A gay pastor who married his musical producer boyfriend in New York last year has fulfilled a vow to hold a wedding banquet in his native Malaysia, in what they believe is the first such event in the Muslim-majority country.
Malaysian-born Ngeo Boon Lin and African-American husband Phineas Newborn III, quietly held the closed reception on Saturday, complete with kisses and karaoke ballad performances, in the attendance of about 200 guests, including a handful of Chinese-language journalists who were asked not to report on the event until afterward.
The couple risked the ire of a government that has banned a gay arts festival, prosecuted a politician for sodomy and declared that homosexuality has no place in Malaysian society.
"We're thankful to be able to make Malaysian history here," Newborn said. Ngeo, an ethnic Chinese pastor who has lived mainly in the United States since 1998, attracted criticism from Malaysian officials and religious groups when he married Newborn, a Broadway musical producer, last August.
Even though Ngeo identifies himself as a Christian, Malaysia's minister for Islamic affairs voiced fears at the time that his nuptials could promote "extremism" among Malaysia's 28 million people, including ethnic Malay Muslims who comprise nearly two-thirds of the population. A newspaper owned by the ruling party urged authorities to prevent Ngeo from holding any wedding celebration in Malaysia.
But by this summer, the couple, both in their 40s, believed enough time had passed for them to fly to Malaysia for a few days without fanfare and invite Ngeo's mother, friends, former colleagues and schoolmates for a traditional Chinese wedding feast.
"It's my right to celebrate my joy with the people I care about," Ngeo told The Associated Press. "The government can make noise, the religious conservatives can make noise, but they're not welcome here."
The Malaysian government had no immediate reaction to news of Saturday's event.
Banquet guests ushered to their seats at a Chinese restaurant in Kuala Lumpur had found small, heart-shaped chocolates wrapped in Chinese-language notes that translated into "God loves gays."
Two guests serenaded each other with Lionel Richie and Diana Ross' duet "Endless Love," while a transgender entertainer tearfully praised Ngeo and Newborn for reminding everyone that "there is only one sexual orientation: love."
One guest, Eric Goh, said gay Malaysians "need to come out in bigger numbers and we need to have more straight people support us." Ngeo made his trip back to Malaysia a month after Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a speech that gay, lesbian and transsexual behaviour was part of a "deviant culture" that should "not have any place in this country."
Najib's statement marked a reiteration of the government's stance and did not trigger new concerns. But for gay Malaysians, especially Muslims, it nevertheless meant that the door to public self-expression remained slammed shut.
Most gay Malaysians live free from direct harassment by authorities, and a law that prescribes 20-year prison sentences for sodomy, even consensual, is rarely enforced. The most prominent person charged under that law was Anwar Ibrahim, an opposition leader acquitted this year of sodomising a male former aide in what he claimed was a politically motivated case.
"I understand the sensitivities. I'm not demanding for gay marriage to be allowed now in Malaysia," Ngeo said, adding that his advice to gay Malaysians was to "keep going and be creative."