The Malaysian government is funding rehabilitation centres that subject LGBTQ+ people to the discredited practice of conversion therapy, according to a new report.
An August brief from Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters, a Malaysian LGBTQ+ advocacy group, reports that the country’s government is sponsoring state-sanctioned retreats called “mukhayyam,” which are targeted at Muslim LGBTQ+ people. The retreats are reportedly aimed at “changing” the sexual orientation or gender identity of queer and trans individuals, similar to “pray the gay away” camps.
Over 1,700 people had been sent to mukhayyam by June 2021, per researchers’ estimates.
LGBTQ+ people interviewed for the report said the program was intended to convince them of the benefits of adopting a cisgender, heterosexual lifestyle. Emma, a trans woman, said that even though facilitators of the retreats had assured her that the goal wasn’t to change her identity, a local newspaper reportedly published her picture with other trans women subjected to conversion therapy. The headline read: “Trans Women Return to the Right Path.”
In a different instance, a trans woman recounted how a therapist had told her she needed to “reclaim her masculinity,” saying that she “had an identity crisis due to her mixed-race lineage.” She was allegedly advised to “experience sex with a sex worker to deal with her gender identity.”
Azim, a gay man who attended a 2017 retreat, said that facilitators engaged in fear-mongering tactics to encourage LGBTQ+ persons to rethink their identities.
“To make us change, they reminded us about death,” he said. “They created a funeral-like atmosphere with incense. They asked us to think about our childhood and growing up, and also to think about death. They also had background sounds that were scary and horrible. It made people start to cry.”
After the program, Azim said he tried to change and dated a woman for months only to realize he was not romantically interested in women.
This isn’t the first time that Malaysia has been accused to furthering conversion therapy, a harmful, ineffective range of treatments that United Nations experts have likened to “torture.” In 2016, the country’s government reportedly released an app that promised to help LGBTQ+ persons “return to nature.” It was removed from the Google Play store in March after it attracted new attention when the Malaysian government’s Islamic development department shared it on Twitter.
In 2018, Universiti Sains Malaysia, one of Malaysia’s oldest government-funded universities, held a contest aimed at helping students with “disorders in sexual orientation return to their natural instincts,” according to NBC News. The contest, in which entrants created posters that were displayed on campus, was created by a student-led organization, but formally approved by the college.
In recent years, the government has also cracked down on events and programming designed to promote LGBTQ+ equality, including censoring pro-LGBTQ+ content in the media. After the Hollywood blockbusters Lightyear and Thor: Love and Thunder were banned in Malaysia for featuring queer themes, its deputy communications and multimedia minister, Zahidi Zainul Abidin, said the country would continue to prevent similar films from being screened in the future.
Authorities have also signalled that any individuals who broadcast LGBTQ+ content could face criminal penalties. Zahidi told parliamentarians that the government “would take severe action against individuals found promoting such elements,” as Variety previously reported.
LGBTQ+ people already face widespread legal and social persecution in Malaysia. Its
national penal code punishes acts of same-sex intercourse between men with a maximum of 20 years in prison, although laws criminalizing female intimacy are less clear. Muslim residents of the country, however, may be subject to additional penalties under local Shariah codes. In 2019, five men were caned, fined and imprisoned for four months for “attempting intercourse against the order of nature.”
LGBTQ+ advocates said the government’s conversion therapy program would only make the mistreatment queer and trans people experience even worse.
“The programs, while framed as compassionate, internalize societal and structural discrimination and foment self-hatred among LGBTQ+ and gender-diverse persons and hostility among the rest of the population,” said Thilaga Sulathireh, co-founder of Justice for Sisters, in a statement cited by the LGBTQ+ news outlet Gay Times.