Thilaga Sulathireh, the non-binary activist scoring wins for queer individuals in Malaysia 

Thilaga who identifies as non-binary is the founder of Justice for Sisters, a human rights organization that focuses on protecting the LGBTQ community. Photo by Coconuts
Thilaga who identifies as non-binary is the founder of Justice for Sisters, a human rights organization that focuses on protecting the LGBTQ community. Photo by Coconuts

Twenty years ago, 15-year-old Thilaga Sulathireh decided to volunteer at the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC). They went from a rookie volunteer making ribbons to eventually being exposed to the realities of society at a very young age. 

Now 35, Thilaga, who identifies as non-binary (pronouns: they/them), is the founder of Justice for Sisters, a human rights organization that focuses on protecting the LGBTQ community, a group of people whose sexual orientation and gender are not limited to just two. 

They run a little late for our interview, dressed in black from head to toe, almost out of breath by the time they reach my table. 

Thilaga apologises for being late and sets off to the cashier to get some food. During this short interaction, I learned that they are vegan and refrain from drinking either coffee or tea (unlike this reporter, who was already on her third cup of coffee at only 11:00 am). 

We make small talk for a bit, and I learn that Thilaga was born and raised in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur, and graduated from Universiti Malaya with a bachelor’s in International Relations and Gender Studies. 

Growing up in a working-class Indian family, Thilaga said the concept of patriarchy wasn’t so strongly embedded in the family as gender roles were usually a little fluid when making ends meet. 

Still, certain biases remained. For example, girls had to look a certain way in order to have a “feminine” presence. 

Although they never did have an official “coming out” with their family, Thilaga told me it was just a gradual change in their outlook that eventually became something of a ‘if you know, you know’ situation, which is not uncommon in most Asian households with queer family members. 

In fact in Malaysia, it is quite normal for families to close an eye on one’s queerness to maintain the “face” of the family, guilt trip them with religion, or punish and shame them, while some are emphatic enough to understand, accept, and love. 

Thilaga being queer is one thing but belonging to the Indian community, despite forming a sizable part of our country’s population that is still struggling with inequality and a lack of inalienable rights, is another. 

According to 2014 data, 227,600 Indian households in Malaysia are in the lower income group aka the Bottom 40% (B40) group. And while not within the majority (2015 statistics saw that Indians made up 8.5% of the total B40 population). Many Malaysian Indians still struggle to make enough to escape this bracket, suffering from greater income inequality compared to other ethnic groups.

“In school, you can only imagine how competitive it was. And because I was a minority, that meant putting in double the effort to make it in academia,” they tell me. 

“You just always had to work harder than everyone else,” they added. 

Where it started 

Thilaga elaborates on how volunteering at the MAC helped them gain insight into the LGBTQ community and developed their interest in research. 

“Working with MAC allowed me to meet and work with a lot of people … those living with HIV, drug users, sex workers, trans people, and gay men which exposed me to the realities of the world at a young age. I knew about safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual and reproductive health issues, and all that from a young age,” Thilaga shares. 

MAC was also the place where they met likeminded people like Nisha Ayub, a renowned human rights activist, and quickly became involved in the struggles the community was facing, from fighting court cases against oppressive state laws to raising public awareness on issues faced by LGBTQ individuals, which is pretty much how JFS came to be. 

Establishing Justice for Sisters

JFS first started out as a grassroots campaign which eventually turned into a non-profit with the aim of raising public awareness about issues surrounding violence and persecution against the Mak Nyah (transwomen) community in Malaysia. 

Thilaga said the non-profit came about in 2010 when the queer community in Malaysia became more outspoken about the discrimination that they were facing. 

They and their colleagues at JFS offer legal referrals for transgenders who face arrests or encounter any other problems.

“We have laws against LGBT people. There is a lot of structural violence as well as systemic violence, and all these have a huge impact on their lives. On top of all that, we have so much hate speech about the LGBT community which negates the public awareness work that is being done.

“What we need is more alliances to empower the LGBT community and help them feel safe. We also need to stand against any rhetoric that promotes hate and discrimination and we need to be consistent. Ask ourselves if we are willing to allow such discrimination,” they assert.

A 71-page report put out by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and JSF, “‘I Don’t Want to Change Myself’: Anti-LGBT Conversion Practices, Discrimination, and Violence in Malaysia,” documents how government officials have fostered a hostile climate in which LGBT and gender-diverse people face discrimination and punishment just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

The two NGOs also examined how criminal penalties, conversion practices that seek to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identities, and anti-LGBT rhetoric from government officials all undermine LGBT people’s basic rights.

They said helping the public understand even basic things like what a trans person is and the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation reduces the discrimination that the community faces in society and in the workforce. 

Small wins for the community

While Thilaga admits that Malaysia’s poor perception and treatment of queer individuals may not change in the near future, they said the country’s justice system, which has issued some rulings in favor of the LGBTQ community in the past, is enough for now. 

A Malaysian man won a landmark court challenge against an Islamic ban on sex that was “against the order of nature” in 2021. Malaysia’s top court ruled unanimously that the Islamic provision used against the man was unconstitutional and that authorities lacked the authority to enact the law.

The lawsuit was filed by a Muslim man in his 30s, whose name has been withheld by his lawyer to protect him, after he was arrested in central Selangor state in 2018 for attempting gay sex, an allegation he denies.

The man who filed the legal challenge contended that Selangor lacked the authority to impose an Islamic ban on “intercourse against the order of nature” when gay sex was already illegal under civil law.

The court agreed, declaring that the state’s power to criminalize such offences “is subject to a constitutional limit”, chief justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat wrote in the ruling.

Meanwhile, in 2020, the High Court quashed a ban on a local book titled Gay is OK!, a ban that was implemented by the Home Ministry. 

According to the grounds of judgment, the court found there was no “evidence or legal factual basis for the minister’s justification which forms the basis of the ban” — in reference to the then Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin.

These are just a few examples of court rulings that have ruled against prosecuting the minority community. 

“Sure, it may not be a super big win but it also means that something is changing which means there is hope,” Thilaga said. 

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