When Malaysia’s only openly homosexual pastor announced he was establishing the nation’s first gay church, the proposal was met with a torrent of outrage and criticism.
Reverend Ouyang Wen Feng faced down threats to block the plan by government and religious leaders who said it would encourage homosexuality – still a crime punishable by 20 years in jail in the Muslim-majority nation.
The church he co-founded has however been operating quietly in suburban Kuala Lumpur for the past three years, drawing a group of gay Christians for Sunday services and bible studies.
Ouyang’s battle is part of a campaign being fought on many fronts in Malaysia, where there is a growing sense of activism among the gay community which is beginning to mobilise to fight for its rights.
“We are working on encouraging more people to join the church, for Christians to come out and live authentic lives,” says the pastor, who was married for nine years until he “came out” publicly in 2006.
“Whether one is gay or straight or bisexual, they are sexual orientations; it is not something we do that makes us gay.”
Ouyang says the church, which also embraces bisexuals and transsexuals as well as welcoming heterosexuals to its services, wants to help the community know they are not “alone in fighting the battle.”
“When I was young, how I wished someone who was good, highly admired and respected in the society could come out and tell me ‘I am gay too,'” says the 40-year-old.
Homosexuality remains a social taboo across the racial and religious spectrum in Malaysia, a conservative country which is also home to large ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.
Gay men and women are a visible presence out in public, and on the Internet where they are connected through online forums.
However, authorities periodically crack down on the thriving gay scene, carrying out raids at gay-friendly bars or massage parlours, leaving some with a constant fear of persecution.
Few feel they can declare their sexuality openly, and there was a dearth of groups representing the community until 2008, when the first “Seksualiti Merdeka” or “Sexual Independence” festival was held.
Organiser Pang Khee Teik, an art gallery owner, said he was inspired by rising activism in the region.
India and Nepal have de-criminalised homosexuality in recent years, in Thailand the annual Gay Pride festival is being revived, and even in conservative Indonesia there is an annual gay film festival.
“We thought the time was right to replicate something similar in Malaysia,” Pang says. “We are trying to tell people: you have sexual rights whether the state recognises it or not.”
“The long-term goal could be the repeal of laws against sodomy and oral sex for instance,” says Pang, adding that anti-discrimination laws are also needed.
The annual festival, which includes talks, music performances and film screenings, has seen the number of participants double from 400 in 2008 to about 800 last year.
It will be held for the third time later this year and has managed to avoid any action from protesters or the authorities, partly due to efforts to keep it low-key.
But religious figures who have an influential role in Malaysian society remain vehemently opposed to the new mood. A top religious body in 2008 also issued a “fatwa” or Islamic religious ban on lesbian sex.
“Homosexuality is going to destroy the world as we are not thankful to God’s creation and we are going against His wishes,” says outspoken Islamic cleric Harussani Zakaria.
“Homosexuality is a very bad thing. God has created men and women. How can it be man with man, and woman with woman?”
The gay community takes heart from small steps, including a recent Malaysian Film Censorship Board decision to reverse a ban on the depiction of homosexuality and allow gay characters to be featured in films.
But in an indication of the distance campaigners still have to go, the new guidelines also stipulate that gay characters must repent or go straight before the credits roll.
“They recognise that we do exist and that is a something positive, at least,” says Azri, who has a boyfriend of five years, as he sips coffee at one of Kuala Lumpur’s upmarket shopping malls.
“My ideal world is to be recognised as a couple and enjoy the rights just like any other heterosexual couples,” says the boyish-looking 28-year-old.
“We can’t rush; we are slowly building the momentum.”