OutRight Report Leads to Storybook About Being LGBTIQ in Malaysia

In 2014, OutRight Action International published a 5-country research report “Violence: Through the Lens of LBT People in Asia” documenting the violence and exclusion faced by lesbians, bisexual women, and trans persons (LBT) in Malaysia, Japan, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. Our Malaysian research partner, Knowledge and Rights with Young people through Safer Spaces (KRYSS) adapted the interviews they documented into a collection of narratives titled Mata Hati Kita, The Eyes of Our Hearts.

OutRight’s Melanie Hung conducted an interview with Angela M. Kuga Thas, one of the co-founders of KRYSS, who compiled and edited the storybook.

Melanie Hung (MH): What prompted the decision to turn the transcripts from the research interviews into something more?

Angela M. Kuga (AMK): As much as I value human rights documentation, that’s not the only way to identify patterns of violations. I think there has to be a parallel way of telling our stories. So that made me think, okay, so how else do we tell our stories to people?

MH: What was the process of changing the raw interviews into a storybook?

AMK: I wanted to remain faithful to the words of the storytellers and honor the nuances of what they were trying to express – about their lives, their hardships, their challenges, as well as the good things in their lives. We went with a more conversational narrative. We titled the stories using the words of the storytellers, such as “Sit down and talk with me” or “My husband beats me just like any woman” so that the stories spoke to intersectional, cross-cutting dilemmas that many people face, not just LGBTIQ. We also developed comics to capture the stories visually. Jac SM Kee, co-founder of KRYSS, helped review the development of the comics and wrote the preface, which I felt spoke strong and true to the essence and purpose of the book.

MH: What is the distribution strategy for the book?

AMK: I aimed to reach people who needed to read the book, people who have some level of influence over public opinion, over the members of their political parties and so on, and are a little open to dialogue instead of being in complete opposition to our human rights. The other way is of course through sales by the publisher to LGBTIQ people and their friends. I was surprised to learn that our potential audience includes other people as well. One young man I happened to speak to at the launch event, who was all for women’s rights, told me that he couldn’t understand LGBTIQ rights until he had read the book. He actually got his family to read the book as well. I rely on people like him to make sure that the book goes to the people who need to read it.

MH: Have there been any negative responses from the Malaysian public or government?

AMK: There’s been no banning of the book, no negative reactions just yet. We also know that it’s harder for policies to clamp down on the book because it’s so open-ended. When you write in a way that appeals to the public, in story form, people are likely to understand and connect with the humanity of LGBT people – that’s when governments get worried. The publisher did worry about this book being banned and I said that’s even better because that will bring more attention to the book, people will know about the book much faster. KRYSS has always been at the forefront of LGBTIQ rights in Malaysia, so this is nothing new for us. But now we’ve done it through stories.

MH: Multiple stories show that sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression aren’t neatly categorized into the L-G-B-T categories in people’s lived experiences. How do you think sexual orientation and gender identity are fluid? Do societal expectations influence how a person identifies?

AMK: We felt that the stories themselves speak to this fluidity, where you can’t really box up the person’s sexuality. We didn’t want to impose that whole slew of labels unless people themselves used them. KRYSS of course use the definitions that are internationally accepted on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. All of these make up our sexuality, but our sexuality is not limited to these alone. We wanted to show the complexity of how people identified through the stories.  The gender binary that society assumes actually doesn’t exist in real-life negotiations around sexuality and I personally believe that sexuality is fluid and at any one point in time, you’re free to identify as you want or not identify at all and just enjoy your sexuality as it is.

MH: One of the main findings of the 5-country report, Violence Through The Lens of LBT Persons in Asia, was the high level of family violence LBT people in Asia experience. Many examples in the storybook show how family, religion and culture influence how LBT individuals feel about themselves and how their families feel about them. Are these family dynamics also prevalent in Malaysia?

AMK: I think it cuts across most countries; there are always cultural influences. But what I wanted to show is that LBT Malaysians are just as respectful as any other children towards their families. They do try to meet their parent’s expectations and feel disappointed in themselves when they don’t. We hope that the book will speak to those feeling isolated and alone in their struggle, and give them a way to start the conversation. I think the stories are equally important for parents. Many parents are concerned because society’s perception of the LGBTIQ and how society will in turn perceive them as parents. They need to know that there are other parents who have supported their children and that they can find the courage within themselves to be there for their children.

MH: What do you hope are the next steps going forward for KRYSS, the storybook, and the results of the Malaysia research that was published in OutRight’s 2014 LBT Violence report?

AMK: There was the idea of turning the storybook into a series of plays for workshops around the country. But we need to raise funds for something like that so it’s a bit of a long-term project. We’ve sought partnership with a progressive Muslim group that is willing to share the stories in the book with the conservative Muslim groups in Malaysia. This is still in the early stages of building relationships between the groups.  I’m also trying to mainstream LGBTIQ issues into stories that appeal to children and teenagers. I think stories help children and teenagers feel less isolated, less abandoned in their struggle to find themselves and be true to who they are.

To read OutRight’s 5-country research report “Violence: Through the Lens of Lesbians, Bisexual Women and Trans People in Asia,” click here.

To read the Malaysia chapter, click here.

To read adapted excerpts from Mata Hati Kita, visit online journal Malaysiakini:

  1. “My dad the romantic, and Madonna” https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/351402
  2. “My husband beats me, just like any woman https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/352136
  3. “I want the power of a man” https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/353016
  4. “I am not gay” https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/353777

To purchase the eBook, click here.

To purchase a hard copy, click here for US customers and click here for Malaysian customers, or contact Charles Brophy at business_development@gerakbudaya.com.

To read a review of Mata Hati Kita by The Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, click here.