Thursday, February 5, 2009

My Storied Past, Part 1: From "Mak Nyah" in Asia to Gay in America

"In July 2006, one evening I was sitting in a car with another man in a public park, in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. We were just talking, there was nothing sexual going on. This park is known among gay people as a place to hang out. We call it “lost world.” Around 10pm, a police patrol car with two police officers pulled up. I still remember that moment. I thought I was going to die. The officers were both Malay Muslims. They quickly approached the car and grabbed us. ONE officer dragged my companion about six to eight meters away. They pushed us each to opposite sides and quickly grabbed our IDs. They tried to force us to admit that we were doing something wrong so that they would have a reason to bring us back to the police station. I only had one thing in my mind there. I was so frightened. I thought that I am not going to see the morning tomorrow.
The police officers made us stand with our backs to them facing the car and put our hands on the car. We said we did nothing wrong. They said two men inside a car in a public park was already wrong. I said again to them, “We did nothing wrong.” One officer said, “Don’t lie to me. We all know what people are doing in the park at this hour.” I said, “Officer, I don’t know what you had the occasion to catch people doing in the park at this hour but I am telling you the truth.” I was afraid because I knew that if I admitted I was gay I would be in serious trouble. I tried to act regretful, hoping they would have some pity and soften up. I was praying that the officers would believe me."

This anecdotal account is excerpted from a long, unpublished essay written by Dr. Walter Williams, a leading scholar in gay studies. In this extended essay, Williams overviews the insidious influence of Islamic fundamentalism in Malaysia, the country of my birth.

Like the Chinese Malaysian gay man of the above story, I too am of Chinese descent. And like that man, I have always lived in fear. I have lived in fear of my identity--but only for few years, unlike this young man.

Coming out to myself in my late teens, I was at that time hundreds of miles away from home. Then in college, my new home was a touristy island and a place of trade exposed for centuries to cosmopolitan ideas. At times, that island of pristine beaches and stupendous vistas embodied my aspirations, as I fell in love over and over again.

Even later when I was banished to a rural area of obvious Islamic fundamentalism to teach high school, I feared nothing. Respected and beloved by my students of all faiths and creed, iI found solace in my vocation. And I found someone to care for--a father figure, a man of little formal schooling, but of much wisdom.

So how is it that this "Mak Nyah" (Malay derogatory term for transvestites, but also used broadly to apply to homosexuals) ended up in America? When did my fears begin?

That moment of epiphany seemed so distant, so hazy. And yet, Williams's essay prickled my subconscious. It vexed me.

For me, perhaps that moment was seeded by the prim and proper English instructor--a woman who had attended Oxford, a woman whose skirt was always of the polite length--of my undergraduate years. Somehow, I received the assignment of making a speech on the sodomy laws of Malaysia as part of the coursework in the Speech class. I resisted, she insisted. Such is the irony of life.

I do not remember the exact parameters of my fifteen-minute talk, but surely I must have covered some highlights of the said laws, and here I quote from Williams's essay again:

"In Malaysia’s Penal Code, Section 377, the sentence for conviction of sodomy is flogging, plus up to twenty years in prison. Victims are flogged with a section of bamboo that is split into several strips. When bamboo is split it has extremely sharp edges, which slice the skin like knives. Flogging is quite bloody, and leaves permanent scars. In addition to Section 337, just to prevent any homosexual from escaping conviction, Section 337A provides for a male to receive up to two years in prison for any act of “gross indecency with another male person.” This vague wording allows prosecution for any kind of erotic interaction between two males. This law is explicitly applied only to homosexual behavior among males, but lesbians also suffer discrimination."

I thought little of these laws--a young man caught up in the frenzy of tests, quizzes, and paper writing could scarcely have time to mull over such heady stuff. But such thoughts must have remain in my subconscious, and like what Thomas Jefferson said, they came back like "a fire bell in the night," filling "me with terror." They came back one unexpected day.

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