On the evening of June 1st, Malaysian trans activist Nisha Ayub thought she was almost done with a normal day of work at the SEED Foundation, an organization she co-founded that provides social services to trans women and people living with HIV/AIDS in the bustling Chow Kit neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur.

Her quotidian routine was disrupted when she came across an announcement by the Malaysian Ministry of Health for a youth video competition with a cash prize. Nothing about the theme “Value Yourself, Practice Healthy Lifestyle” was concerning to Ayub until she read further and realized that one of the video submission categories was titled “Gender Confusion.” The category guidelines called for the videos to discuss the “prevention” and “consequences” of being gay, lesbian, transgender, or a tomboy.

“This is not acceptable at all,” Ayub exclaimed in a Facebook post she published right after discovering the competition. “How can MOH encourage miseducation of the public and at the same time promote hatred towards the community?” Ayub asked as she called on her network to share the post and screenshots of the competition guidelines.

The original poster

Her post immediately gained traction and was shared more than one hundred times. That same day, she received five calls from reporters looking to write a story on the competition and from there international media attention took off.

Over the next few days, hundreds of news articles around the world spoke about the video competition and quoted Ayub on her views. Local organizations such as the Malaysian AIDS Council and international ones such as Human Rights Watch called on the Ministry of Health to rectify the “gender confusion” category.

Approximately one week after the competition’s launch Ministry of Health officials gave in to international pressure and agreed to meet with Ayub and other activists, where they explained that they were shocked to see the competition go viral. In a country with a complicated history of targeting LGBT people, many activists who have worked with the government on similar issues for years were pleasantly surprised to see that the negative press was enough to spur change. The Malaysian AIDS Council applauded the Ministry for its “swift action, accountability, and willingness to engage in an open dialogue with civil society.”

Ayub says that the officials apologized in the meeting, though they have yet to do so publicly, and the controversial category was renamed “gender and sexuality,” with new guidelines drafted by the activists present.

Although Ayub considers this debacle with the Ministry of Health to be over, she still has many concerns about the state of LGBT people in Malaysian society. “To be honest it is scary because I see Malaysians becoming more rigid, especially with religion,” Ayub said in reference to the increasing number of hate crimes against trans people she has noticed.

A revised version of the poster.

“Conditions of LGBT people in Malaysia were not always so hostile,” said Neela Ghoshal, Senior Researcher for the LGBT Program at Human Rights Watch, in an interview with The Politic. In her research for an HRW report on abuses against trans women in Malaysia, Ghoshal heard from elderly trans people that in the 1950’s and 60’s Malaysia was a much more accepting place until the government began criminalizing LGBT identities in the 80’s when an Islamic political party took power.

Currently, the Malaysian penal code criminalizes same-sex sexual activity among men with punishments of up to 20 years in prison and whipping. A number of sharia-based laws also prohibit “men posing as women,” which HRW says police regularly use to arrest and abuse trans women.

But Ghoshal also stressed that the role of religion is not unique to Malaysia and has happened elsewhere, such as Egypt, where the ruling party “tries to portray itself as secular nationalist but fears the appeal of more fundamentalist currents of Islam, so it adopts certain elements of [fundamentalism], often by going after vulnerable groups.”

Ghoshal says that LGBT people have become an increasingly valuable “political bargaining chip” for the ruling partyUnited Malays National Organization (UMNO)in the face of uncertainty over the upcoming elections due to corruption accusations.

Nearby in Indonesia, a similar uptick in government targeting of LGBT people has also concerned activists. HRW documented multiple instances in which the police arrested dozens of gay men and in one case forced them to undergo HIV tests based on a cruel and discriminatory anti-pornography law. In the conservative Aceh province, where Sharia is enforced, two men were recently flogged in public for allegedly committing same-sex acts in private.

Activists and researchers alike argue that the discriminatory laws of the state and pervasive social stigma directly affect the health of LGBT people in Malaysia, particularly regarding HIV/AIDS. Yale Professor of Medicine, Epidemiology and Public Health Frederick Altice, who researches HIV/AIDS and social barriers to health in Malaysia, informed The Politic that the climate toward LGBT people “has not been healthy for a long time” and “occurs at all levels of society.”

Both Ayub and Altice said that the Ministry of Health is ideologically fragmented, with certain divisions more open to LGBT health than others. For example, Ayub says that the Disease Prevention division collaborates with the religious ministry and advocates for “changing trans people,” including through conversion therapy as a component of HIV treatment. On the other hand, Altice acknowledges there are “liberal pockets” in the ministry which serve as “islands of freedom in a sea of restraint.”

Left: Malaysian trans activist Nisha Ayub

The ministry’s official statements are still driven by homophobic religious interpretations. In an educational article on the Ministry of Health website titled “Transgender or Male Homosexual,” the author says that “according to Islam, life is full of tests” and equates gay men and transgender women to “people born deformed,” because both have been given difficult tests and must curb their feelings “in accordance with the laws of Allah.”

Another article titled “Why would a person be ‘lesbian’?” says that potential causes of lesbianism are a preference for “someone who tends to express passionate love to their partner,” or when women decide to “prioritize their careers” and believe other women “are the only ones who would understand.” Both articles ended with a series of Quranic verses telling the story of Lot.

As in many countries, lesbian identities in Malaysia are often perceived as illegitimate and choice-based, more so than their male counterparts, and they consequently receive less attention from the public eye. While such invisibility potentially shields lesbians from as much targeted violence, it also erases their existence from the public eye.

Other Malaysian government officials have also made anti-LGBT statements recently, such as the Deputy Home Minister who attacked Walt Disney for refusing to cut out a gay scene in Beauty and the Beast in compliance with the Malaysian censorship board. In a national newspaper, President of the Muslim Lawyers Association of Malaysia inaccurately defined the “Q” in LGBTIQ as representing the “extreme” group in the acronym, “whose sexual instinct is not only limited to men and women, but also to animals, plants, objects, and many other entities.”

Although recently Malaysia’s already hostile environment seems to be worsening, LGBT people have still been able to develop communities and activists have still carved out a space for advocacy in the country. The Malaysian AIDS Council says that progress has been made in strengthening partnerships with government ministries, and organizations like Ayub’s have continued to operate through outside support even though government funding has either declined or been cut off completely.

Weary of too much optimism about the video competition revision, Ghoshal warns that the Malaysian government has a history of reversing decisions which were in favor of the LGBT community, and she “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Ministry of Health changed its stance under pressure from religious fundamentalists whose “existence on the fringes of politics has moved the middle to the right.” But the fact that the ministry was even willing to meet with key stakeholders shows that local activists have remained vocal in the wake of threats of violence.

For the time being, Ayub is focused on her work with the SEED Foundation where her largest goal is to establish a full-time shelter and service center for trans people. In 2016, she was the recipient of a U.S. State Department International Women of Courage Award in recognition of her bravery advocating for human rights in the face of great personal risk.

When asked if she was content with the outcome of the Ministry of Health meeting, Ayub laughed and said, “It is just a first step, but it is a good step.” The future of Malaysia’s LGBT community is uncertain and filled with obstacles, but people like Ayub are fully prepared to take on the task.