Azwan Ismail told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday he was taking safety precautions following fierce criticism in this conservative, Muslim-majority country over his clip, which has been viewed more than 140,000 times on YouTube in just six days.
The segment, titled "I’m Gay, I’m OK," features the 32-year-old engineer encouraging other gay Malaysians to be confident in themselves. It is part of a series of interviews posted online by gay rights activists since last week, but Azwan has attracted heavy attention because he is the only one from Malaysia’s ethnic Malay Muslim majority so far.
"I don’t know what to expect next," Azwan said Tuesday in his first comments to the media after his nearly three-minute clip was posted Dec. 15. Other gay Malaysians featured in the "Independent Sexuality" video campaign so far are mainly ethnic Chinese non-Muslims, who generally face less of a public stigma about homosexuality.
Azwan said he has tried to avoid going out alone or lingering at public places after a few of the 3,000 people who commented on his video issued death threats and many others rebuked him. He has also made his personal details more private on social media websites. Although Azwan’s face appears clearly in the video, he declined to be photographed for the AP interview.
Malaysia’s Cabinet minister for Islamic affairs, Jamil Khir Baharom, voiced concerns over the weekend that gay activists were trying to promote homosexuality. He said officials might take "appropriate action to prevent this from spreading because it would hurt Islam’s image."
Harussani Zakaria, one of Malaysia’s top Islamic clerics, reportedly said Azwan should have not made such an open declaration that "derided his own dignity and Islam in general."
In the clip, Azwan said it was tough being gay in Malaysia because "religious and cultural factors have defined our lives, telling us who we can be and who we can’t."
Azwan did not break any obvious laws by talking in the video, but he said his lawyer friend was checking whether other legal action could be taken against him. Sodomy is punishable by 20 years in prison, though the law is only occasionally enforced. Some states impose fines or jail terms for gay-related actions such as cross-dressing in public.
The video series is inspired by the similar "It Gets Better Project" started in the United States in October in response to a string of gay youth suicides. Several more Malay Muslims are expected to speak in upcoming clips, which are meant to tell young gay Malaysians not to despair about their future.
"My intention was not to insult Islam," Azwan told the AP. "I just wanted to represent gay Malays in this project. I hope these videos will help to create a more open society and more discussion."
Azwan, who has a boyfriend, said he started confiding in others about his sexuality five years ago. He added that he has not broached the subject with his parents, but his brother asked him about it after news of the video surfaced.
Seksualiti Merdeka launches short videos featuring Malaysians telling young lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trangenders around the country not to despair: yes, it gets better. And it is possible to live honest, proud, fulfilling lives in Malaysia in spite of the situation.
NO ONE TO TURN TO
When confronted with bullying, rejection or discrimination at school, most of us have our families to turn to. But for LGBT youths, even our families can be a source of rejection. With no one to turn to, and faced with the thought of living a life full of fear, hurt and hopelessness, it is natural we ask ourselves, what is the point of living?
Over the last few months, we have heard of a many cases of teenagers in USA committing suicide as a result of being bullied at school for being gay. Who knows how many more goes unreported there, or here?
In response to the tragedies, American writer Dan Savage initiated a video project called "It Gets Better" in which LGBT (and some straight) adults, including many celebrities, record themselves telling the stories of how they survived their rough teenage years, and offering hope to young LGBT youths: http://www.itgetsbetter.org/
MESSAGE OF HOPE
Inspired by Gabrielle Yong, the first Malaysian to post her "It Gets Better" video, Seksualiti Merdeka brings together 15 Malaysians from all walks and orientations and genders to share this message of hope. They are: Alvin Ng, Azwan Ismail, Gary Ooi, Jerome Kugan, Joe Pang, Kavidha Natarajan, Michelle Nor Ismat, Nabila Nasir, Nisha, Pang Khee Teik, Peter Ong, Seetha, Sharaad Kuttan, Sulastri & Tina Fazlita Fadzil.
This event will premiere the videos before we upload them on youtube one by one. Come join us and celebrate. If you feel inspired to do the same, please go ahead and find a friend with a camera to record your message, and share it with us. Let's spread the hope.