, authorities halted a music festival, after the frontman of British pop band The 1975 kissed a male bandmate onstage and criticized Malaysia’s anti-LGBTQ laws.
Asked about the government’s position on LGBTQ rights, government spokesperson and communications minister Fahmi Fadzil told Reuters: “Whatever the prime minister has said is the position.”
Some analysts say Anwar’s uncompromising stance on LGBTQ rights stems from a desire to wipe out doubts about his own sexuality which surfaced after he was jailed for nearly a decade for sodomy. Anwar has repeatedly said the charges were fabricated and politically motivated, but some political opponents still question his Islamic values.
Activists say online harassment and death threats against queer Malaysians are rampant on social media, while undercover police often attend LGBTQ-friendly events. Many groups now ensure there are lawyers at these events in case of a raid.
Thilaga Sulathireh, founder of LGBTQ advocacy group Justice for Sisters, said the government’s rejection of queer Malaysians was tantamount to a human rights violation.
“This has emboldened the conservatives and the right wing, it allows discrimination and violence to take place against LGBT people with impunity,” said Sulathireh, who uses they/them pronouns.
Justice for Sisters is receiving more queries from LGBTQ Malaysians seeking asylum in other countries, they said, adding that the community is also increasingly adopting self-censorship to stay under the radar.
Drag queen Carmen Rose said she canceled a show this year, fearing another crackdown. She occasionally performs in neighboring Singapore, and is now considering leaving Malaysia.
“This is not me running away. I’m just tired and I have to also think about myself and my own happiness,” she said.