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Malaysia’s Hostile Position on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) is Bad for Business

In the last few years, we have seen a vibrant global movement to understand and embrace people of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions in almost all sectors, from pop culture to business and politics. Laverne Cox’s TIME magazine cover was truly a historic moment, as it signified a shift in mainstream norms and attitudes towards transgender people, who have been marginalized for generations.

The transgender movement or the struggle of transgender persons for equality has been dubbed as the new civil rights movement, and rightly so. Even in 2014, transgender persons all around the world still suffer oppression and lack recognition as human beings with dignity and autonomy. This lack of recognition increases violence, impunity and discrimination towards transgender persons.

Globally, violence and discrimination towards transgender persons is all too common. All around the world, including Malaysia, transgender people still face rejection from family members and are often kicked out of their homes at a very young age. Young transgender persons also face severe bullying in school, which often goes ignored by school administrations and adults. Ultimately, many transgender students lose interest in education, perform poorly in school, or forced to drop out of school. Adult transgender persons also face a range of societal issues including the lack of employment opportunities, lack of access to much needed healthcare services. In addition, transgender persons are also arbitrarily criminalized, arrested, and imprisoned for their gender identity. This list of the deprivation of rights that transgender persons face goes on and on. Due to the insurmountable and systemic stigma and discrimination that transgender persons face, most transgender persons continue to be trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty.

November 20th is the global Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). Annually on this day, we commemorate the lives of transgender people who were violently murdered in hate crimes. According to the Transgender European Union (TGEU), 226 killings of transgender persons because of hate crime had been reported worldwide between November 2013 and October 2014 alone. In total, since January 2008 the murders of 1,612 trans people have been reported, out of which, 138 killings of trans people have been reported in 16 Asian countries.

Recognizing the structural and systemic violence as well as discrimination that transgender and gender non-conforming people face, state and non-state actors alike are now taking active measures to promote and protect the rights of all and eliminate discrimination as much as possible, especially state sanctioned discrimination, such as discriminatory laws and policies. To this end, the United Nations (UN) launched a global campaign ‘Free & Equal’ to raise awareness and understanding regarding sexual orientation and gender identity as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer persons (LGBTIQ). Further, many countries, including Argentina, Denmark, Malta and others have introduced legislations to allow transgender persons to change their name and gender markers in their official documents.

Discriminatory legislations and responses by the international community

In late 2014, Uganda introduced the anti-gay law, in which both LGBT and allies were criminalized. Under this draconian law, anyone who shelters or employs someone from the LGBT community too can be penalized.

In response to this anti-gay legislation, the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim in his editorial piece in the Washington Post cautioned that such discriminatory legislation towards LGBT persons “can hurt a country’s competitiveness by discouraging multinational companies from investing or locating their activities in those nations”. Following the statement in February 2014, the World Bank decided to postpone its financial aid, worth USD$90 million to Uganda. The law also drew flak from donor countries such as Denmark and Norway, who were ready to redirect aid away from the government to aid agencies.

Uganda’s Supreme Court struck down the law as null and void in August 2014.

Russia also introduced an anti-propaganda law in June 2013, in which any form of promotion of LGBT or ‘non traditional sexual relations’ content is prohibited amongst others. Following the enforcement of the law, a video emerged online of five assailants stripping and violently attacking a transgender person. More often than not, such discriminatory laws have the direct impact on people who visibly do not fit into the man/woman binary or gender norms, including transgender persons and gender non-conforming persons (‘effeminate’ men, ‘butch’ women, etc.).

The discriminatory law, coupled with heavy-handed suppression of human rights including the imprisonment of the members of Pussy Riot, drew sharp criticism from the international media and community.

In February 2014, Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Ban Ki Moon, the United Nations secretary general, condemned the attacks on the LGBT community in a speech ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, “We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they [LGBTI people] face.” Further, the UN consistently called for the repeal of this anti-LGBT legislation.

In the lead up to the games, many called for a boycott of the winter Olympics. The United States of America, Germany, France, Poland and the European Commission in protest chose not to send high-ranking officials to the opening ceremony because of the repeated attacks on human rights and the introduction of discriminatory legislations. Russia’s human rights violations have severed its ties with the United States, and caused the country to be isolated by a number of countries.

With mounting pressure from the civil society in Russia and the international community, Russia announced their willingness to take all required measures to prevent homophobic hate crimes and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation at the 24th UN Human Rights Council, while retaining the anti-propaganda legislation.

Following the campaign by the international community around the Winter Olympics, there is now a concerted effort to address discrimination and violence against LGBTIQ persons in and through sports. Consequently, the UN’s Human Rights Day in 2013 was themed “sport comes out against homophobia”.

Malaysia has announced its intention to bid to host the World Cup in 2026, an opportunity highly coveted by many nations across the world. FIFA has actively taken a part in addressing discrimination and violence on and off the pitch, and specifically bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender. In the last World Cup in Brazil, GLAAD and many other groups campaigned against violence and discrimination towards LGBTIQ persons in sports, with many athletes coming out to support the call for respect of all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.

It is safe to say that Malaysia tries to position itself as a moderate Muslim country and a key player within the UN system as demonstrated by its multiple bids for positions in the Human Rights Council and the UN Security Council. Malaysia is currently a member of the UN Security Council. However, the state needs to realize that its policies and its extreme positions will come under greater scrutiny by the international community as it gains more visibility internationally.

‘I am Scared to be a Woman’, a Human Rights Watch report on human rights violations towards transgender persons in Malaysia, launched in September this year named Malaysia among the worst countries in the world for transgender person to live, for reasons including systematic abuses of arbitrary arrests, sexual assault and extortion by both religious authorities and the police. This reflects Prime Minister Najib Razak’s statement two years ago that the LGBT is a “deviant culture” that had no place in Malaysia.

With so much attention on violence and discrimination towards people of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity, including transgender persons, Malaysia needs to immediately and critically relook at its position on SOGI. As a nation striving towards high-income status, such a hostile position is just bad for business.

Justice for Sisters