Gay rights activists in Muslim-majority Malaysia are facing mounting pressure to scrap an annual arts festival that aims to fight discrimination. The "Sexual Independence" festival has been held under low-key circumstances in Kuala Lumpur since 2008, but growing awareness about the event is leading to criticism by politicians and religious leaders.
This year's five-day festival — starting Nov. 9 at a private arts centre and themed "Queer Without Fear" — will feature musical performances of "queer anthems sung by fierce local singers and drag divas who know what it means to love out loud and proud," organizers said Thursday.
Media censorship rules forbid movies and song lyrics that promote acceptance of gays, while a decades-old law makes sodomy punishable by 20 years in prison, though it is seldom and selectively enforced.
The festival program also includes talks on sexuality issues, a poster exhibition and a makeup workshop by a drag queen. One session is titled "Defense Against The Dark Arts: Homophobia 101."
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Thursday described the event as "inappropriate," according to the national news agency, Bernama.
"It is a waste of time, even though they can say it is their right" to stage the event, Muhyiddin reportedly said. Several Muslim nongovernment groups planned to protest the festival Friday. Separately, they have also demanded that authorities ban a planned concert by openly gay British star Elton John later this month. The government has yet to respond to those calls.
Gay rights activists said the festival was meant to counter widespread homophobia in this socially conservative Asian nation, where a young gay man received death threats last year after posting a YouTube clip defending his sexuality. Authorities accused him of insulting Islam, though no official action was taken.
Festival spokesman Pang Khee Teik said many Malaysian gays and transsexuals were being forced to "live a lie" because of discrimination. "Asking us to keep quiet is asking us to take your abuse with a smile," Pang said in an online statement posted Thursday. "That is why some of us choose to be open, because it's time to put a stop to all the hate and misunderstanding and abuse." The festival's sponsors and supporters include the Malaysian chapter of Amnesty International, the country's main grouping of lawyers and other human rights organizations.