"Love Is Love" — Meet The Trailblazer Who Broke The Mould For LGBTQ+ Rights In Malaysia

"One day, the laws will change, and we will no longer be criminals."

Cover image via Pang Khee Teik (Provided to SAYS) & Rob Maxwell/Unsplash

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What does it truly mean to live a life worth living? Is it in the clothes you wear or the food you eat?

Or is it in standing for something that could change the world around you, as you see it?

47-year-old Pang Khee Teik (or as he likes to be referred to, Pang) has lived a fulfilling life that can only be described as nothing less than epic in every proportion.

An enigma to many, members of the public may know him for his unwavering activism, courageous actions, and outspoken perspectives. But who really is the man behind the legend that worked, and keeps working, for acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community of Malaysia?

Born and raised in Melaka, Pang was thrust into a world of self-reliance and independence at a young age

Pang describes his first encounter with understanding himself at the ripe age of 14.

While studying in Singapore, Pang came to terms with his queerness, and was uncertain about how his future would pan out upon learning more about himself. In time, he made the conscious effort to join a Christian fellowship, and began taking steps to try and become straight.

"I joined a ministry to help me when I was 17, and continued with it for about eight years. Through those years, I really hated myself. I felt like I did not deserve to achieve much in my life, until I dealt with that part of me, until I learned to become straight," Pang shared with SAYS.

Image for illustration purposes only.

Image via Denin Lawley/Unsplash

Through his suffering, came an outlook that he hoped would give him a chance to make a difference, while staying true to his God-given gifts

At the time of his dedication to the church, Pang realised that trying to be straight made him miserable, as he was not living authentically. But from the despondence, came seemingly, a way out.

"I pursued a lot in the arts to compensate for being gay, I felt the need to make myself 'useful' to God, and I offered a lot of things as a service through the church."

Despite his good intentions, everything came to a standstill when Pang was told by his best friend at the time that their pastor informed him not to associate himself too closely with Pang, as he would 'influence him' negatively. After learning of the mongering that was going on behind his back, Pang made a conscious effort to distance himself from the church. As of today, Pang considers himself an atheist.

"I cut myself off from other communities, thinking this was for me. And for my pastor to go around telling people not to hang out with me, it was taking a community away from me. I felt utterly aloneI asked myself, what's wrong with love? If I'm miserable being straight, maybe I should try the misery of being gay, and choose for myself," said Pang, speaking of his past experiences.

After returning to Malaysia, a media scandal that rocked the nation would eventually bring Pang into the world of activism — somewhat, a gift from an angel

In 2003, Pang became aware of a campaign that was pushed by certain media outlets and politicians at the time, vilifying the image of 'lelaki lembut', otherwise known as soft men. The degradation against gay men continued to rage on, and shortly after, it was expanded into the roles of 'wanita keras', criticising the negative visualisation and stereotyping of lesbians.

Living with three other writers at the time, Pang and his housemates took action by sending a letter to SUHAKAM, responding to such nasty portrayals.

"It was a beautiful moment, because it brought some of us together, especially those who were supporting the women's movement of the time."

Among those people included the late politician and women's rights activist, Toni Kasim, who passed away in 2008 from cancer.

Pang (fourth from the right) and Toni Kasim (second from the left), among other writers, responding to SUHAKAM.

Image via Pang Khee Teik (Provided to SAYS)

"My friendship with Toni was one of the most magical moments in my life. She convinced a bunch of us to attend the first BERSIH rally in 2007. A bunch of us who wanted to be part of the movement for democracy in Malaysia saw ourselves as part of something bigger, as part of the story of Malaysia, it meant something," said Pang.

A big impact that primarily tipped the scales for Pang happened one day when Toni, who was active in aiding victims of police brutality, told him a couple of stories that changed his perspective on staying silent for too long. Nonetheless, Toni never said anything further to Pang beyond the telling of those stories.

"These stories broke my heart. I suddenly saw myself complicit — they use our names and say they're doing it to protect us, and to protect public safety. If I stay silent, I am part of the problemShe never made me feel guilty, but it was definitely a window to think about my activism and that my silence has a cost," uttered Pang.

Pang and Toni Kasim.

Image via Pang Khee Teik (Provided to SAYS)

But before Pang could head into the world and live his truth entirely, some things at home needed to be taken care of first

Describing the series that is his life, Pang came out to his parents as a proud gay man at 26, yet, it wasn't that instance that would be the most challenging for him. According to Pang, while his parents accepted him as a gay man, they wondered why he needed to tell the whole world of his identity.

Things came to a blow in 2011 when Pang appeared in the news after a sexuality rights festival he co-founded, called Seksualiti Merdeka, was banned on grounds of potentially causing public disorder.

Describing how his mother felt, Pang stated, "Her concern came from the fact that it is not easy to live openly as a gay man in Malaysia. I explained to her, 'When we were young, you'd tell us to do the right thing, and I feel this is the right thing'."

Determined to push through, Pang did just that, and continued his steady efforts.

Image for illustration purposes only.

Image via BU Experts

Pushing forward to make a better tomorrow for the LGBTQ+ community in Malaysia, Pang had a clear vision for what he wanted his activism to be.

Little did he know, the challenges were only just beginning.

While Pang had a slew of personal successes, including acting as the co-founder for the Seksualiti Merdeka festival, the Art for Grabs bazaars, and even running a gallery for young artists to feature their artwork, his vision for making spaces for the LGBTQ+ community was simple.

"When I first started coming out, I was a writer and I wanted to tell my stories. So, I started writing, and I would try to be as honest and as raw as I could. I did it because I wish there were stories like this when I was growing up."

Showing that it is possible to create safe spaces by themselves, for themselves, Pang demonstrated how with enough care for your own community, you could make waves to change the current standpoint.

"I knew telling my stories would be challenging and difficult, many would try to silence me and take away my platform — and they have."

Pang with actor and playwright, Jit Murad, at the launch of Seksualiti Merdeka in 2008.

Image via Pang Khee Teik (Provided to SAYS)

Pang with the poster of Art for Grabs in 2018.

Image via Pang Khee Teik (Provided to SAYS)

While Pang was spared from the barbarity of the raid on Seksualiti Merdeka in 2011, his eventual arrest for organising the Art For Grabs bazaar in 2018 panned out in a rather unexpected manner. Activist Fahmi Reza, who had a booth at the Art for Grabs bazaar in 2016, had all his pieces confiscated when authorities visited the scene.

Furthering his thoughts, Pang noted that the most tiring part of creating events is managing the risks that come with organising it to begin with. Even so, the harshest moments also included a lack of allyship when the troubles arose. Recalling an art exhibition in Penang, Pang mentioned that his portrait had to be taken down by demand of the authorities.

Having opened spaces and created gatherings for an array of activism, the most tiring part was not having anyone who fought for him. 

"How crazy it is, that just to organise an event for your community, we have to be prepared to find exits, be arrested, and protested against. [Having my portrait taken down] made me feel like my country was telling me, you have no space on the wall, regardless of your contribution.

"The curators of the festival complied with the demands so the whole show wouldn't be in jeopardy. It made me sad, because those allies who supposedly create a space for you, are also the first ones to give in. They say it's for the bigger picture, so does that mean I am not part of that bigger picture?" Pang lamented.

(Left): Fahmi Reza the day after his arrest and confiscation of artwork. He arrived at his booth and set it up empty nonetheless. (Right): Pang at the Sentul Police Station.

Image via Pang Khee Teik (Provided to SAYS)

Despite it all, Pang remains hopeful and open to a future of possibilities, where the LGBTQ+ community can live freely without judgement in society

"I hope people see the LGBTQ+ community as part of the project in creating a better present and future for everyone. We're invested, and we have things to learn from each other."

Appreciating all the good intentions people have when it comes to fighting for the LGBTQ+ community of Malaysia, Pang's message for what the public can do to create safer spaces is simple: Listen.

"Creating a safe space doesn't necessarily mean people will feel safe again. More work must be done for them to feel safe to reach you."

Pang speaking at the launch of the Annex Gallery in 2007.

Image via Pang Khee Teik (Provided to SAYS)

And with Singapore having taken the first step to decriminalise the sodomy law for their nation, Pang conveyed his feelings and what this could mean for Malaysia in the future.

"I believe one day, we will all be accepted, fully. One day, the laws will change, and we will no longer be criminals. We will be citizens and we will be human beings. It will happen, it's not going to be easy, but when we look back on this point, we will be able to see stories like ours."

All our stories will matter
Pang Khee Teik

Saluting his ever evolving journey, SAYS applauds all of Pang's efforts, and the progress this holds for the future of LGBTQ+ citizens in Malaysia

Image for illustration purposes only.

Image via Michele Wales/Unsplash

All this month, SAYS will be featuring inspiring stories of extraordinary Malaysian changemakers in collaboration with Wiki Impact

Wiki Impact is an online platform dedicated to the impact industry. They share stories and data on issues that matter, highlighting impact-driven organisations and changemakers on the ground. Categories include poverty alleviation, social justice, gender equality, healthcare and education for all, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, impact influencers, and more!

Find out more here.

Image via SAYS

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