Before a group of T. Nhaveen’s classmates viciously beat and burned the 18-year-old student, they called him a “pondan.”
That word, an extremely derogatory term in Malaysian culture, is often synonymous with “faggot” and sometimes “transvestite.” Although U.S. news outlets have referred to the victim as gay, to be a “pondan” is more than about one’s gender identity or sexuality. The term is used to describe men who are effeminate, especially teenage boys who don’t exhibit stereotypically masculine traits. Soft-spoken and gentle, Nhaveen hoped to be a composer after finishing school. His attackers wanted to make him into a “real man.” When the boy arrived at Penang Hospital after the assualt, which took place between 11 p.m. and midnight June 9, he was declared brain-dead.
Nhaveen died six days later.
Little is known about the deceased’s sexuality, but his death speaks volumes about the stigma of being perceived to be gay — or even a little bit feminine — in a country where homosexuality is effectively illegal. Anti-LGBT tensions have been rising in Malaysia in recent years as its conservative government cracked down on the country’s queer and transgender population. The brutal killing, in which Nhaveen was repeatedly sodomized with unidentified objects, is merely the most horrific in a string of attacks on LGBT Malaysians in the cross hairs.
The past year has been a horrifically violent and deadly one for LGBT people across the globe.
A record number of queer and trans folks were murdered in bias-related attacks in the United States in 2016, according to a recent report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Even excluding the 49 people gunned down in the attack on Pulse nightclub, a Florida gay bar, anti-LGBT murders shot up 17 percent from the previous year prior. Countries like Russia and Indonesia, where men in the country’s Aceh province are caned if found guilty of homosexual activity, have witnessed an unprecedented backlash to LGBT rights. And in the semiautonomous Russian republic of Chechnya, reports say at least 100 men have been incarcerated and tortured for being gay or bisexual, and several have died as a result.
Things have never been great for LGBT people in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation, but activists told The Advocate the situation has gotten much worse in the past two months.
In June, the Malaysian Ministry of Health offered cash prizes of up to $930 in a contest in which hopefuls between the ages of 13 and 24 were asked to submit videos on how to “prevent” and “control” homosexuality and “help” LGBT people. Lokman Hakim Sulaiman, the deputy director-general of health, claimed the campaign’s goal was to help young people to lead a “healthy lifestyle.” He said it was not intended to encourage discrimination.
This wasn’t the first such incident, though. In 2013, the government funded an anti-LGBT musical — called Abnormal Desire — that tours Malaysia’s schools. The stage show, in which LGBT people who refuse to repent are struck dead in a lightning storm, has echoes of Reefer Madness, the 1930s propaganda film about the perils of marijuana.
“Children need to recognize that men are for women, and women are for men,” Abnormal Desire director Rahman Adam told The Guardian at the time. He claimed LGBT activists were “going into schools and influencing the children.”
But it was clear something had changed this time around. Around the same time that the anti-LGBT video contest elicited international outrage, a three-day conference scheduled to be held at Taylor’s University was abruptly canceled by college administrators. Called “Courage in the Face of Adversity,” it was intended to feature workshops on LGBT issues, movie screenings, and open-mike events, capped off with a Pride parade. Pelangi Campaign, a local LGBT rights group, held a buka puasa — a meal marking the end of daily fasting during Ramadan — in place of the canceled march.
After media picked up on the Pelangi Campaign event, the organization has been surveilled by federal authorities, said its cofounder, a man named Declan.
“It got picked up by local news and got bigger and bigger,” said Declan, who cited Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Act, a 1998 law that gives the government broad powers to curtail free speech on digital platforms. “They monitor our tweets and reported one of our party events.” The federal government's Islamic Affairs ministry also said in a separate report that the country’s LGBT groups are being surveilled.
These incidents have ignited long-simmering tensions between the LGBT population and forces of social repression. Pang Khee Teik, cofounder of the advocacy group Seksualiti Merdeka, said the comment sections of news articles about the Pride event were filled with death threats. On Facebook, trolls called for the extermination of LGBT people, and activists have been terrified about reprisal. The Malaysian government and police forces have done nothing, activists said.
“It’s one thing to be receiving death threats,” Pang said. “It’s another thing when your leaders are silent on these threats. It’s a tacit endorsement of this violence.”
This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with Prime Minister Najib Razak’s record on LGBT rights — it's one of opposition. While signing a declaration of human rights at the 2012 Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, he refused to endorse even basic protections for queer and trans people. Three years later, Najib claimed that LGBT rights weren’t compatible with the “context of Islam.”
That 2015 speech, delivered at an Islamic seminar, speaks volumes about the disdain with which the government views its LGBT citizens. The prime minister compared the country’s queer and trans population to the Islamic State, the militant religious group responsible for countless acts of international terror. Najib alleged that “extremist and liberal groups … are trying to dominate the majority of the country’s population,” as Malaysian newspaper The Sun reported.
“These groups are hiding behind the facade of human rights to approve their acts which deviate from Islamic teaching,” the leader said.
Human Rights Watch, the international advocacy organization, has called the South Asian country — with a population of 28 million — one of the worst for LGBT people to live in. In a 2014 report, the group detailed the routine abuse of trans people in the country, who face “arbitrary arrest, physical and sexual assault, imprisonment, discriminatory denial of health care and employment.” One transgender interviewee told Human Rights Watch that when she was arrested in 2011, police photographed her and stripped her naked.
“One of them squeezed my breasts,” she said. “One of them took a police baton and poked at my genitals.”
Malaysia is one of at least 70 countries that criminalize homosexuality — others include Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. The country has both civil and Sharia law;, the latter are drafted state by state. Although the religious codes technically only apply to Muslims, they are frequently used to target the general population. These laws, as Pang explained, forbid “anal sex, lesbianism, cross-dressing, and a whole range of similar behaviors.” He said police often look for parked cars to harass gay men violating the sexual ordinances.
Although many of these laws result from the legacy of British imperialism, Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher in the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, said local governments began to pass harsher legislation targeting LGBT people in the 1980s and '90s. During that time, the federal government became Islamized and moved toward a “more fundamentalist” rule, she said.
“This relates to the increasing feeling on behalf of the ruling coalition that they need to appease hard-line Islamists in Malaysia,” she said.
Prior to the country’s extremist turn, the '60s and 7'0s marked an era of relative tolerance. Thilaga Sulathireh, an organizer with the trans advocacy group Justice for Sisters, told The Advocate that gender-confirmation surgeries and affirming health care were available at Malaysian hospitals until 1982, when a series of fatwas “forcibly terminated” these services. Traditionally, transgender women held a special place in Malaysian society, playing a sacred role in weddings and the court system.
“These social roles were eliminated and stigma began to increase as they became used as a political pawn,” Ghoshal said.
This stigma has had disastrous effects, not only on trans women but the wider LGBT population in the country. Hate crimes against transgender people have skyrocketed in recent years, Thilaga said, but many of these incidents aren’t reported by local news media. Just this year, she said, two trans women were murdered — a phenomenon familiar to the United States. Fourteen transgender people have been killed in the U.S. so far this year, most recently 17-year-old Ava Le’Ray Barrin.
As anti-LGBT violence escalates in Malaysia, Najib’s government has continued to endorse conversion therapy to “cure” the country’s queer and trans population.
Six years ago, Pang said, government ministers began identifying gender-nonconforming students and sending them to camps to “toughen them up.” More than 60 young people were sent to these four-day religious education seminars, which included a boot camp. Pang said that camp activities included hiking to “teach kids to be more masculine” and workshops on how to find one’s “true self” — or rather, how not to be a homosexual. The recent video competition, for which the Ministry of Health has since apologized, indicatesthat the government’s position has changed little since 2011.
“These actions send a pretty clear message — both to LGBT people and to anyone who has homophobic leanings,” Ghoshal said. “It says, ‘Well, maybe I can take the law into my own hands to get rid of these people who are not wanted in this country.’”
Even despite the immense challenges that Malaysia’s LGBT population faces, there have been small signs of progress in recent years.
After 16 transgender women were arrested for celebrating a birthday party in 2014, three of the those charged with violating the Sharia ban on “cross-dressing” challenged the law. They said the religious codes violated constitutional protections mandating equality. In November of that year, the Putrajaya Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating in a 33-page ruling that the law “deprives” the country’s LGBT people “their right to live with dignity.” The court further called the ordinance “degrading, oppressive, and inhuman.”
The excitement over that groundbreaking court victory would be short-lived. The decision was thrown out on a technicality in the Federal Court the following year, erasing a nearly four-year court battle.
Even though Nhaveen’s sexuality is unclear, a lot is riding on his case. For many LGBT people, punishment of his attackers will represent the justice that has eluded them for so long — as they continue to be forced back down into the shadows. The four teenagers accused of beating him to death are currently on trial for murder, pictured holding their shirts over their faces as they were brought in for testimony. News reports say two of the accused, who have pleaded not guilty to the charge, broke down crying as they saw their family members in court. If they are convicted, the maximum sentence is the death penalty.
A full recognition of the pain Nhaveen suffered prior to his death, though, will continue to be an impossibility under current law. Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight International, told The Advocate that because sodomy is illegal, the legal codes don’t make a distinction between between same-sex intercourse and rape. This means that men who are victims of sexual assault cannot bring charges their assailants.
“When we don’t have that clear legal distinction, consensual homosexuality and rape are confused with one another,” Stern said. “All LGBT people could be seen as sexual predators — because there’s no context in which homosexual acts are permissible.”
OutRight International, which advocates for LGBT rights around the world, has called on Malaysia to repeal its sodomy laws. That will likely take decades. But in the meantime, advocates will continue to build community wherever they can. Community groups frequently hold lectures and education seminars in bookstores, tucked away behind the stacks. Although these events are open to the public, they are publicized quietly to avoid government scrutiny. There are queer dance parties and private Facebook groups, if you know where to look for them.
But as Stern argued, LGBT people can’t afford to keep waiting for society to come around.
“There are some silver linings as a result of this crisis, but no one wants to wait for the murder of another 18-year-old,” Stern said. “As this brutal killing shows, change can’t come soon enough. They need justice now.”