It’s hard to explain my decision to move home to Malaysia to my Malaysian acquaintances. They tend to see the West as a place of opportunity, or as a chance to escape the sometimes-claustrophobic Asian family, with its filial piety and obedience. I try to explain: I tell them that since Trump took office it is harder for immigrants and non-citizens to find jobs and that it doesn’t feel safe for a Latina-looking woman like me.
I moved home in the months after a historic election, an election result I had hoped for but didn’t think I would see for decades. For the first time since independence from the British in 1957, Malaysia had voted out the increasingly corrupt Barisan Nasional government, and had done so, despite widespread gerrymandering and restrictions on the press and free speech, the actions of an autocratic government bent on holding on to power. It was momentous, staggering. And so, after years of participating in electoral and political activism, I was hopeful that we had a chance of creating a Malaysia Baru or “New Malaysia.” The new Pakatan Harapan government had pledged to abolish archaic laws like the Sedition Act that had been used to shut down dissent, and to reform the political institutions that had allowed Prime Minister Najib Razak to embezzle RM 2.6 billion from 1MDB, a national sovereign fund.
Before I came home, it had felt like the right time.
And then I did. Soon after, the remaining Barisan Nasional members of parliament began pressuring the new Pakatan Harapan government to state their position on LGBTQ issues. And the Pakatan Harapan ministers folded to the pressure coming from these conservatives, agreeing that homosexuality could not be “glamorized” and had to be kept private. In this way, it became a very public issue: constant media coverage made it feel like the only thing discussed in Parliament was homosexuality, giving homophobes new opportunities to retweet and share headlines with their approval. In turn, news about Barisan Nasional politicians’ corruption cases disappeared from the headlines.
I found myself logging off Twitter more often to escape the maelstrom. And for the first two months I was home, I had largely been able to tune out the rhetoric. As a straight-passing cis woman, I imagined that I had nothing personally to fear. Then the public caning of two women in a shariah court in the conservative eastern state of Terengganu for “attempting lesbian sex” happened.
The case battered down my defenses. I couldn’t read more than one article about what was going to happen to these women without tears. It reminded me too much of the very first date I had with a woman. It made me remember how we went out to dinner, and how, later in the privacy of my Michigan apartment, I asked shyly if she wanted to make out. It made me remember how she tentatively said yes.
I wonder how those two women found each other. In a state ruled by an Islamist party, far from the underground queer parties of the capital, how would they know each other? What sign or hint did one give the other so that they ended up in a car together, attempting a forbidden pleasure? In one sense, my life in Kuala Lumpur–with queer Facebook groups, and NGOs that provide shelter and food to homeless queer people–felt a million miles away from theirs. But we have in common the fear of what is expected of and allowed for us, and the struggle to master it. If the difference is that I have not yet been punished for exploring my desires, I wonder if that difference is closing.
I broke down crying when a close friend from the US, part of my queer family, called to catch up. I couldn’t express to my straight friends how the thought of these women’s pain and humiliation distressed me, how the comments by people praising and rejoicing over the caning made me afraid.
“I’m not Muslim, so I know I’m safe,” I said. “But it hurts.” I felt stupid reacting this way when I knew I wasn’t vulnerable to prosecution under Syariah law or the violence that trans people, regardless of their religious background, are. I said so.
“It’s not stupid,” she assured me.
It’s not stupid I repeated to myself and breathed deep. The heaviness of the week’s events–a heaviness I hadn’t let myself acknowledge–lifted just a little.
In Malaysia, sex is taboo for everyone. Sex education is non-existent in schools, and sex scenes are still cut from movies and television shows. Officials from the state Islamic agencies trawl budget hotels for unmarried straight Muslims engaged in khalwat, or “close proximity,” as English newspapers translate the phrase.
The term confused me as a child. They were next to each other? What’s so bad about that? I used to wonder. But while non-Muslims are exempt from state-backed moral policing, conservative views of sex outside of marriage are something most people have to contend with. Especially in a country where culture and economics force many to live at home until marriage, sex between unmarried adults remains furtive.
My brother has always brought his girlfriends home; he is blessed with a thick skin. He is dating a Muslim woman now and brings her home to our family house, where there is no risk of the religious police knocking on the door. Our mother doesn’t like it, but the aversion to even talking about sex, and the freedom that sons have to do as they please, keeps her from saying anything.
If I brought home a woman, what would happen? Ironically, I might be protected by the compulsory heterosexuality of this country; it can be so hard for straight people to recognize queerness, particularly in women. My mother might cotton on to repeated appearances of the same person. But would she confront me? Or would the same reticence she has for talking about my brother’s sex life protect me?
I am not dating anyone at the moment, and in this limbo, I wonder about the logistics of that hypothetical future. The idea of a sexual partner sleeping over feels uncomfortable. If I remain closeted, relationships will require lies about my whereabouts and who I am with. It’s strange to think that at thirty I am contemplating dishonesty about my romantic life; I was much freer to be forthcoming about a much older boyfriend at eighteen.
I still enjoy a degree of privacy many others do not have, of course. Studying abroad gave me literal distance from my family and that privacy allowed me to explore my queerness that would have never happened without my parents’ financial help. Even now, I can afford a nice hotel room if I want to spend the night with someone; unlike working class and rural queers in this country, I have the resources to hide who I am.
That’s what people really mean when they tell gay people to be private about their desires: hide, suppress, shield us from your perversity. But privacy also means isolation.
Moving back to Malaysia had meant the end of one kind of loneliness. In Michigan, I spent many solitary nights in my one-bedroom apartment crying. The isolation had gotten to me: By the end of my graduate degree, I had begun cutting off some of the white people in my friend group, as it became harder and harder to spend time with people who used terms like “identity politics” to dismiss demands for gender and racial equality. In turn, I suspect, I stopped being invited to social events by others in the group. I wanted to return to my circle of close friends in Malaysia, people who I knew I could rely on and with whom whiteness didn’t exist as a barrier to intimacy.
Coming home validated that decision: my friends have shown up for me. Even before I arrived, friends were sending me job vacancies to help me get on my feet, and I don’t spend nights alone unless I want to. There’s always someone I can call to hang out with, and more importantly, there are people who want to make plans with me.
Still, the lack of queer community and spaces has been a hard adjustment. I can only imagine coming out to my family with a serious relationship as the catalyst, as if a romantic relationship is the only way to make my queerness real. And here I am, still queer in my single state. But what I really mean is that those would need to be the stakes for me to risk the relationship I have with my parents, or at least with my father who believes–with a fire and brimstone certainty–that gay sex is wrong, according to the bible. My mother has always been more progressive and never raised an eyebrow at my growing circle of queer friends, but I still haven’t asked if her viewpoint has tempered my father’s perspective.
Because I fear the answer will disappoint me–or worse, will define the limits of his love for me–I am left in limbo.
In the meantime, I’m gay on the internet.
I am “friends” with aunties and people from my Sunday school past on Facebook–like the girl who posts videos about how trans people have a mental illness–and some of my relatives follow me on Instagram where I post food pictures and selfies. But within Instagram, there is the stories function, which allows you to control which followers can see short videos and pictures that disappear in 24 hours. And so my queer self appears on stories, where I have blocked my mother, aunt, and some cousins; it appears on Twitter, which is non-existent for the people in my life who might care about my queerness. These are also the places to hear from and about queer Malaysians, who are also increasingly turning to the internet for safe space.
For all the vitriol on Twitter, accounts like @QueerMalaysia feature different curators talking about their experiences, and start conversations centering on local issues and resources. Sometimes, I join in. In the past, I have pushed back against homophobia online, though since the Terengganu case I haven’t felt capable of engaging directly it. But even when I don’t participate, tweets from other Malaysians about their crushes, kinks, relationships, and struggles staying closeted remind me that I’m not alone. These spaces are important, the digital equivalent of passing a group of butch women out to dinner every so often, or the rare sight of a queer couple on the train. They remind me that an ordinary life as a queer person in this country isn’t impossible, even if I am not ready to claim it.
In my own life, publishing Insta stories that hint at my queerness to select Instagram followers is the other way I have to hold on to my queerness, however fleetingly. The twenty-four-hour window that Insta Stories last before disappearing into the digital ether makes it feel safer, even if–as a self-professed Screenshot Queen–I know how this private sphere can be breached. But the recent appearance of the “Close Friends” setting on Insta Stories allows you to create a more private stories’ audience. Now I can be even more selective about who gets to see a picture of my long nails and a joke about being single for a minute.
For now, this is the space I have in this supposed new country.
It’s not just for queer people that Malaysia Baru’s sheen has faded. Promises to abolish the Universities and Colleges Act–that restricted academic and political freedom–has been walked back, watered down to amendments that allow political parties on public university campuses. The Sedition Act has been used against people who question the place of the monarchy. Regime change was no small thing, but it’s becoming clearer, to everyone, that elections cannot truly transform this country. I try to remember that the elections marked the possibility of a different future than the one we were charting under Barisan Nasional, and in my more pessimistic moments, I have to tell myself that that future still exists. When it will include freedom and justice for queer people I don’t know. But I believe it will.