Being a lesbian in Malaysia: Coming out by not coming out
By: You Lin
None of my friends believed me when I told them that I never want to get married. Maybe I should have clarified that I never want to get married to a man.
Oh, wait. I can’t tell them that.
I live in a country where queerness is criminalised.
Image by: Ivan Marc
At present, same-sex marriage is illegal in Malaysia. On top of this, queer and transgender people face horrific discrimination and prosecution simply for existing here. I’ve seen the community experience it all: imprisonments up to 20 years, canings, fines…
In 1994, the government banned LGBTQ+ couples from appearing in state-controlled media. Then in 2010, the Film Censorship Board matured enough to allow some depiction of homosexual characters on screen.
This update, however, only permitted the depiction of gay characters that – and I quote – “repented or died”. Whether that was a step forward or backward was something I’ve never quite figured out.
Regardless, I’ve recently found myself slinking online to illegally watch Lightyear and Thor: Love and Thunder, which are both banned here. No advertisements, no reviews. Not even a single word.
You heard me right: not a single word about these films, or about queerness in general. This is the way it was 10 years ago, and the way it remains.
Not a single word about female fans ‘simping’ over hot, badass fictional women.
Not a single word about shipping queer couples or rewatching Heartstopper.
Not a single word about the possibility of getting married to someone other than a man, or about choosing a different family structure.
And not a single word about how unfair this all is.
I used to think that my country’s denial of queerness was a way of protecting me from something that was ‘strange’ or ‘unnatural’ or ‘blasphemous’. Now, at 18 years old, I know it’s just a way of silencing me, of oppressing who I am.
And I won’t allow that – not ever.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, I gained way more access to the internet than I ever had before.
Up until then, I had no idea people like me existed; I had no idea that I was ever allowed a future where I could fall in love with a princess instead of Prince Charming.
In retrospect, I think my parents always knew that something was different about me, even though neither of them addressed it. I never expressed an interest in dating, and never fawned over the supposedly ‘cute’ boys my mother shoved in my face. My favourite characters were always female: I had a crush on Ariel when I was seven, and a bigger crush on Captain Marvel when I was 10.
I was different. I was eccentric. I was gay.
Thanks to the internet, I got to understand all of that and more. I gained the courage to recognise that being myself is valid. The internet introduced me to a community that was warm, accepting, beautiful and powerful.
It was also where I first stumbled upon the term “coming out”.
If you told past me that I would be okay with being into girls and admitting it to people – albeit selectively – I would’ve laughed in your face.
The LGBTQ+ community paints coming out of the closet as this huge ceremony where you embrace your identity and celebrate it openly. Yet I can’t help but wonder: is coming out the only way to be valid? Is coming out really, as people put it, life-altering and absolutely necessary?
There are many viewpoints circulating around the web, but few of them touch on the prospect of coming out for queers living in conservative countries.
What if coming out does more harm than good? What if coming out isn’t a relief but a red flag you pin to your forehead that screams, “Hey, I’m a lesbian! Please burn me at the stake!”?
I never liked the idea of having to come out; I thought of it as a product of heteronormativity. After all, no one goes around coming out as cisgender and heterosexual, do they?
With that in mind, I began planning my biggest ‘fuck you’ to my dear homophobic country: to come out by not coming out.
It all started with minuscule changes – symbols small enough to be hidden in my profile pictures; symbols no one noticed or questioned.
I changed the profile picture on my email account to the colours of the lesbian flag. Easy peasy. The only feedback I got was that it looked like the choice of a 70-year-old grandma. No big deal.
Then, rainbows started to appear: on my wallpaper, my pyjamas, my underwear. Muted rainbows, monochrome rainbows, rainbows with unicorns… rainbows everywhere. I happily rebelled by plastering myself in this forbidden symbol of who I am, bringing it with me everywhere.
And then, I took a leap of faith: I started writing.
I never intended to share my identity anywhere. Not to my friends, not to my family, not to anyone. I was content living my life alone in a small apartment, working 10 hours a day and possibly adopting a cat.
Yet, a part of me couldn’t help but ask: what if I gave myself the permission to be whoever I wanted to be online? What if I embraced my sexuality openly in a virtual space where I could be anyone without consequences?
The idea was tantalising. I tested the words on my tongue: I’m a lesbian.
“I’m a lesbian,” I said to the empty space in my bedroom.
I smiled, fingers poised on my keyboard. I knew what I had to do.
I created my first Instagram account where I publicly identified as a lesbian.
I regularly posted on the account for months, and then years. I now use it to advocate for LGBTQ+ teens and adults, to call out homophobia among my peers, and to shove (metaphorical) rainbows in people’s faces.
I never had the luxury to officially come out to the people who matter most. Instead, I was deflecting when my relatives not-so-subtly hinted at my future white wedding and 20 kids. I was friendzoning male peers who seemed too interested. I was reading queer fiction clandestinely on my phone.
I could only be gay behind a different name – a concealed identity.
And yet, I feel satisfied. I’m proud.
I don’t need to go around declaring that I’m a lesbian in order to feel valid – especially now that I have a platform to express myself freely and through ways that keep my gayness alive.
I’m not a coward who doesn’t have the guts to admit who I really am.
Staying in the closet is a choice. Stepping one foot out of the closet is just as brave as kissing a girl or wearing a pride flag on the streets.
Of course, someday I’d love to stand up in front of a crowd and introduce myself as a lesbian. One day, I hope to wake up to a world where I can marry a woman and live my happily ever after.
Even if it’s years down the line, I want to see people like me living their truths openly, without fear. I want to find pride flags in our classrooms. And I want the word “gay” to no longer be a taboo.
I can only hope. But for now, when I get those “Are you gay?” questions from oblivious assholes, I find that “It’s none of your business” is just as effective as “Yes, I’m gay.”
You Lin* is a Malaysian Chinese writer who specializes in poignant queer fiction with dark twists. You can find her work published or forthcoming in The B’K and on her Instagram page @writingontherainbow where she shares advice on writing with aspiring writers.
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