Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 14, November 2006

Analysing the Politics of Same-Sex Issues in a Comparative Perspective:
The Strange Similarities between John Howard and Mahathir Mohamad[1]

Carol Johnson

  1. This article addresses the comparative politics of same-sex relationships. It begins by acknowledging the need to develop culturally-specific strategies for recognition of lgbtq relationships, including the same-sex relationships on which this article mainly focuses. However, it argues that while one needs to acknowledge the different forms which lgbtq relationships can take in different countries, there can also be some surprising similarities in the discourse used by conservative politicians who oppose recognising same-sex relationships. In order to make its case, I present a case study involving two very different politicians. I analyse the Howard government's opposition to the recognition of same-sex relationships in Australia. That case study is then contrasted with the views of a politician, whose 'Asian values' approach has led to critiques of western attitudes towards homosexuality, namely Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Contrary to Mahathir's analysis, his own views are shown to bear some similarities with those of John Howard. In short, while there may be significant differences in lgbtq identities across cultures, there can be significant similarities in the heteronormative discourses which marginalise those identities.[2]

    Background: the comparative politics of lgbtq issues
  2. Issues of legal recognition of same-sex relationships are particularly complex when they are looked at in a comparative cross-cultural perspective. For example, recognition is clearly not the priority in those countries where same-sex relationships are illegal and severely punished. Similarly, in some societies, lesbians may be more concerned about resisting forced heterosexual marriage than the recognition of same-sex relationships.[3] Overcoming discriminatory social attitudes that result in underclass status and poverty may also be a far more important priority than recognition. But, even in those countries where fighting for legal recognition is feasibly on the agenda, the comparative issues can be vexed ones. For issues of same-sex recognition are inevitably also issues of identity, of what is to be recognised—especially in cultures in which the numbers and forms of genders, sexes, forms of sexual relationships and the factors pertinent to identity can be very different. In other words, legal recognition of relationships always raises the issue of which identity categories will be recognised, and that potentially varies widely from country to country (and even within sub-cultures within countries). For example, in some countries women who love women may prefer not to emphasise the sexual nature of the relationship. Meanwhile, Peter Jackson argues that in the Thai case what is at issue are not sexual identities but rather eroticised genders.[4]
  3. Consequently, the conceptual frameworks which both scholars and activists use in debates over recognition, or decriminalisation, are frequently culturally biased. For example, concepts of same-sex relationships can assume cultures in which there are binary conceptions of sex. Even as Queer Theory potentially allows for more plurality in acknowledging diverse sexualities, it is, precisely for that reason, insensitive to attempts to fix identity in culturally-specific ways. Yet, determining the local categories for legal recognition of relationships may require both acknowledging, and reinforcing, particular identities. Queer Theory can also be criticised for the cultural specificity of its own critiques e.g. of binary opposites. Hence the lively critiques of cultural biases in the 2004 London Queer Matters Conference that were published in the June 2005 issue of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies.[5] The very concept of 'same-sex' relationships, used for ease of comparison between the views of John Howard and the (occidentalist views) of Mahathir Mohamad in this article, is equally problematic, given that subjects in a range of non-heteronormative relationships might not identify their own relationships as involving a sexual identity, never mind the same one. Similarly, I at no time wish to suggest that even the most anglophone of Malaysians who use terms such as 'queer,' 'homosexual,' 'transsexual,' 'gay' or 'lesbian' necessarily construct their gendered or sexual identities in the same way as Australians (and, of course, there may be religious, ethnic, political and other sub-cultural differences amongst Australians and Malaysians themselves). Nonetheless, concepts of homosexuality and same-sex relationships do underlie both Howard's and Mahathir's own views, which is one reason why the terms are retained here.
  4. However, it is not just identities that are at issue. 'Recognition' is potentially subject to the same type of critiques that Chou Wah-Shan has made of 'coming out' in his work on same-sex eroticism in Chinese societies. Chou argues that 'coming out' involves individualistic, western assumptions regarding the need for explicit, open statements to one's family and society, including the assumed centrality of sexuality to an individual's identity.[6] Although he is specifically referring to America here, the values are arguably ones that are just as prevalent in Australian, New Zealand or British culture, As Chou Wah-Shan explains:

      The Western notion of 'coming out' is not only a political project of the lesbigay movement, but is often a cultural project of affirming the Western value of individualism, discourse of rights, talking culture, high level of anonymity in metropolitan cities, and the prioritization of sex as the core of selfhood. The model of coming out is hinged upon notions of the individual as an independent, discrete unit segregated economically, socially and geographically from the familial-kinship network. In America, individual frankness, the willingness to verbalise one's feelings, and the determination to defend one's right to speak up are treated as major salient features of the individual's life...Honesty to one's parents through verbal communication is seen as vital to a genuine self. USA also has a political institution marked by parliamentary politics governed by one person one vote. Therefore, turning one's sexual rights into political rights through coming out is commonly agreed upon by lesbigays as a major way to defend their interests.[7]

  5. In short, some communities may prefer not to be legally recognised but to continue to operate discreetly. Western-style strategies of recognition should not be constructed as a universal. Nonetheless, one would not want to overstate Chou's case. He neglects some of the heteronormative ways in which the individual has been defined in liberal democratic thought, which I will be coming to later. Furthermore, as Antonia Chao has pointed out in the Taiwanese context, the lack of individualisation in some Chinese societies, particularly in regard to the failure to differentiate individuals from their family structures, can lead to significant problems for gays and lesbians. For example, because of the ways in which heteronormative familial structures are normally assumed, gays and lesbians can have difficulties accessing accommodation and hospital treatment.[8] But also, and Chou would probably agree, one would not want to emphasise the differences so much that we forget the common concerns that can exist. In particular, Chao's work indicates the importance of analysing the implications of government discourses and practices when minority eroticised relationships are not recognised. The construction of dominant citizenship categories in heteronormative ways is crucial here.
  6. Peter Jackson has drawn attention to the 'parallels...with the situation of g/l/t people from diverse societies who are not united in any essential way but whose common yet always different experience of being marginalized because of their perceived gender or erotic difference provides a basis of communication and a sense of common purpose.'[9] Jackson's comment alerts us to the need to analyse the ways in which mainstream citizenship categories are being constructed. Consequently, the strategy in this article will be to attempt to turn the tables. This article will not focus on analysing the complex differences in lgbtq identities across cultures, and the need that poses for nationally and culturally specific political strategies for both decriminalisation and recognition. That need will be taken for granted. Rather, this article will focus on the discursive construction of the mainstream, heteronormative identities that marginalise all of those who are not in traditional heterosexual relationships—including those in same-sex relationships (which are the focus of the current article).
  7. In order to demonstrate just how much those discourses can have in common, the analysis here will provide a case study focusing on the discourse of two ostensibly very different, contemporaneous political leaders from the Asia-Pacific region, namely Australian Prime Minister John Howard and former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The two are old opponents given Mahathir's arguments that Australia was not culturally Asian and should be excluded from trade organisations such as the EAEC (East Asian Economic Caucus).[10] Howard and Mahathir also have widely differing views on economic issues, given Howard's strong support for globalisation and free trade policies, and Mahathir's concerns about the impact of these on Malaysian society. As we shall see, both politicians are also electorally mobilising different religious beliefs. Malaysia is a country in which, according to the 2000 census, 60.4 per cent of the population professed to be Muslim and only 9.1 per cent of the population professed to be Christian (19.2 per cent were Buddhist and 6.3 per cent were Hindu).[11] By contrast, in the Australian 2001 census, 67.9 per cent of the population identified as being Christian compared with only 1.5 per cent (281,600 people) who identified as being Muslim (1.9 per cent were Buddhist and 0.5 per cent Hindu).[12] The fact that one (Howard) is from a country where male homosexuality has been decriminalised and the other (Mahathir) from a country where it has not, merely illustrates the similarities in their heteronormative discourse even more powerfully. Furthermore, these similarities exist despite official claims that Australia is an equitable, tolerant, western culture and Mahathir's claimed contrast between 'Asian values' and western moral decadence.

    Howard and Mahathir
  8. Australian government Department of Foreign Affairs documents present an image of Australia as a multicultural, multiracial though predominantly western country situated in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia's central values are depicted as being those of tolerance, equality and respect for the individual's human rights.[13] There are several bases on which this self-depiction could be challenged. Two of them are Australia's treatment of indigenous peoples and asylum-seekers—both of which have been condemned by the United Nations.[14] However, the much vaunted Australian values of respect for human rights and equality also do not extend to lgtbq citizens. The UN has criticised the federal Australian government for discriminating against the same-sex partner of a war veteran when it refused him a pension on his partner's death.[15]
  9. Sex between consenting adults was decriminalised in most Australian states by the 1980s (although only since 1997 in Tasmania). Most Australian state governments now have legal recognition of same-sex relationships in some form and one would not want to underrate the importance of such reforms. Some measures are quite innovative, such as the Tasmanian legislation, which can recognise a wide variety of partnerships and commitments. Some states also have laws protecting transgender and transsexual rights, including enabling changing sex on birth certificates (which can then be used to have the desired sex registered on documents such as passports).[16]
  10. However, the story at federal level is very different. There Australia has had a socially conservative Liberal government, the Howard Government, since 1996. Prime Minister John Howard has long argued that conventional heterosexual marriage and families are the best welfare institutions that society has devised. (The federal Attorney-General also mounted a legal challenge to a federal Family Court decision which declared a female to male transsexual's marriage to a woman to be valid.)[17] Howard's 'tolerance' does extend to arguing that homosexual relationships between consenting adults in private should not be illegal. However, Howard argues that heterosexual families should be supported by legislation not just for their social benefits but for economic reasons, in order to reduce welfare costs and encourage self-reliant citizens. Consequently, same-sex relationships and parenting are less preferable personal choices that may be 'tolerated' (i.e. not criminalised) but should preferably not be 'endorsed' by providing government entitlements. In 2004, Howard reaffirmed his long-term views when his government passed federal legislation banning same-sex marriage.[18] Since then he has hinted that he might consider removing some further forms of economic discrimination against same-sex couples, under pressure from progressive moderates in his party, but that he opposes anything equivalent top civil unions.[19] Indeed, the Howard federal government overrode the Australian Capital Territory's attempts to introduce civil unions.
  11. Currently, lack of legal recognition of same-sex relationships at the federal level has legitimated discrimination against same-sex couples in areas ranging from workplace entitlements to social welfare entitlements, pensions, health benefits and access to assisted reproductive technology. Superannuation schemes can now recognise 'interdependent' relationships (although this has still not been fully extended to public sector schemes). The arguments used against equal rights for same-sex parenting in conception and adoption include an emphasis on the so-called Rights of the Child, that has been utilised in many other countries.[20] Meanwhile, gay and lesbian asylum-seekers have been widely discriminated against.[21] Same-sex couples migrating have to apply separately while heterosexual partners qualify to apply together. Overseas same-sex partners of Australian citizens can apply to immigrate under a policy introduced by the previous Labor government.[22] However it is at Ministerial discretion and based on the recognition of an interdependent relationship rather than a full recognition of same-sex relationships.
  12. So, Australia's treatment of same-sex couples at federal level provides a clear warning against taking western proclamations of tolerance and human rights uncritically. However, of more interest to the analysis here is the fact that Australia's treatment of gays and lesbians also does not reflect the values ascribed to Europeans by Asian critics such as Dr Mahathir, who criticise western countries for their positive attitudes towards homosexuality. Mahathir explicitly argues that his category of European includes 'those who migrated and set up new nations in America, Australia and New Zealand.'[23]
  13. As is widely known, Mahathir argues that attempts to improve the position of homosexual citizens in Malaysia are attempts to impose western values on Malaysian society and are another form of colonialism. In the process, he uses a conception of non-heterosexual citizens that clearly revolves around a conception of same-sex relationships. (This is one of the reasons why the concept has been retained here but, as suggested in the introduction to this paper, it should not be assumed that Malaysian conceptions of same-sex relationships are the same as western or Australian ones, nor that western conceptions of gay or lesbian identity are being embraced). For example, in his controversial speech at the 54th UMNO general assembly in 2003, Mahathir argued that:

      The world that we have to face in the new decades and centuries will see numerous attempts by the Europeans to colonise us either indirectly or directly. If our country is not attacked, our minds, our culture, our religion and other things will become the target. In the cultural and social fields they want to see unlimited freedom for the individual. For them the freedom of the individual cannot be questioned. They have rejected the institutions of marriage and family. Instead they accept the practice of free sex, including sodomy as a right. Marriage between male and male, between female and female are officially recognised by them.[24]

    There are many other speeches in which Mahathir has made similar comments.[25]
  14. Mahathir's arguments regarding the relationship between homosexuality, westernism and colonialism are obviously contentious. As Baden Offord explains:

      Homosexuality is always conflated with perceived moral evils, and, moreover, it is sometimes conflated with democratic rights...Mahathir's claim is a type of inverse 'orientalism' where the play of the postcolonial power is to describe homosexuality as a Western social trait which was brought to Asian cultures by imperialism...Asian leaders like...Dr Mahathir thus use homosexuality as a discourse of cultural and geographical difference...that can be deployed to maintain a kind of cultural purity.[26]

  15. Mahathir's claims about western values might have more relevance for some European Union countries and for Canada. However, they are particularly bizarre at a time when the US is attempting to impose Religious Right values on aid programmes around the world, for example through advocating sexual abstinence and discouraging abortion. It is also a strange construction at a time when the Christian Religious Right is allying itself with Hindu and Islamic fundamentalists to try to intervene in the United Nations over issues such as abortion and homosexuality.[27] After all, despite Mahathir's claims in the quote from him above, John Howard has passed federal laws banning same-sex marriage and George W. Bush has attempted to amend the American Constitution to do so. Howard specifically argues that heterosexual marriage and the heterosexual family are 'institutions which have been fundamental to our society since it began.'[28] In doing so, Howard and Bush are appealing to widespread homophobic sentiment in their societies.[29]
  16. Needless to say, there is also extensive evidence that same-sex desire is hardly a product of the west or colonialism. Indeed, Mahathir is being as dismissive of local forms of lgbtq identity as many western theorists are accused of being. Thailand is a good example of a society that retained its formal independence and staved off western colonialism, but whose traditional culture acknowledges complex forms of non-heterosexual love and attraction.[30] Far from homosexuality being a colonial phenomenon, western legal prohibitions against gay male sex were often imposed on colonised societies which had more complex attitudes towards sexual diversity and did not necessarily legally proscribe same-sex behaviours.[31]
  17. Furthermore, far from colonialism liberalising attitudes towards homosexuality, a number of commentators have argued that the hyper-masculinisation associated with the western coloniser, combined with the feminisation and libidinisation of the non-western 'other,' contributed to a stricter policing of sexuality in coloniser societies such as Britain.[32] (Although, as Peter Jackson and Nerida Cook have noted, the libidinisation of the other was not confined to the colonial other, also extending in fantasy to those societies which were not subjugated by western colonialism, such as Thailand.)[33] Meanwhile, the coloniser's (homophobic) constructions of gender identity could also be internalised by the colonial subject. For example, Phillip Holden argues that Lee Kuan Yew's book, The Singapore Story (1998) sometimes depicts Indian and Malay men as effete, while providing a positive construction of Chinese masculinity, and of the less effete masculinity that should be associated with the new post-colonial Asia.[34]
  18. More recently, far from cultural globalisation necessarily imposing western gay identities on others (including via Mahathir's own occidentalist and heteronormative discourse), resources such as the internet have been used in countries such as Malaysia to strengthen local glbtq communities in the face of legal oppression.[35] Nonetheless, as Olivia Khoo has pointed out, the depiction of homosexuality as the dissolute colonialist, western other was one which Mahathir was only too happy to exploit with the imprisonment of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy/conspiracy charges.[36] Ironically, section 377, under which Anwar was charged, originated in British colonial law—a twist which once again emphasises that colonialism actually suppressed, rather than introduced, homosexuality.[37] The Australian responses to these charges are particularly interesting. Howard questioned the independence of the judiciary but bypassed the issue of homosexuality.[38] Alexander Downer, the Australian Foreign Affairs Minister, did not explicitly object to the use of sodomy charges, although he did suggest that the length of Anwar's sentence, as well as the judicial processes involved in Anwar's case, were questionable.[39] Mahathir defended himself by arguing to an Australian journalist that: 'For your peers, sodomy is something that bishops do, so it's quite alright, but for us, no. We don't accept a man who is capable of this kind of act to become prime minister of Malaysia.'[40] Yet, Downer's attitude to Anwar's sentencing is particularly poignant once you realise that he is himself a former leader of the Liberal Party of Australia which Howard now heads as Prime Minister. Allegations that Downer had had affairs with men (which he strongly denied) were used to undermine his leadership.[41] Mahathir might doubt whether Malaysians would elect a gay or bi-sexual man to be Prime Minister; the Liberal Party machine had similar doubts about Australians. Furthermore, the argument that the Leader immediately prior to Downer, John Hewson, was 'soft' on gay issues had been used to mobilise social conservatives against his leadership.[42]
  19. Mahathir's occidentalist account of western values overlooks the fact that traditional conceptions of the liberal democratic citizen actually constructed the apparently 'individualised' citizen as a white, male, property-owning head of family. The heterosexual family was therefore central to constructions of liberal citizenship.[43] Its central role is being returned to in many of the debates opposing same-sex marriage where it is argued that marriage between a man and a woman is a foundation of civilization, as well as a central feature of Judeo-Christian and other religious values. Prime Minister Howard's arguments in these respects sound remarkably similar to those of George W. Bush.[44] They also sound similar to Mahathir's lament: 'Where will the family go? Where will the struggle for family values end up. What indeed will constitute family as homosexuality becomes respected in many societies?'[45] This is not to deny that Malaysian conceptions of masculinity and femininity are different from Australian ones in some respects, as are the ways in which familial relations are constructed. Nonetheless, the mainstream political recognition of heteronormative gendered and familial forms is clear.
  20. Of course Mahathir's motives are different from Howard's. Both are trying to mobilise homophobia and reinforce heteronormative family structures. However, Mahathir is also trying to mobilise a post-colonial nationalism by critiquing an alleged western 'respect' for homosexuality. His mobilisation of family values was in the context of depicting Asian values as being family and community-oriented compared to the alleged rampant individualism of the west. Mahathir was also trying to win a section of the Islamic vote, including from the Pan-Islamic Party (PAS). Mahathir had introduced an Islamisation policy to Malaysia in 1984, which emphasised the need for citizens to learn Islamic values. However, as Andaya and Andaya point out, the potential electoral threat from PAS, particularly given the increasingly devout practices of Malaysian Muslims, led to Mahathir arguing that the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) should not only be seen as the major Malaysian Islamic party but one that was a better representative of Islam than PAS.[46] As Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah, commented in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: 'Sodomy especially in Muslim Malaysia, conservative Muslim Malaysia, would...tarnish his image and also tarnish the family honor.'[47] Anwar later agreed that Mahathir was evoking a widespread homophobic sentiment in Malaysia.[48]
  21. There are strong links between Mahathir's postcolonial nationalist arguments and his assertion of an Islamic identity and faith, given his view that Islamic nations have been subject not just to past colonisation but also to ongoing humiliation by the west.[49] Such arguments also paper over any potential conflict between Islamic and Asian values, given that Mahathir sometimes claims to be advocating Asian values and sometimes Islamic Malay ones, depending upon his audience. There is also arguably an implicit suggestion that western Christian values are not as resilient or worthwhile as Islamic Malay ones. Unfortunately for gay and lesbian Malaysians, Mahathir's arguments for a renaissance of Islamic scholarship in regard to the study of science and technology does not extend to a revisiting of the conservative Islamic position on homosexuality.[50] The same is true for transgendered and transsexual Malaysians. Transgendered and transsexual Malaysians who cross-dress can be charged under public indecency laws, or under Syariah Law for Muslims. Transsexual Malaysians who are Muslims are explicitly prevented from having a sex change operation by a fatwa. Birth certificates and identification cards cannot be changed even for non-Muslims who have had sex changes.[51]
  22. By contrast, Howard and Bush are both trying to mobilise the social conservative and Christian-right vote. So Howard explicitly supports 'the fundamental Judeo-Christian view...that marriage is a lifelong union between a man and a woman.'[52] However, unlike Mahathir, whose Islamic beliefs support arguments that homosexuality should be illegal, Howard (like Bush) is influenced by more secular liberal democratic arguments that see limits to the state's ability to interfere in private life, whatever one's own personal religious beliefs: 'I think...sexual preference is something very private.'[53] Interestingly, Anwar has suggested that Malaysian law should be reformed in some way that can both reflect the religious view that homosexuality is wrong and respect individual privacy.[54] In short, Howard's position reflects a common contemporary western liberal argument that male homosexuality occurring in private between consenting adults should not be criminalised.[55] Australian State governments have therefore decriminalised male homosexuality—reforming laws that also went back to British colonial times.[56] However, public, legal recognition of homosexual relationships is another matter, and there arguments about values, including religious ones, do come into play.[57]
  23. Howard also has a long history of populism, in which he mobilises voters against various racial and religious 'others,' even if they are different from the 'others' of Mahathir.[58] In the lead-up to the 2004 election, Labor, Greens and Democrat politicians claimed that Howard was using same-sex marriage as an electoral wedge issue, equivalent to his past usage of Aboriginal issues and asylum-seekers.[59] The Labor politician who most explicitly pointed out the links between Howard's mobilisation of race and his mobilisation of same-sex issues was Senator Penny Wong, a Malaysian-born Shadow Minister who is also Australia's only 'out' Labor politician at federal level.[60] There was also a nationalist aspect. Howard explicitly argued that the Australian parliament should ban same-sex marriage in order to prevent socially engineering Judges from recognising overseas same-sex marriages and therefore imposing the values of other countries on Australia.[61] Such views fit into Howard's general discursive strategy of implying that he can best interpret the values of the Australian people and protect them from the politically correct, rights-based arguments of the elites, who cannot be trusted to preserve national identity. In short, Howard may not fear 'western' influences overall but he was concerned about importing values from more small 'l' liberal countries such as Canada or from those European countries that have instituted same-sex marriage or civil unions. Australian identity, for Howard, is a socially conservative one.

  24. The differences between Mahathir and his Australian counterpart on a range of cultural and economic issues have been alluded to above. However, from the point of view of people in same-sex relationships, the shared heteronormative elements of the two politicians' arguments are clear. Unlike Mahathir, Howard does not support male homosexuality being illegal, and that is a crucial difference. However, both Howard and Mahathir see heterosexual families and heterosexual relationships as the bedrock of their respective countries' political and social values. Both fear the threat of other countries' more favourable attitudes to homosexuality being imposed on their own nations.
  25. So, Mahathir and Howard have turned out to have relatively similar views in some respects. That may seem 'strange' given their many other differences but is not so surprising in the context of widespread heteronormativity—indeed, the use of 'strange' in the title to this article is intended to be ironic (and references queerness). Lgbtq communities in particular countries will need to develop culturally-specific strategies at both local and international level that are relevant to their own identities and needs. One cannot assume that recognition would even be a desired strategy, much less a priority in some cultures. There are also other cultural differences that need to be addressed in strategies for recognition. For example, unlike in Australia, any strategies for legal reform in Malaysia would have to take into account not only government laws but also the role of Islamic Syariah courts.[62] Strategies will need to take into account the specific religious, nationalist and other contexts in which politicians are formulating their discourses. So, for example, activists may need to contest what conceptions of 'Asian' or 'Australian' identity should mean, which 'values' are desirable, which interpretations (if any) of religious texts should influence government and whether minority sexualities are colonial or indigenous.
  26. Nonetheless, cross-cultural lgbtq communities may have a common interest in opposing the ways in which conservative politicians construct heterosexuality as the only legitimate form of citizenship. The comparison of Howard's and Mahathir's heteronormative discourses in this article has itself provided a critique of the way in which Mahathir constructs support for homosexual rights as western. While lgbtq identities may differ, the identity of the mainstream Malaysian and Australian citizen remains heterosexual. It is that heteronormative construction of citizenship which also poses the major barrier to recognition of lgbtq relationships or other legal reforms. So, the comparative politics of lgbtq relationships is both more varied, and more similar, than it might at first appear.


    (Note that surnames and first names are listed in the above text in the order in which the authors themselves list them, e.g Antonia Chao but Chou Wah-Shan).

    I would like to acknowledge the helpful comments provided by the journal's editors and anonymous referees.

    [1] This paper was originally presented at Genders, Sexualities and Rights in Asia: 1st International Conference of Asian Queer Studies, held in Bangkok, Thailand, 7-9 July, 2005 at a 'Cross-Cultural Roundtable on Sexual Relationships and their Political Recognition.'

    [2] Unfortunately, it has not been possible to analyse the full range of lgbtq issues in a paper of this length and it has been necessary to focus on same-sex issues, with only brief mention of some others, e.g. transgender and transsexual issues. As this paper makes clear, there is no common terminology that can be legitimately used across cultures, and any attempt will be inadequate. The term lgbtq (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual) is used here because it was the one used by the organisers of the Sexualities, Genders and Rights in Asia conference.

    [3] Baden Offord & Leon Cantrell, 'Homosexual rights as human rights in Indonesia and Australia,' in Gay and Lesbian Asia: Culture, Identity, Community, ed. Gerard Sullivan & Peter A. Jackson, New York: Harrington Park Press, 2001, pp. 233-252, p. 243.

    [4] Peter A. Jackson, 'Pre-gay, post-queer: Thai perspectives on proliferating gender/sex diversity in Asia,' in Gay and Lesbian Asia: Culture, Identity, Community, ed. Gerard Sullivan & Peter A. Jackson, New York: Harrington Park Press, 2001, pp. 1-26, p. 15.

    [5] Peter A. Jackson, Fran Martin & Mark McLelland, 'Re-placing Queer Studies: reflections on the Queer Matters Conference (King's College, London, May 2004),' in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 6(2) (2005):299-311.

    [6] Chou Wah-Shan, Tongzhi: the Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies, New York: Haworth Press, 2000, p. 5; Chou Wah-Shan, 'Homosexuality and the cultural politics of Tonghzhi in Chinese societies,' in Gay and Lesbian Asia: Culture, Identity, Community, ed. Gerard Sullivan & Peter A. Jackson, New York: Harrington Park Press, 2001, pp. 27-46, pp. 32-33.

    [7] Chou, 'Homosexuality and the Cultural Politics of Tonghzhi,' p. 32.

    [8] Antonia Chao, '"How come I can't stand guarantee for my own life?": Taiwan citizenship and the cultural logic of queer identity,' in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 3 (December 2002):369-81. The everyday life issues for diasporic Chinese have been analysed, albeit with a relatively 'western' resolution, in the 2004 film, Saving Face, set in Flushing, New York (dir. Alice Wu).

    [9] Jackson, 'Pre-Gay, Post-Queer,' p. 21.

    [10] Mahathir Mohamad, Democracy, Human Rights, EAEC and Asian Values: Selected Speeches 1, ed. Hashim Makaruddin, Subang Jaya, Selangor: Penduluk Publications, 2000, pp. 31, 37; Mahathir Mohamad, Reflections on Asia, Subang Jaya, Selangor: Pelanduk Publications, 2002, p. 63.

    [11] Department of Statistics, Malaysia, Press Statement, Population and Housing Census 2000, URL:, site accessed 20 April 2006.

    [12] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Online Year Book Australia, 2004, URL:, site accessed 15 May 2006.

    [13] Australian Government, DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), 'Advancing the national interest: Australia's foreign and trade policy white paper,' Canberra: DFAT, 2003, pp. 1, 2, URL:, site accessed 6 April 2005.

    [14] See United Nations Press Release HR4619, UN, 31 July 2002, URL:,site accessed 23 July 2006; and UNHRC, United Nations Press Release, 24 March, UN 2000, URL:, site accessed 23 July 2006.

    [15] See United Nations Human Rights Committee 'Communication No 941/2000: Australia. 18/09/2003 CCPR/C/78/D/941/2000. (Jurisprudence),' URL:, site accessed 9 June 2005 (no longer available).

    [16] See New South Wales state laws explained at Lawlink NSW, 'Transgender discrimination – your rights,' URL:, site accessed 26 April 2006; and the Victorian state laws explained at Over the Rainbow, 'Legal Status of Transgender People,' URL:, site accessed 26 April 2006.

    [17] Luke McIlven, 'Williams moves to annul valid same-sex union,' Australian, 10 January 2002: p. 6.

    [18] John Howard, 'Address to the National Marriage Forum,' Parliament House, Canberra, 4 August, 2004, URL:, site accessed 28 September 2004; John Howard, The Australian, 24 January 1996; For a more detailed analysis of Howard's discourse than can be provided here see Carol Johnson, 'Heteronormative citizenship: the Howard government's views on gay and lesbian issues,' in Australian Journal of Political Science, 38(1) (2003):45-62, pp. 48-51.

    [19] Howard, Press Conference, Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices, Sydney, 22 December 2005, URL:, site accessed 22 December 2005.

    [20] Johnson, 'Heteronormative citizenship: the Howard government's views,' p. 51; Josephine Ho, 'Is global governance bad for Asian queers?,' Keynote Address, reproduced in Sexualities, Genders and Rights in Asia: 1st International Conference of Asian Queer Studies, Bangkok, 7-9 July, Conference Programme, 2005, pp. 149-61.

    [21] Jenni Millbank, 'Imagining otherness: refugee claims on the basis of sexuality in Canada and Australia,' in Melbourne University Law Review, 26 (April 2002):148-78, p. 148.

    [22] Audrey Yue provided an interesting analysis of this program in her paper, 'Governing (diasporic Asian) sexuality: same-sex migration in Australia,' presented at the Sexualities, Genders and Rights in Asia: 1st International Conference of Asian Queer Studies Conference, Bangkok, 7-9 July 2005.

    [23] Mahathir Mohamad, 'Speech at the 54th UMNO General Assembly,' Putra World Trade Centre, Kuala Lumpur, 19 June, 2003, URL:, site accessed 20 April 2006.

    [24] Mahathir, 'Speech at the 54th UMNO General Assembly.'

    [25] See e.g. Mahathir, Reflections on Asia, p. 92.

    [26] Baden Offord, Homosexual Rights as Human Rights: Activism in Indonesia, Singapore and Australia, Bern: Peter Lang, 2003, p. 45.

    [27] Doris E. Buss, 'Finding the homosexual in women's rights: the Christian right in international politics,' in International Feminist Journal of Politics, 6(2) (2004):257-84, p. 258.

    [28] Howard, 'Address to the National Marriage Forum.'

    [29] Shaun Wilson, 'Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender identification and attitudes to same-sex relationships in Australia and the United States,' in People and Place, 12(4) (2004):15-21.

    [30] Nerida M. Cook & Peter A. Jackson, 'Desiring constructs: transforming sex/gender orders in twentieth-century Thailand,' in Genders and Sexualities in Modern Thailand, ed. Peter A. Jackson & Nerida M. Cook, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1999, pp. 91-104, p. 4.

    [31] See e.g. Suparna Bhaskaran, 'The politics of penetration: Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code,' in Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Society and Culture, ed. Ruth Vanita, New York: Routledge, 2002, pp. 15-29, p. 19; Clive Aspin, 'I didn't have to go to a finishing school to learn how to be gay: Maori gay men's understandings of cultural and sexual identity,' in Life of Brian: Masculinities, Sexualities and Health in New Zealand, ed. Heather Worth, Anna Paris & Louisa Allen, Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2002, pp. 91-104, p. 92; Anna Marie Smith, New Right Discourse on Race and Sexuality: Britain 1968-1990, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 241-42.

    [32] For arguments regarding the feminisation and libidinisation of the non-western 'other,' see Hema Chari, 'Colonial fantasies and postcolonial identities: elaboration of postcolonial masculinity and homoerotic desire,' in Post-colonial Queer: Theoretical Intersections, ed. John C. Hawley, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001, pp. 277-304; Smith, New Right Discourse, pp. 241-42.

    [33] Cook & Jackson, 'Desiring constructs,' pp. 12-13.

    [34] Philip Holden, 'A man and an island: gender and nation in Lee Kuan Yew's The Singapore Story,' in Biography, 24(2) (Spring 2001):401-24.

    [35] Olivia Khoo, 'Sexing the city: Malaysia's new 'cyberlaws' and cyberjaya's queer success,' in Mobile Culture: New Media in Queer Asia, ed. Chris Berry, Fran Martin & Audrey Yue, Durham: Duke University Press, 2003, pp. 222-44, p. 235. This is not to deny that the internet also increases access to western debates and conceptions of gay and lesbian identity. However, Khoo's analysis of internet participation, ranging from online chatrooms to campaigns against Anwar's imprisonment, explores the ways in which 'online participation is a way for the local community to assert agency through integration, collaboration, and a sharing of differences rather than their suppression,' p. 235. The growth of internet sites such as Fridae ( with its proclaimed aim of 'Empowering Gay Asia' also emphasises the potentially regional nature of internet use.

    [36] Khoo, 'Sexing the city,' p. 230-35.

    [37] The Malaysian section 377 was derived from the identically numbered section 377 in the colonial Indian Penal Code and which has been analysed by Bhaskaran in 'The Politics of Penetration.'

    [38] Howard, 'Interview with Virginia Trioli,' Radio 3LO, 9 August 2000,, site accessed 15 April 2005.

    [39] Alexander Downer, 'Transcript of Media Doorstop,' 10 August, Perth: DFAT, 2000, URL:; Alexander Downer, 'Interview with Liam Bartlett,' ABC Radio, 10 August, 2000, URL:, site accessed 14 April 2005.

    [40] Mahathir Mohamad, Interview with Mark Davis, Dateline, SBS Australia, 19 May, 2004,, site accessed 5 April 2005.

    [41] Pamela Williams, The Victory, St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997, p. 14.

    [42] Marion Maddox, For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics, Canberra: Department of the Parliamentary Library, 2001, pp. 222-25.

    [43] Diane Richardson, 'Claiming citizenship? Sexuality, citizenship and lesbian/feminist theory,' in Sexualities, 3 (May 2000):255-72. See further Carol Johnson, 'Heteronormative citizenship and the politics of passing,' in Sexualities, 5 (August 2002):316-36.

    [44] Howard, 'Address to the National Marriage Forum'; George W. Bush, 'President George W. Bush, President Called for Constitutional Amendment Protecting Marriage,' 24 February, 2004, URL:, site accessed 25 August 2004.

    [45] Howard, 'Address to the National Marriage Forum'; Mahathir Mohamad, Globalisation, Smart Partnership and Government, Selected Speeches 2, ed. Hashim Makaruddin, Subang Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 2000, p. 134.

    [46] Barbara Watson Andaya & Leonard Y. Andaya, A History of Malaysia, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2nd ed., 2001, p. 332; see further Mahathir, 'Speech at the 54th UMNO General Assembly.'

    [47] Wan Aziza, Interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation, cited in PlanetOut, August 8, 2000, URL:, site accessed 14 April 2004.

    [48] AFP, 'Malaysia's laws on gay sex need to be amended: Anwar,' Malaysia Today, 11 November 2004, URL:, site accessed 16 April 2006.

    [49] Mahathir Mohamad, 'Opening of the tenth session of the Islamic Summit Conference,' Putrajaya, 16 October 2003, URL:, site accessed 27 October 2003 (no longer available); Mahathir, 'Building and shaping prosperity: giving a human dimension to globalisation,' The Asian Global Leadership Forum: The Pangkor Retreat, 8 September 2002, URL, site accessed 15 September 2002 (no longer available).

    [50] Mahathir, 'Opening of the tenth session of the Islamic Summit Conference'; Jim Wafer, 'Muhummad and Male Homosexuality,' in Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History and Literature, ed. Stephen O. Murray & Will Roscoe, New York & London: New York University Press, 1997, pp. 87-96; Irshad Manji, The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith, NSW: Random House Australia, 2003, pp. 24-26.

    [51] On local transgender and transsexual terminology and identifications see Yik Koon Teh, 'Country Report: Malaysia,', site accessed 11 April 2006 and Yik Koon Teh, The Mak Nyas: Malaysian Male to Female Transsexuals, Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2002, p. 17. For further information on the legal position of Malaysian transsexuals, see Wong Ee Lynn, 'Neither here nor there: the legal dilemma of the transsexual community in Malaysia,' The Malaysian Bar, and Honey Tan Lay Ean, 'JeffreyJessie: Recognising Transsexuals,' The Malaysian bar,, both sites accessed 20 April 2006.

    [52] Howard, 'Address to the National Marriage Forum.'

    [53] Howard, radio interview cited in 'Libs draw line on gays,' Australian 24 January 1996: 3; it is, of course, only minority sexualities that he says should be private matters or unrecognised by government.

    [54] AFP, 'Malaysia's laws on gay sex.'

    [55] See Johnson, 'Heteronormative citizenship and the politics of passing.'

    [56] See gay Australian High Court Judge Michael Kirby's speech at the Medico-legal Society of Malaysia's Professional Conference on 'Medicine, law and human rights in the new millennium,' n.d.,, site accessed 13 May 2006.

    [57] See Johnson, 'Heteronormative citizenship and the politics of passing.'

    [58] See further Carol Johnson, 'Anti-Elitist Discourse in Australia: international influences and comparisons,' in Us and Them: Anti-Elitist Discourse in Australia, ed. Marion Sawer & Barry Hindess, Nedlands, Western Australia: API Network, 2004, pp. 117-36; Carol Johnson, Governing change: from Keating to Howard, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2000, pp. 38-69.

    [59] Senate Hansard, Australia, 12 August, 2004, pp. 26508, 26545.

    [60] Senate Hansard, Australia, 12 August, 2004, p. 26550.

    [61] Howard, 'Address to the National Marriage Forum.'

    [62] See, for example, arguments regarding the legal recognition of transsexuals in Honey Tan Lay Ean, 'JeffreyJessie.'


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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