KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 8 — Pictures of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists Nisha Ayub and Pang Khee Teik posing with the Malaysian flag have been taken down from a photography exhibition at the George Town Festival (GTF) 2018 on “instruction”.

Datuk Vinod Sekhar, who is a sponsor for the Stripes and Strokes exhibition by photographer Mooreyameen Mohamad in the Penang capital, said he would not have expected this to happen even during the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) administration, much less in the “New Malaysia” under Pakatan Harapan (PH).

“Since when did we discriminate against ordinary Malaysians reflecting on their patriotism?” Vinod told Malay Mail yesterday.

“For it to happen in Penang is even more ridiculous,” he said, as he described Nisha and Pang as inspirational “people of courage” who should be applauded.

“This is something that all Malaysians should fight. The moment we give in to narrow-minded insular ignorant hate mongers, then where do we draw the line?”

Photographs of trans rights activist Nisha and gay rights activist Pang were part of a set of portraits of citizens posing with the Malaysian flag by Mooreyameen, including veteran DAP leader Lim Kit Siang and other civil rights leaders like Siti Kasim.

Mooreyameen’s photography exhibition is running throughout GTF 2018, a month-long arts and culture festival in George Town from August 4 to September 2.

According to the GTF website, the photographs were first shot and exhibited last year to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Malaysia’s independence. This year's GTF exhibited 28 portraits from the collection, before Nisha's and Pang's pictures were removed.

Nisha posted on Facebook Monday her portrait for the Stripes and Strokes exhibition and said people were trying to use her picture, as well as those of Pang and Siti, against the PH government.

The caption for Nisha’s portrait at the exhibition noted that she was the first transgender woman to receive the International Women of Courage Award in 2016 and described her as a soft-spoken, strong and tenacious person.

“I have got so many hate messages, comments and even posting. They called me all kind of degrading names, there were lots of vulgarity, they tried to body shame me, make fun of my name even to the extent of asking me die. There were even some of them asking people to RAPE and Sexually torture me to teach me a lesson,” Nisha wrote.

“Most of the comments are from people who call themselves Muslim but the way they comment does not portray the kindness and loving image of the religion.”

Pang wrote on Facebook last Sunday that a Facebook page — which posted the exhibition portraits of him, Nisha and Siti — had received over 1,000 comments that were mostly homophobic, transphobic and misogynist, including a threat to shoot him.

“But what concerns me most is that I wish it was a better photo of me and not my resting bitch face. At least my rainbow is erect,” he said.

The caption for Pang’s portrait described him as “the gay icon for Malaysia” who put LGBTQ on the agenda and deserved more recognition for his “courageous voice”.

Siti, whose portrait caption called her a “superhero”, told Malay Mail she was surprised her photograph was not taken down too.

“The problem here is that it seems like our government, whether federal or state — they are succumbing to this pressure from the Islamists,” said the lawyer and activist who champions the rights of the Orang Asli and LGBT.

“What the hell is going on? Have we voted a much worse government than before?”

GTF organiser Joe Sidek confirmed that he was asked to remove Pang’s and Nisha’s portraits from the Stripes and Strokes exhibition, but declined to comment further.

Vinod praised Joe’s work in building up GTF since its inception in 2010.

“Under Joe Sidek, GTF has taken the arts to new heights and really established Penang and Malaysia as an Asian arts centre. And all credit for what GTF has become today is his.

“That’s why it’s terribly wrong and unfair at the basic level of decency to do this to not just the two individuals involved and Yameen, but to Joe,” he said.

Sinar Online reported yesterday Nibong Tebal Umno Youth chief Mohd Norhiesam Ismail as saying that the portraits of Nisha, Pang and Siti at the GTF exhibition showed the Penang state government’s insensitivity towards Muslims.

“The three of them have been made icons in the exhibition and in fact, their biodata clearly state that they are LGBT activists, unacceptable people who go against the culture and religion of this country,” he told the Malay news outlet.

*An earlier version of this story mistakenly mentioned Datuk Ambiga's portrait as being part of the exhibition. The number of portraits put up at the exhibition was also incorrectly stated. The errors have since been corrected.