Police ordered gay rights activists in Muslim-majority Malaysia on Thursday to scrap an annual arts festival aimed at fighting discrimination. The "Sexual Independence" festival has been held under low-key circumstances in Kuala Lumpur since 2008, but growing awareness about the event has lead to criticism by politicians and religious leaders.
This year's five-day festival — starting Nov. 9 at a private arts center and themed "Queer Without Fear" — featured planned 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.
But after criticism by the deputy prime minister and plans by several Muslim nongovernment groups to protest, police ordered the event to be canceled. Authorities will "prevent any function relating to the program," deputy police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said in a statement run by national Bernama news agency and confirmed by police representatives. Many organizations "feared the program could create disharmony, enmity and disturb public order," Khalid said.
Earlier Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had described the event as "inappropriate" and a "waste of time," according to Bernama. Gay rights activists did not immediately respond. Earlier, they had 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.
"Asking us to keep quiet is asking us to take your abuse with a smile ... it's time to put a stop to all the hate and misunderstanding and abuse," festival spokesman Pang Khee Teik said in an online statement posted Thursday before the event was banned.
This year's program also included plans for 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."
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's sponsors and supporters included the Malaysian chapter of Amnesty International, the country's main grouping of lawyers and other human rights organizations.