Malaysia's anti-gay camp

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Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. 66 Muslim schoolboys in Malaysia are at camp this week. It's not your typical camp though. The teenage boys have been identified by their teachers as effeminate. For that reason, they're receiving four days of religious and physical education and counseling on masculine behavior. The goal of the camp is to discourage the boys from being gay. Gay rights activists are criticizing the measure. Malaysia's women's minister says the camp is illegal and should be abolished. The BBC's Jennifer Pak is Kuala Lumpur speaking to us on an internet phone line. Jennifer, first, how long have these camps existed?

Jennifer Pak: Well, these camps do exist across the country. Most of them though usually appear on university campuses, but gay rights activists say this is the first time that they're hearing it actually at the school level. Now, in the very conservative state of Terengganu, teachers last year were asked to identify boys who displayed feminine qualities. What criteria this was based on is still unknown, but the state educators say that they were exhibiting behavior that was not normal for boys their age. And these are all students between the ages of 13 and 17. Now, these students as you say, are then encouraged to join a four-day camp consisting of religious and physical education. And gay rights activists say that this is a worrying trend, that you know, before it might've happened on university campuses, but now it's moved down to the school levels. And it's happening in an environment when children are supposed to be nurtured and you know, loved and able to express their personalities and their identities. And that's why they've come out very strongly against such camps.

Mullins: What do we know about what actually goes on at these camps?

Pak: Well, there's very few details that are provided. What the state educators say is that they will be undergoing religious and physical education, being taught by motivational speakers. But what some gay rights activists say is that it's just one of those things where they train these boys this is what masculine behavior is, this is what is normal, and this is what girls are traditionally supposed to do. Now, even in the newspapers today, they have psychologists kind of putting the blame on parents for encouraging boys to develop these feminine traits. And some of the reasons they gave are you know, sometimes they might dress up these boys in girls' clothing at a very young age; or perhaps asked boys to do household chores without properly explaining to them that usually this is done by women. So, it's quite unclear what goes on at these camps, but gay rights activists you know, have said that they haven't heard many good things coming out from these camps.

Mullins: In fact, there's one gay rights activist that you spoke with. His name is Ponki Tick and he is a campaigner for sexual rights there in Malaysia. He says also that as a teenager he had his own experience at one of these camps. Let's hear from him.

Ponki Tict: I myself had to go to something similar when I was young in what they called reparative therapy. And that killed my spirit for 12 years. For 12 years I tried to go straight and obviously, it didn't work. But it was 12 dark and lonely years. But I still today consider myself very lucky. I can now look back on those years and see that maybe unnecessarily stunted my growth. However, my concern is for the young boys who might not survive that and we all know across the world that the suicide rate, the suicide attempt rates is very high for LGBTs, especially for when they are being forced to conform to certain behavior that they know they cannot conform to no matter how hard they try.

Pak: Now, he referred to the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transexual community, the LGBT there. In addition to that, in Malaysia there was one person earlier this year that faced a lot of harassment for coming out and expressing that he is gay. And that's because he is Malay, and by definition according to the constitution, he is Muslim. So in this campaign, it was a sexual awareness campaign, he came out along with a Chinese person and also an Indian person to encourage people to feel comfortable with who they are. Now, he faced a lot of harassment and only him from the Muslim community, from religious officials who said that they want to take action against him using Sharia law. And also he received some death threats as well for posting the video saying that he is a traitor to his race and also his religion because Islam forbids homosexuality. In Kuala Lumpur here, although you do see people who are cross dressers, gay people who walk about freely and are not necessarily harassed on a daily basis, gay rights activists say that life is getting tougher for them in Malaysia.

Mullins: There is this one minister as we mentioned, this is the women's minister. Her name is Shahrizat Abdul Jalil. Is she the only one who's calling for the camp to close, saying it's illegal?

Pak: Yeah, at the moment she is the only one who is calling for the abolishment of this camp, because she says it violates the child act which protects children without prejudices. And she says that by singling out these children based on perceived characteristics it could traumatize these kids, harm their mental health, and expose them to prejudices among their peers, their family members, and as well as the community; and that's why there is a strong push for her and among rights groups for this camp to close down.

Mullins: So what happens now?

Pak: Well, the camp is wrapping up later this week. And it doesn't seem as if there is any move to stop this program, aside from the minister's call for it. State educators have defended this program saying that this is not mandatory, they are asking the boys to join it if they want to. Their real concern is that if these boys are allowed to carry on with their effeminate qualities and behavior then they could possibly turn out gay or transexual. That's not to say that there aren't transexuals or transvestites in Malaysia, but they say that they want to limit the number.

Mullins: Thank you for speaking with us, the BBC's Jennifer Pak in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Pak: Thank you.