Those of us who watched Malaysian TV circa 1990 would be familiar with the effeminate Sam (played by the actor Imuda) in the sitcom 2+1. I didn't watch every episode, but I do remember a few instances where Sam flirted with brawnier men. This made Sam not only lembut (soft) but gay, although I don't think his desires were ever permitted to be reciprocated.
Folks loved Sam. When the Information Ministry decided to ban the character, the TV viewers -- and by this I mean regular people (we aren't talking about gender/sexuality activists here, not that gender/sexuality activists aren't regular people too) -- were actually upset. There was even a play, Jangan Bunuh Sam (Don't Kill Sam).
Sam was a stereotype that anyone familiar with slapstick comedy will immediately recognise: the non-threatening, endearing, but faintly ridiculous queen. You could also say that his trademark phrase ("Here's my card!") identified him as being a peculiarly urban/bourgeois phenomenon: no 'manly' proletariat would carry around name-cards, or feel the need to proclaim their existence all the time! So I'm not saying Sam was such a progressive role model; he was a figure of fun. And yet, the fact that he existed at all, without howls of outrage from the majority of viewers, is proof that there is space for queerness in the popular Malay imagination.
It's not just Sam, of course. In my book 120 Malay Movies -- and a bloody entertaining book it is, too -- I identify the first gay male character as being in Kaki Kuda (1958) and the first lesbian as being in Nora Zain Ajen Wanita 001 (1967). The fact that both characters were campy villains need not detain us for now; what's important is that they existed.
And it ain't just fictional depictions, either. Stories about the jambu in male boarding schools, or kakak angkat in female boarding schools, would be familiar to anyone. And then -- surprise! -- some of these boys and girls do not outgrow this 'phase'. This is 2010. I think every Malaysian -- who isn't a hermit, or delusional, or unobservant, or all three -- would know at least one gay person. Gay attraction is certainly not a foreign concept.
With that in mind, watch this video, and read (or try to read) most of the comments. I will wait here while you do so:
OK. Welcome back.
My thesis -- and I do have one -- is that some people aren't appalled by the fact of Azwan Ismail's sexuality. What they are affronted by is that he's a person who's giving his own name, and being completely honest about what he wants to say.
We are a society that thrives of innuendo and nudge-wink insinuations. Most people are aware of local gay celebrities who 'cover line', sometimes to the extent of having lavish weddings. How long would these sham unions last, and how much unhappiness would they cause? Those questions somehow recede into irrelevance; what's important is that the values of the community have been upheld. By 'values', I don't mean marriage but hypocrisy. There's a perverse pleasure to be had in making people lie about themselves. What Azwan did, and he seems quite unprecedented in this, was to choose to tell the truth.
Despite what the newspapers are saying, the video isn't some gratuitous pengakuan berani mati (shockingly brave confession) but a response to the international campaign It Gets Better, which is meant to encourage LGBTQ youth not to feel alone or to despair. (Yes, the irony is that the mostly negative comments might end up having the opposite effect! But remember what whoever-it-was said about the longest journey.) And his is not the only Malaysian video, either; there are more to come. Unfortunately, this wider context has been drowned out, at least for now, by tabloid noise.
Azwan Ismail is a friend and I've known him way before he co-edited the bloody fantastic Orang Macam Kita. But even if I hadn't known him, I'll say that what he did was significant, right down to his decision to quote Shahnon Ahmad instead of, say, Shakespeare (so who says homosexuality is a 'Western invention"?).
What he did was violate a code. Not the code of sexual conduct, but the code of faham-faham ajelah or kalau ya pun, janganlah buat terang-terang. An analogy: Walk down the stairwell of any office building during a Ramadhan afternoon; you will find at least one Malay man surreptitiously sneaking a smoke. Everyone 'knows' this happens but no one makes a big fuss because there was an attempt at concealment. What Azwan did was, to some people, the equivalent of having a nasi dagang lunch during the fasting month, live on national TV. What's shocking isn't the fact but the openness.
There is, as always in our dear country, a political context, too. There's a sense of majority privilege about everything; and this is a majority that is very prickly and always seeing threats to its very existence. The newspaper Berita Harian that 'broke' the story also has this poll result:
The direct gaze of the video is why some people feel threatened. (And by 'some people', I mean also the middle-class gays who want to protect the comfortable 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' status quo that has provided a comfortably living. To extend the political analogy: these would be the non-Malay tycoons who got rich from Malay affirmative action policies, and thus don't want to rock the political boat.)
Yes, you might find the approach of the video, starting with its title, "Saya Gay, Saya OK" to be too direct, somehow 'unMalay'. Couldn't a euphemism have been used? You know, like "Saya Rama-Rama, Tak Mengapa" or "Saya Merpati, Nak Terbang Lagi" or something suitably fey? That would have been less provocative, perhaps. But what's done cannot be undone. Whatever happens after this, 'Sam' is not going away -- because, you see, he has always lived here.