Meet the LGBTQ activists fighting to be themselves online in Malaysia

Nur Sajat Kamaruzzaman has been a public figure in Malaysia for well over a decade. Classically beautiful, with long, dark hair and Marilyn Monroe-esque curves, she has built a following of hundreds of thousands on Instagram with a curated feed of immaculately arranged pictures, sales plugs, and inspirational quotes. Born in Selangor, an affluent state on the west coast of Malaysia, the 37-year-old has participated in international beauty pageants, taken on small acting roles, and launched her own beauty brand.

But as a trans woman living in conservative Islamic Malaysia, her online popularity—and the opportunities it afforded her—only grew in parallel with the risks.

At first, there came a torrent of vile online abuse. Then ludicrous accusations: she was blamed for the outbreak of covid-19 in Malaysia for performing umrah, the pilgrimage Muslims make to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Details of her personal documents, including her passport, driver’s license, and birth certificate, were circulated online. She received death threats. National government ministers openly urged her to “return to the right path.” 

And then, in January 2021, things escalated again. Hauled before officers from JAIS, Selangor’s religious affairs department, she claims she was hit, pushed, and groped in front of her worried parents by at least three men before being arrested and officially charged with “insulting Islam.” Her crime? Wearing a traditional Malay women’s outfit at a private religious ceremony years before.

It was, she decided, time to run. Rather than attend a court hearing on February 23, the mother of two left her family and boarded a plane to Bangkok, where she immediately turned to staff at the UN’s International Organization for Migration for help. Malaysian authorities continued the chase, reportedly convincing Thai immigration authorities to detain her after a raid of the condo where she had been staying with friends. She was quickly released on bail and left Thailand the following month. Only then did she start to feel safe: “As soon as I arrived in Australia I felt I belonged, because I was accepted as a human being, as a woman and the person I am,” she says.

Although Nur Sajat’s story is by far the most high-profile, it is just one of many that illustrate how online platforms have evolved into a double-edged sword for Malaysia’s LGBTQ communities. 

On the one hand, they have created invaluable opportunities for LGBTQ people to connect, communicate, and advocate for their rights. At the same time, online participation leaves them exposed to censorship, surveillance, and attack by those who see these flourishing communities as an attempt to undermine conservative Muslim values and sway Malaysia “from the right path.”

Malaysia’s population is highly multicultural, with a mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indian ethnicities. But a conservative strand of Islam remains both the dominant religion and a major cultural force, shaping the politics and policies that dictate the lives of the country’s LGBTQ citizens. Same-sex relations, for example, remain punishable by whipping and up to 20 years in prison under a law dating back to a period when Malaysia was a colony of Great Britain. And it is still active; the law was used to prosecute opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim just six years ago.

A much-cited 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found that just 9% of Malaysians believed society should accept homosexuality. Activists say attitudes are changing, but many Malaysians still hide their sexuality or gender identity and live in fear of being found out.

Against this backdrop, online spaces have provided refuge. One activist based in Kuala Lumpur recalls setting up a queer community website in the late 1990s, something of an inflection point for internet penetration in the country. “At the time the internet was very new, so it was really safe to have a community space online,” she recalls. 

The site acted like a notice board, advertising local events and groups, and allowing people to connect. In the years that followed other platforms emerged, such as Purple Lab, which provided a forum for queer women and nonbinary people, and the colourful Queer Lapis, a website combining opinion pieces and news articles with resources and even recipes. Small community groups popped up on Myspace, and discussions kicked off on Reddit and early online dating sites.

“Then Facebook came,” Gavin Chow, co-founder and president of the LGBTQ organization People Like Us Hang Out (PLUHO), says with a smile. Growing up in a Chinese household in Malaysia, Chow says he felt doubly distanced from the country around him. As well as being gay, he recalls a strong sense of cultural self-containment among Chinese Malaysians. He spoke neither English nor Malay growing up and almost exclusively consumed media from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China. 

While at school, he remembers accessing LGBTQ-related resources only while researching materials ahead of a debate on whether same-sex marriage should be legalized. But with the advent of Facebook, he says, “I started to ‘like’ things, and the algorithm led me to people I may know, and I realized I could connect to, for example, a gay person in Taiwan. So I began to use social media and online spaces to explore my own sexuality.” After a year spent studying in the U.K., where he’d expanded that online exposure using hook-up apps like Grindr, Chow returned far more energized about taking an active role in the growing LGBTQ movement in his home country. He and friends co-founded PLUHO in 2016. It started as a social collective that organized offline events before quickly morphing into an active online voice for LGBTQ rights, resources, and services, utilizing Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Through this growing online presence, PLUHO and other organizations shared social media handles, blogged, and rallied interest in ongoing attacks on the LGBTQ community—often with great success. Following the arrest of 11 men at a private event in Selangor in 2018, eight of whom were later charged with sexual intercourse “against the order of nature,” a number of campaign groups utilized their online platforms to raise 200,000 Malaysian ringgit (around $46,000) for the men’s legal battle; called for volunteers to help put together videos and articles and to post on social media; and collected anonymous stories from members of the LGBTQ community. When one of the men later brought a test case to the country’s highest court, the charge was deemed unconstitutional.

These online spaces have transformed LGBTQ activism in the country, says Nalini Elumalai, program officer for Malaysia at the human rights organization Article 19. Fifteen years ago, progress could be painfully slow, limited to distributing leaflets by hand and delivering talks to small groups. “With social media we only have to release one or two e-banners, or graphics, and you can start educating people,” she says. “LGBT communities are now taking up space for themselves as a result. There are a lot of stories out there, and new narratives about LGBT rights are emerging.”

But the consequences of such visibility have not been entirely positive. “The government is threatened by that,” Elumalai says. “They’re worried that these types of discussion and this awareness could cause problems for them in maintaining their own narratives.”

This dual role of online spaces for LGBTQ communities, as both a blessing and a curse, isn’t unique to Malaysia. In nearby Indonesia, human rights watchdogs have also reported a notable rise in anti-LGBTQ attacks since 2016, not long after the country experienced a spike in smartphone ownership and internet usage. Its minister for defense went so far as to label LGBTQ activism a proxy war more threatening than a nuclear bomb. In Thailand, South Korea, and China, a similar dynamic has emerged. But in Malaysia, which developed into one of the most active social media adopters in the world just as a more conservative strand of Islam had taken hold, it is amplified.

One study by the Pelangi Campaign, a local LGBTQ advocacy group, found that 47% of those who identify as LGBTQ in Malaysia have faced online harassment, with blackmail, stalking, and threats commonplace. Trans women talk of routinely having their personal photos, details, and documents circulated online (a process known as “doxxing”) along with receiving threats, transphobic taunts during live videos, and direct messages urging them to die.

Many online attacks on LGBTQ Malaysians start with their fellow social media users (although some suspect that political or religious groups may be helping coordinate them). Individual threats can escalate. When a social media post or account is deemed “insulting to Islam” and reported to police, for example, the poster can face state surveillance, arrest, and prosecution. Many of these responses are carried out under the auspices of the controversial Multimedia and Communication Act, a law passed in 1998 that gives authorities broad powers to regulate media and communications in the country.

After the government threatened him with prosecution for organizing an LGBTQ event, Numan Afifi, one of Malaysia’s most high-profile activists, packed a suitcase, quit his job, and fled the country in July 2017. He spent six months moving among six different countries, often sleeping on couches, with no income and no idea if he would return. He says law firms offered him pro bono support for seeking asylum.

But ahead of the 2018 election, which many hoped would usher in a more progressive government, Afifi headed home instead. “I decided to return believing in my Malaysian dream,” he tweeted of the period in 2019. “I still believe in that dream, for myself, and for thousands of struggling gay kids in our schools that were like me.” Doesn’t he feel at risk? “Yes, all the time,” he says. “But you still have to do it because people need our services. I have to do it.”

Pakatan Harapan, a coalition thought to be on the more progressive end of the political spectrum, did win Malaysia’s May 2018 election. And at first, there were signs the group aimed to fulfill its promise to put improvements in human rights, including LGBTQ rights, at the top of its political agenda. A week into the administration, Afifi himself was appointed to be a press officer by the minister for youth and sports. In July, the newly appointed religious affairs minister called for an end to discrimination against LGBTQ people in the workplace, which was seen as a significant break from the status quo. But within months there were a series of high-profile regressions. Afifi resigned as public backlash grew over the appointment of an LGBTQ activist. Police raided a Kuala Lumpur nightclub popular with gay men. Two women were arrested and caned for “attempting lesbian sex” in a car.

Since the 2018 election, human rights campaigners have warned of a worrying erosion in human rights in the country, one that extends beyond the treatment of LGBTQ communities to the treatment of migrants and broader questions of censorship and freedom of expression. In June 2021, during Pride Month, a government task force even went so far as to propose widening an existing Sharia law that already allows action to be taken against those who insult Islam, to specifically target people who “promote LGBT lifestyles” online. “Things have just gotten worse, like really, really bad,” says one activist, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” 

Despite the risks, many activists are unequivocal: if online platforms are the latest battleground for LGBTQ rights, that is exactly where they’ll make their stand. 

At organizations such as the trans-led SEED Foundation in Kuala Lumpur, for example, experts have been brought in to train members about the intricacies of cybersecurity, teaching them how to prevent devices from being tracked, protect social media accounts from being hacked, and stop emails from being traced.

Malaysian authorities routinely cite their powers under Section 233 of the Multimedia and Communication Act to block access to websites, private blogs, and news articles. The law allows any content deemed “obscene, indecent, false, menacing, or offensive” to be removed, a definition that has been used to censor international LGBTQ websites, such as Planet Romeo and Gay Star News. Though equally vulnerable, smaller domestic sites have so far avoided this fate. But many remain vigilant about digital security. One activist says the site she’s involved with faces hacks as often as every six months. “We have to think about back-end security all of the time, with risk assessments for everything we do,” she adds. 

That includes hosting sites on foreign servers to escape censorship by authorities and creating mirror sites in the event of a takedown. Organizers think carefully about what is said and how people are identified: “If we publish an article online with someone’s byline we’ll have a lawyer on standby for them,” the activist says. But these efforts aren’t always enough: “I feel that online spaces are getting smaller and smaller for the community, and it’s increasingly unsafe.”

LGBTQ allies are targeted as well, Elumalai says: “That’s been going on for some time, [but] in the last five or 10 years it’s become more intense.” Online meetings about LGBTQ rights must now be planned carefully, she explains, with discussions regarding which platform to use and who can safely attend. “Sometimes the length of the discussion on security can be longer than talking about the strategy of a protest,” she says.

The political and cultural climate has had a strong effect on some groups. The PLUHO Facebook page, where some 2,000 members once shared resources and carried on in-depth discussions, now sits pretty much dormant, says Chow. That is partly because it has lost relevance with a younger crowd, he says. But it’s also because Facebook “doesn’t allow a lot of anonymity, so it feels like every time you post something many people can access who you are, your face, or who you’re connected to, or where you’ve posted before.” 

Today’s Facebook groups nearly always have two layers: one that is open to all, with basic resources and information, and a second that is accessible only after a thorough verification process, where open discussions can take place safely. But PLUHO and other groups have largely migrated their content to Twitter, Instagram, and Telegram. Sensitive chats tend to take place via secure messaging platforms, such as Signal or Discord.

Many young LGBTQ Malaysians, meanwhile, are shunning the exposure of established social media platforms altogether and heading to immersive virtual reality forums to connect instead, says Chow. Gather, an interactive video chat platform created in 2020, is one example. The site lets users create virtual customizable spaces, like a cozy open-plan office or a moody dungeon, where they can chat privately and (if they wish) anonymously.

Chow says it isn’t an ideal solution. “There’s a bit of a technical divide,” he says. Younger or more tech-savvy members of the queer community may adjust easily to the new platforms. Others prefer to stick with WhatsApp or make voice memos. These “may not be the most secure digital practices,” he says, “but it’s very hard to change from what they’re familiar and comfortable with.” 

It’s a constant balancing act. Between safety and accessibility. Between risk and reward. Chow regularly navigates finding that balance with fellow activists. “If we didn’t do anything, then we wouldn’t be attacked at all, but can we afford to do that?” he asks. “The safest attitude is not to do anything at all. But is that what we want?”

It’s been more than a year since Nur Sajat Kamaruzzaman fled Malaysia. She says her family now faces less scrutiny from the media and fewer negative comments online. But she doesn’t know when—or if—she’ll be able to go home to see them. “They’re happy for me that I’m able to restart my life,” she says, speaking via Zoom from her apartment in Sydney. “I really miss them, though. A lot of people ask if I’m lonely, and of course I’m lonely. But I believe that everything happens for a reason.” In this case, that reason, she believes, is continuing to raise her profile—both online and offline.  

Since arriving in Australia she has formally registered her cosmetics business and continues to grow her social media presence (her Instagram stories attract up to 16 million impressions, she says). She also speaks much more openly about LGBTQ rights on her platform, happily sharing via Instagram Live in February that she’d legally changed her gender to female.

What happened to her in Malaysia still looms large. “I’m very cautious of my security, and my whereabouts,” she says. That includes staying in close communication with a caseworker provided to her by the Australian government via its refugee program. “I always talk to my caseworker about my security and any risk. They assure me that I’m in a safe environment, and they’ve put in place protective measures so that if I’m facing any sort of emergency situation I’d have the assistance I need.”

She won’t be scared off Instagram though. “My role is in advocating and sharing information to change perceptions,” she says. “I’m aware that I’ll face harassment, but that’s expected. The fact that I’m triggering that response is showing the work I’m doing is impactful.”

Megan Tatum is a freelance features journalist based in Penang, Malaysia.

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