Meet the LGBTQ activists who are fighting to be themselves online in Malaysia.

Many online attacks against LGBTQ Malaysians start with their fellow social media users (although some suspect that political or religious groups may be helping to coordinate their actions). Individual threats may intensify. For example, when a post or social media account is deemed “insulting Islam” and reported to the police, the poster may be subject to government surveillance, arrest, and prosecution. Many of these responses are under the auspices of the controversial Multimedia and Communications Act, passed in 1998, which gives the authorities sweeping powers to regulate media and communications in the country.

After the government threatened him with legal action for organizing an LGBTQ event, Numan Afifi, one of Malaysia’s most prominent activists, packed his suitcase, quit his job and fled the country in July 2017. He spent six months traveling to six different countries. often sleeps on couches, has no income and has no idea if he’ll be back. He says law firms have offered him pro bono support in seeking asylum.

But ahead of a 2018 election that many hoped would lead to a more progressive government, Afifi headed home instead. “I decided to come back believing in my Malaysian dream,” he said. Twitter of the period in 2019. “I still believe in this dream, for myself and for the thousands of struggling gay kids in our schools who were just like me.” Does he feel in danger? “Yes, all the time,” he says. “But you still have to do it because people need our services. I must do it.”

The Pakatan Harapan, a coalition considered to be on the more progressive end of the political spectrum, did win the Malaysian elections in May 2018. And at first, there were signs that the group was keen to fulfill its promise to put the improvement of human rights, including LGBTQ rights, at the top of its political agenda.. After a week in the administration, Afifi himself was appointed Public Relations Officer by the Minister of Youth and Sports. In July, the newly appointed Minister of Religious Affairs called for an end to discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace, which was seen as a significant violation of the status quo. But within a few months, there was a series of high-profile regressions. Afifi resigned as public backlash against the appointment of an LGBTQ activist intensified. Police have raided a popular gay nightclub in Kuala Lumpur. Two women were arrested and beaten with sticks for “attempted lesbian sex” in a car.

Since the 2018 election, human rights activists have warned of a worrying erosion of human rights in the country, extending beyond the treatment of LGBTQ communities to the treatment of migrants and broader issues of censorship and freedom of expression. In June 2021, during Pride Month, a government task force even proposed expanding existing Sharia law, which already allows for action against those who offend Islam, specifically targeting people who “promote the LGBT lifestyle” online. “Things just got worse, very, very bad,” says one activist, who requested anonymity for security reasons. “I don’t know what will happen.”

Despite the risks, many activists are unequivocal: If online platforms are the last battleground for LGBTQ rights, this is where they will make their case.

For example, organizations such as the transgender-run SEED Foundation in Kuala Lumpur have brought in experts to educate members on the finer points of cybersecurity, teaching them how to prevent devices from being tracked, protect social media accounts from being hacked, and prevent email being tracked.

The Malaysian authorities regularly invoke their powers under section 233 of the Multimedia and Communications Act to block access to websites, private blogs and news articles. The law allows the removal of any content deemed “obscene, obscene, false, threatening or offensive” – ​​a definition that has been used to censor international LGBTQ websites such as Planet Romeo and Gay Star News. Despite the same vulnerability, smaller home sites have escaped this fate so far. But many remain vigilant about digital security. One activist says her site gets hacked every six months. “We must constantly think about internal security, assessing the risks for everything we do,” she adds.

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