Police reportedly ban gay festival in Malaysia

By Sean Yoong, AP

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Police ordered gay rights activists in Muslim-majority Malaysia on Thursday to scrap an annual arts festival aimed at fighting discrimination, news reports said.

The “Sexual Independence” festival has been held under low-key circumstances in Kuala Lumpur since 2008, but growing awareness about the event is leading to criticism by politicians and religious leaders.

This year’s five-day festival — starting Nov. 9 at a private arts center and themed “Queer Without Fear” — planned to feature musical performances of “queer anthems sung by fierce local singers and drag divas who know what it means to love out loud and proud,” organizers said.

But after criticism by the deputy prime minister and plans by several Muslim nongovernment groups to protest, police reportedly ordered the event to be canceled, local media said.

The Malaysiakini independent news website quoted national deputy police chief Khalid Abu Bakar as saying the festival represented “a threat to public order.” The Star newspaper said Khalid warned of “strong action” against anyone violating the ban.

Khalid could not immediately be reached for comment, and other police officials declined to comment.

Earlier Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had described the event as “inappropriate” and a “waste of time,” according to the national news agency, Bernama.

Gay rights activists did not immediately respond to the event’s reportedly being banned. Earlier Thursday, they said the festival was meant to counter widespread homophobia in this socially conservative Asian nation, where a young gay man received death threats last year after posting a YouTube clip defending his sexuality.

“Asking us to keep quiet is asking us to take your abuse with a smile … it’s time to put a stop to all the hate and misunderstanding and abuse,” festival spokesman Pang Khee Teik said in an online statement posted before the event was reportedly banned.

This year’s program also included plans for talks on sexuality issues, a poster exhibition and a makeup workshop by a drag queen. One session is titled “Defense Against The Dark Arts: Homophobia 101.”

Media censorship rules forbid movies and song lyrics that promote acceptance of gays, while a decades-old law makes sodomy punishable by 20 years in prison, though it is seldom and selectively enforced.

The festival’s sponsors and supporters include the Malaysian chapter of Amnesty International, the country’s main grouping of lawyers and other human rights organizations.