KUALA LUMPUR, July 9 — Now, Julian Sanjivan is a 34-year-old Malaysian who directed the New York edition of this year’s Gay Pride parade, arguably the largest ever in the history of the annual march.
But it was not so long ago that he had still been in Malaysia, where his sexual orientation made him the target of discrimination, harassment, and alleged violence by the authorities.
“ I was surrounded and harassed by a group of policemen who pointed a gun to my face and threatened to use it for merely voicing my rights,” he told Malay Mail Online during an interview.
“They laughed, mocked and called me derogatory terms in the Malay language for being gay. All this happened very close to my work place.”
For the gay man then living in Muslim-majority Malaysia that is intolerant of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities, the incident was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Sanjivan packed his belongings and moved to the United States four years ago, in search of the tolerance he did not find at home.
There, he became the first Malaysian to be accepted as a fellow in the Community Solutions Program that was funded by the US State Department.
He was chosen due to the recognition he had gained for his work with Malaysian non-profit PT Foundation, which deals with HIV education, awareness, support and care for the most at-risk populations affected by the disease.
But it was not until he heard news from back home that authorities were clamping down on LGBT rights movements that he decided to stay on in the US. He applied for asylum, which was granted by the US government last year.
“When the government decided to give the organisers of Seksualiti Merdeka a very difficult time, it went downhill from there for the LGBT community in Malaysia,” he said.
The annual festival to promote sexuality rights began in 2008 and was banned by police in 2011, after Muslim groups alleged that it promoted homosexuality and sexual promiscuity.
The organisers attempted to challenge the ban through judicial review, which was dismissed by the High Court in 2012, and the decision was subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeal in 2013.
Sanjivan said, however, that it was the message from the highest echelons of the government regarding the LGBT community that cemented his decision to stay abroad, when Putrajaya blamed the group for local HIV cases and said it needed to be “nipped in the bud”.
But he explained that his choice to remain in the US was not about escaping the discrimination at home; rather, Sanjivan said it was his mission to make the rest of the world see the plight of the community here.
“That was the turning point and I vowed to myself that I will let the world know the human rights violations the LGBT community faced back in Malaysia,” he added.
“Now, I have the platform to do just that.”
The Petaling Jaya native currently residing in New York was last year elected as a member of the Executive Board of Heritage of Pride, which gave him the responsibility to organise this year’s parade in New York City.
From his new vantage point, he said the biggest issue for the LGBT community in Malaysia was that its legal environment criminalised their behaviour.
Although homosexual behaviour is not illegal per se, Malaysia has colonial era laws that criminalise anal and oral sex as carnal intercourse against the order of nature, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Shariah laws also prohibit cross-dressing, which is the violation most often used to detain and prosecute Muslim transgenders who, according to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report, are regularly harassed and abused by local religious enforcers.
“This is made worse by regressing government policies and decisions that violate basic human rights that curtails the freedom of speech and inability to express one's true identity without fear,” Sanjivan added.
Muslim-majority Malaysia vehemently objects to the perceived rise in LGBT activities, which it deems to be an assault against Islam together with growing calls for greater civil liberties.
LGBT communities are regularly denounced in sermons, together with other groups and ideologies that local religious authorities consider to be unacceptable.