Feature article on homophobia in Malaysian newspaper

Source: New Straits Times, (Malaysia)
16 Nov 2008

ISSUES: Why do you want to hurt me?

When we fear, can’t understand or accept something, we may try to ignore, change or lash out at the very thing or person we fear, often without thinking of the consequences, writes TAN CHOE CHOE

JAY was hospitalised for two weeks last year after he was attacked by a group of Mat Rempit at a public park that was fast gaining the reputation as a notorious gay-haunt.

It was around 10pm when he stepped out from his parked car for a smoke and saw three men heading towards him. His partner remained in the car.

Suddenly, they were all over him — bashing him with helmets and fists. He heard curses and he could smell the rank odour of alcohol on his assailants.

But that was all he could gather before he lost consciousness. His partner escaped the assault by locking himself in the car.

When Jay came to, he was staring up at the flickering fluorescent lights of a public hospital. He found he had been in a coma and had lost a week of his life.

“What did I do? I didn’t do anything. I was minding my own business. They were looking for someone to kick around. They were lying in wait for someone like me.”

What happened to Jay may seem uncommon in Malaysia but no one can be sure because, like so many acts of hatred against the minority, such incidents are rarely, if ever, reported.

Raymond Tai

Raymond Tai

“Homophobia is present everywhere — at home, in the workplace, places of worship, and even in the media. And it’s usually insidious and subtle,” says Raymond Tai, acting executive director of PT Foundation.

At the recent Seksualiti Merdeka conference which was held at the Annexe Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, Singaporean researcher Anj Ho says the term “homophobia” was first coined by psychologist and gay activist George Weinberg in his book Society and the Healthy Homosexual in 1972.

Weinberg defined it as the “dread of being at close quarters with homosexuals… the revulsion towards homosexuals and often the desire to inflict punishment as retribution”.

“Researchers who published papers in recent years generally define homophobia along the lines of prejudice, hatred or contempt towards lesbian and gay people, with extension towards other sexual minorities.”

Anj Ho

Anj Ho

Research, says Ho, has also shown that homophobia can lead to violence against homosexuals.

Perhaps one of the most infamous acts of violence against homosexuals in recent history is the murder of 21-year-old political science student Matthew Wayne Shepard in Colorado, United States, 10 years ago.

On October 8, 1998, the University of Wyoming student was found robbed, pistol-whipped, tortured and tied to a fence in a remote rural area and left to die by his two assailants, Russel Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney, whom he met in a bar.

Shepard never regained consciousness and was died four days later.

During trial, Henderson and McKinney’s then girlfriends testified that the duo had plotted to rob a gay man, but somehow the robbery turned into a horrifying gay-bashing episode.

The two are now serving two consecutive life sentences in Nevada.

Tai says most forms of homophobia arise because people are afraid of something they cannot relate to.

“It is particularly common among those raised under strict moral and religious values, or have led a sheltered life.”

Tai says most homophobic behaviour that he has come across in Malaysia are disguised in the form of jokes making fun of gay men and women.

The other more common form is office gossip, which invariably tries to allude to the suspected sexual orientation of a colleague.

Some of the worst cases of homophobia that Tai has come across were when parents disowned their children after finding out that they were gay.

common_homophobesHo says there are three common types of homophobes: the gay basher, the dumb straight guy, and the super-nice homophobe.

So what makes a homophobe?

In her literature review on homophobia and the profile of a homophobe, Ho says researches usually show they tend to be older, male, intrinsically religious, conservative, racist, less educated, have greater social prejudices and subscribe to rigid gender roles.

And research has also shown that the majority of gay bashers are males in their teens or early twenties.

“Some have said that anti-gay violence is a control of manhood. Researchers have also shown that men who endorse homophobic and sexist items are likely to endorse hegemonic masculinity items.”

Another common factor among homophobes is heterosexism — the belief that heterosexuals or heterosexuality is superior and all other sexual orientation is deviant.

Homophobes also tend to be misogynistic — they hate, dislike or distrust women — says Ho, and research has found links between homophobic violence and violence against young women.

“Those with traditional gender role attitudes tend to express higher levels of homophobia.”

Some homophobes also tend to be authoritarians — self-righteous individuals who maintain a strong acceptance of traditional values and norms and display a general tendency to aggress against others, especially those who threaten their conventional and traditional values.

And “conservatism” has been suggested as the underlying trait of homophobes, says Ho, which dictates that societal norms should be obeyed.

Hence, perhaps not surprisingly, conservatism has also been linked to racism, sexism, greater acceptance of the myth that rape victims deserved to be raped, and religious intolerance, adds Ho.

But no one is born a homophobe.

“Homophobia is learned — through direct observation, imitation, or participation.

“After it’s learned, it is sustained because the people who practise it need it somehow to perhaps make sense of the world, to relate and maintain relationships with others, to protect themselves from their own homo-erotic feelings, or to maximise the social rewards they get for being part of the socially-accepted,” says Ho.

Some groups have tried to indicate that homosexuality is a result of a developmental disorder.

“They give the psycho-babble that gay children had distant fathers and domineering mothers, therefore these children could not attach to same-sex parent, and thus develop an inferiority complex towards same-sex others.

“So in the need to compensate for their masculinity, gay men engage in sexual activities with other men.” says Ho.

This has given rise to religious-based groups called “ex-gay ministries” which appear on the surface to be well-meaning organisations which try to help save gay souls from certain damnation because of their unnatural, deviant disorder.

These former gay ministries may use reparative therapies to try to convert the gays back to being heterosexuals, says Ho.

These therapies include prayer as a form of spiritual intervention; electrocution, where the patient would be given electric shock if he reacts to homo-erotic material; and surgeries like castration and clitoridectomy, which is the removal of the clitoris to curb sexual desire in females.

The success rate of these therapies are dubious and those who failed to be converted may develop depression, suicidal tendencies, hatred of their own sexuality, lower self-esteem, sexual dysfunction and intimacy avoidance.

Homophobic behaviour can leave deep emotional and psychological scars in homosexual men and women, causing them to be unable to accept their homosexuality, says Tai.

As a result, many may choose to remain closeted or attempt to disguise their sexual orientation by getting married.

“This would result in unhappy relationships and destroy the lives of those they marry. It’d also leave their children to suffer the consequences of the failed relationship,” says Tai.

And many end up indulging their sexual appetites surreptitiously — often without protection.

The recent media frenzy over raids by the authorities on so-called gay haunts and saunas have also caused many to abandon condoms for fear of being caught.

Is it any wonder then that one out of every 10 “men-who-have-sex-with-men” (MSM) screened by PT Foundation in Kuala Lumpur in the last two years was reported to be HIV-positive?

If left unchecked, the illness will spread like wildfire because the majority of MSM in Malaysia are either married or have girlfriends. Experts say some have already infected their partners.

It doesn’t help that homosexuality is criminalised in our law under Section 377A of the Penal Code, which states that it’s a crime for any man to engage in anal sex — be it with a consenting adult, male or female. And it’s one that’s punishable by up to 20 years in jail and whipping.

So, although Jay was battered emotionally and physically, he chose to keep quiet about the incident.

“Do you think the police would seriously want to help me?

“They’d be more interested to know if I’m gay or if I wasn’t and what I was doing there at that time of night. Can I afford to tell them what I am?

“Why am I so hated? I’m just being myself and I never did anything to harm anybody,” says the 31-year-old sales executive.

* * *

The Seksualiti Merdeka conference was held in conjunction with the country’s 51st Merdeka celebrations in August. It was an inaugural three-day series of forums, workshops, story-telling sessions and film screenings devoted to the theme of sexuality rights in Malaysia.

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