LGBT Vacations in Malaysia – conservative attitudes prevail

A history of LGBT rights

Malaysia is one of a handful of former British colonies to retain colonial-era ‘anti-sodomy’ laws, introduced in the late 1870s by British administrators. Section 377 of Malaysia’s Penal Code criminalises sex between men, which is punishable by up to 20 years in jail, and famously led to the sodomy charges and a prison term for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in 19981. As well as being charged under secular law, members of the LGBT community have also been targeted under religious law, for example under Sharia laws prohibiting both sodomy and cross-dressing.

Historically, transgender people were widely accepted in Malaysia, but this changed with the introduction of new laws from the 1980s onwards criminalising transgender people and forcing them into the shadows. Under these laws, transgender people can be arrested just for wearing clothes thought not to belong to their assigned sex2.
The Malaysian government’s increasing move towards a more conservative version of Islam has also made things more difficult for the LGBT community over the past few years, and discriminatory incidents have hit the headlines both in Malaysia and in the foreign press.
In 2017, for example, an LGBT pride march organised by Taylor's University was cancelled due to Islamist pressure; the health ministry launched a contest for young people on how to ‘prevent’ homosexuality, sparking protests from activists3; and Malaysia’s board of film censors tried to prevent the release of Beauty and the Beast over a ‘gay moment’, eventually caving in to pressure and allowing the movie to be shown4.
In early 2018 Hong Kong singer Denise Ho, who is openly gay, complained that Malaysian officials had denied her application to perform in the capital Kuala Lumpur due to her support for the LGBT community5; and the Malay-language Sinar Harian newspaper caused protest and ridicule when it published a list on how to spot gay people6.

There have also been violent incidents against LGBT people including the brutal murder of 27-year-old transgender woman Sameera Krishnan7 in February 2017 and the rape and murder of T. Nhaveen, 18, whose assailants taunted her with anti-LGBT slurs, in June of the same year8.

Attitudes towards the LGBT community

Harsh anti-sodomy laws and government support for campaigns seeking to reduce homosexuality mean that the Malaysian LGBT community faces a general lack of acceptance. Although prosecutions and violent attacks are rare, the police sometimes use the law as an opportunity to harass gay people, and many high-profile figures, including Prime Minister Najib Razak, have declared homosexuality to be unnatural and an attack against Islam9.
A 2013 Pew Research Center opinion survey showed that only nine percent of the Malaysian population believe that homosexuality should be accepted, while 86 percent believe that it should not.10 Bullying in schools, workplace discrimination, exposure to violence and limited access to healthcare are some of the many challenges facing the gay community. There are also concerns that growing religious conservatism may further affect the rights of LGBT people. 
That being said, people can and do live a gay lifestyle in Malaysia, especially in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, where there are numerous gay friendly clubs and saunas, and a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ attitude.

LGBT Travel in Malaysia

LGBT travelers are unlikely to encounter hostile reactions, and authorities are likely to turn a blind eye to tourists acting discretely. LGBT culture in Malaysia remains fairly underground; you won’t find openly gay bars, but there are places that are well known in the LGBT community as gay friendly hangouts, as well as a number of specifically gay friendly hotels and guesthouses around the country. Kuala Lumpur has the biggest (discrete) gay scene in the country, with Penang, Johor Bahru and Borneo Island also having a number of LGBT friendly venues.

While we always try to point out any discriminatory or unethical behaviour in the tourist industry, we also recognise that there is a very fine – and at times blurred – line between expressing your identity (whether on the grounds of sexuality, religion or politics, for example), and being respectful of local customs. Malaysia remains a very conservative society, and couples of any sexual orientation should avoid kissing and putting their arms around each other in public. In fact, if you do see two men or two women with their arms around each other or holding hands, this is not usually an indication of sexuality.
All the tour operators we work with describe themselves as LGBT friendly, but it’s worth finding out how this is put into practice in their Malaysia vacations. It’s easier to operate an LGBT friendly tour in Kuala Lumpur than it is in rural or more conservative areas, for example, and your operators should be able to share information about customs and beliefs – not just for Malaysia as a whole, but for individual regions and places of interest across the country.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about LGBT or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

LGBT Festivals, Events & Resources

There is no official LGBT rights organisation in Malaysia and Seksualiti Merdeka, an annual celebration of sexual diversity and gender rights in Malaysia, was banned in 2011. The Travel Gay Asia and Utopia Asia websites provide information about nightspots, restaurants and gay-friendly accommodation across the country. The PT Foundation is a voluntary nonprofit organisation providing sexuality and HIV/AIDS education, care and support programs for marginalised communities.
Read more in our guide to LGBT vacations
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: torbakhopper] [Topbox: John Ragai] [Malaysia police: MyLifeStory] [Friends: Derek T's Photos]
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