“I came out to my parents last night,” Ros* tells me nonchalantly. “It was probably the eighth time I came out to them in the past fifteen years.”
Ros is gay, or, as they prefer to describe themselves, “a raging homosexual”. It was something they’d known since their teenage years. Ros’ repeated coming out story is common to LGBTQ people in Brunei—a country that looks down upon anything that falls outside of the heterosexual norm. Like many, Ros’ parents refuses to acknowledge their homosexuality.
The stories of LGBTQ lives in Brunei are often hidden from the public eye. Love stories written and celebrated in the country are usually between men and women. Social media influencers are usually in heterosexual relationships; the one openly gay DJ keeps their Instagram account private.
This suppression of LGBTQ representation and experiences is the result of an institutionalised oppression, trickling down from Brunei’s lawmakers and religious elite to individuals choosing to stay in the closet out of fear of repercussions from not only family, but peers and society at large.
Laws and regulations
It’s technically not illegal to be gay in Brunei, but many LGBTQ individuals are fearful of expressing their sexuality. Salmah* says she wishes she could be open about the fact that she’s bisexual, but she’s afraid of the Internal Security Department. She was shocked to discover that it wasn’t actually illegal to be bisexual; she hadn’t known that the law only outlaws acting on sexual urges, both in terms of premarital sex between heterosexual couples and intercourse between same-sex couples. It’s unsurprising—Bruneian society has long projected the impression that just being queer is wrong, so many assume that homosexuality itself is criminalised.
Like other former colonies, Section 377 of Brunei’s penal code was inherited from the days of British rule. The law criminalises any form of penetration between men. If found guilty of this “unnatural offence”, individuals can be punished with up to 10 years’ imprisonment and/or a fine.
This regulation is also reflected in the new syariah penal code, which attracted the attention of the Western media regarding Brunei’s treatment of LGBTQ people as it was being introduced and implemented. The syariah penal code, first announced in 2013, criminalises adultery and sodomy by punishing those involved with a fine, whipping or death by stoning. It also forbids musahaqah, acts of sexual nature between women. Punishment for these acts can include fines of up to BND40,000 (USD29,903), or a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment with 40 strokes. The code is currently in the process of being implemented.
A more complicated reality
The international media were quick to jump on Brunei—usually a much-overlooked country when it comes to global news coverage—during the early phases of the syariah penal code’s introduction, painting a picture of the country as out to punish LGBTQ people in public, but the reality is more complex.
Despite Section 377 remaining on the books, there has been no known case of an individual brought to court on sodomy charges, whether under the statute or the new syariah penal code. It’s also not that easy to prove that illegal sexual acts under the new syariah law—both heterosexual or homosexual—have taken place. Four male witnesses must be present during the conduct of the sexual act before there can be a conviction; video recordings are considered invalid as proof.
But the very presence of such laws can have an impact. “[S]uch penalties are there to act as a deterrent and there is no greater deterrent than the fear of what might happen if you get caught,” writes Matthew Woolfe, founder of The Brunei Project in an email to New Naratif.
Another possible reason for the lack of prosecutions could be the community’s own reticence. “Just like the broader Bruneian society, the LGBTQ community is much more conservative than in many other countries and are much less visible, therefore attracting less attention,” Woolfe explains. However, with increasing number of individuals outing themselves on social media, a change in how authorities deal with LGBTQ people in the future is possible, particularly with the full implementation of the syariah law.
There are concerns that “the authorities will become more stringent in enforcing laws that directly impact LGBTQ Bruneians,” Woolfe says, pointing to instances of LGBTQ individuals being fined for cross-dressing under the syariah penal code. Transgender individuals are forbidden from changing their gender on official documents, putting them in a difficult position.
Why is cross-dressing illegal in everyday life, but considered entertainment when it’s up on a public stage?
Despite these penalties, a well-known comedian who dresses up as a woman for his performances has not faced any legal action. This discrepancy has led to questions about when the line is crossed, and who gets to make that call. Why is cross-dressing illegal in everyday life, but considered entertainment when it’s up on a public stage?
A wider lack of awareness and education has also proven to be a stumbling block to acceptance. “Unless they know someone who identifies as LGBTQ, most Bruneians know very little about what it means to be LGBTQ because there are no education programs in schools or in the community that help people to understand ideas around diversity and the challenges faced by those who do not conform to a certain mold,” says Woolfe.
With so much stigma and uncertainty, it’s not always easy for LGBTQ people to find each other. Some say they make compromises or find ways to work around society’s strict gender norms. There are cases of queer people entering straight marriages; while many might have been forced into marriage by their families, some are also the result of agreements between gay men and women to maintain a facade of social acceptability. A lesbian woman interviewed by New Naratif got married because she wanted a child; she and her husband maintain an open relationship based on mutual understanding.
The political climate
Despite all these issues, there’s a dearth of activism and advocacy on LGBTQ issues in Brunei. It’s not necessarily a lack of interest in LGBTQ equality, but indicative of the Bruneian political landscape—a culture of fear keeps Bruneians from speaking out and challenging authority.
It’s a wariness that perhaps goes back to the failed 1962 Brunei Revolt, where a group of insurgents who opposed the monarchy of Brunei, as well as the plan to join the Malaysian Federation, took up arms to attack police stations, government facilities and the oil town of Seria. Over five decades later, the insurrection is still seen as a taboo subject in the country; there’s a sense that openly talking about this period of history might lead to questions over one’s loyalty.
This taboo extends to any form of critique towards government and royal institutions; individuals have been charged with sedition for speaking ill of the monarchy or critically on religious matters. As part of its Freedom in the World 2018 report, Freedom House categorised Brunei as “not free”, with an aggregate score of 28 out of 100 (100 being the most free).
“There is a very real fear in Brunei about publicly speaking out and even about raising genuine concerns because of the perceived repercussions if caught,” Woolfe says.
With most of their basic needs met (and more), it’s unsurprising that many Bruneians choose not to rock the boat
Fear of repercussion isn’t the only thing keeping Bruneians from speaking out. A wealthy nation blessed with extensive petroleum and natural gas fields, the government has been able to provide a comfortable life for most of its population: there’s free healthcare and education, subsidies for fuel and certain foodstuffs, an affordable national housing scheme and welfare for the poor and people with disabilities. With most of their basic needs met (and more), it’s unsurprising that many choose not to rock the boat.
There’s therefore a lack of official or established institutions within the country working on not only on LGBTQ rights, but any form of human rights. But there have been small initiatives and efforts to get the stories of LGBTQ people in Brunei out, employing subtle methods to avoid becoming targets.
Small, careful efforts
“There are no formal organisations or support networks dedicated to LGBTQ advocacy in Brunei and such are the laws and regulations concerning the formation of formal organisations that any attempt to establish such an organisation is most certainly guaranteed to fail,” Woolfe tells New Naratif.
“As such, social media remains the primary avenue for advocacy and provides a degree of security for advocates by allowing them to protect their identities, while also reaching a wide audience.”
Both Songket Alliance and The Brunei Project do not openly advocate for the repeal of laws or the legalisation of same-sex marriage, but choose instead of provide space for personal narratives to humanise LGBTQ individuals
Songket Alliance, an indie webzine, has been publishing stories of minorities in Brunei for several years now, under the column “Bruneian Me”. A handful of those stories, as well as a several others outside the column, touch on the lives of LGBTQ people in Brunei.
The Brunei Project is also works to highlighting human rights issues in Brunei, mainly through Facebook. On 8 March 2018, the page published a story from Khairul, a gay man demanding acceptance from Bruneian society.
“Sadly, support services for people like Khairul who are coming to terms with their sexuality or who may be confused about their identity and what they are feeling are lacking in Brunei,” The Brunei Project wrote in its post before referring those in need of support to Oogachaga, a Singapore-based LGBTQ-friendly counselling service.
Both Songket Alliance and The Brunei Project do not openly advocate for the repeal of laws or the legalisation of same-sex marriage, but choose instead of provide space for personal narratives to humanise LGBTQ individuals to encourage understanding and empathy among Bruneians as a first step.
At the end of the day, the thing that LGBTQ individuals interviewed by New Naratif want the most is the freedom to be themselves, whether it’s being open about their sexual orientation in society, or at peace with their faith. “I am actively seeking acceptance with my family and religion,” Ros states. “I am gay. I am a Muslim. I can exist in this world. My faith is strong, but my family thinks that my gayness makes me less religious. I feel more religious knowing that my gayness is my struggle in this complex world.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities
CORRECTION: The article had originally mistakenly stated that the syariah penal code was in its third and final phase of implementation. It’s now been corrected—thank you to a New Naratif reader for pointing it out!
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Zaina Abdul is a Bruneian writer and feminist working on expanding sources of the people's narrative.