The vibrant performances of artist Carmen Rose used to grace Malaysia’s stages regularly, but a police raid last year abruptly halted the veteran drag queen’s shows. This incident has further exacerbated the fears of the LGBTQ community, particularly as Islamists gain prominence in the country’s politics.
The aftermath of the raid, in which several attendees were apprehended, has led Rose to cease her performances and limit her public appearances in drag. She candidly shares, “Going out in drag is always a gamble. We worry about raids—should we keep backup clothes?”
This situation reflects the heightened challenges faced by LGBTQ individuals in Malaysia. Despite Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s reputation as a progressive reformer, queer Malaysians and human rights groups reveal that LGBTQ communities are experiencing more scrutiny and discrimination under his leadership.
Anwar, who assumed office after the November elections, is under pressure to bolster his Islamic credentials to cater to the growing influence of an ultra-conservative opposition. Malaysia’s opposition bloc includes the Islamist party PAS, which holds a significant number of parliamentary seats and staunchly opposes LGBTQ rights.
The political environment has raised concerns, with analysts pointing out that Anwar’s attempts to assert Islamic values could further marginalize LGBTQ individuals. Sodomy remains illegal in Malaysia, accompanied by sharia laws that criminalize same-sex acts and cross-dressing.
Anwar’s uncompromising stance on LGBTQ rights has led to book bans, the detention of demonstrators, and the confiscation of Pride-themed merchandise. The government’s position, reiterated by spokesperson Fahmi Fadzil, aligns with Anwar’s rhetoric.
The situation has exacerbated online harassment and threats against queer Malaysians, while undercover police presence at LGBTQ-friendly events has become commonplace. Thilaga Sulathireh, from the LGBTQ advocacy group Justice for Sisters, views the government’s disregard for queer Malaysians as a violation of human rights.
As a result, more LGBTQ Malaysians are seeking asylum abroad, and self-censorship is on the rise. Drag queen Carmen Rose, reflecting on the challenges, admits contemplating a move from Malaysia, not out of running away but out of concern for her happiness and safety.