Malaysia’s only openly gay pastor is urging homosexuals in the mainly Muslim country to “keep coming out” to help battlehomophobia, as he gets set to tie the knot with his American partner.
Reverend Ouyang Wen Feng is a highly controversial figure who faced outrage and threats when he opened in 2007 the first gay-friendly church in conservative Malaysia, where sexual identity is a hot-button topic.
Homosexuality, still a crime punishable by 20 years in jail under Malaysian laws banning sodomy, remains taboo across the racial and religious spectrum in Malaysia, which is home to large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
But Ouyang, a journalist-turned-pastor, said gay men and women should speak out to “break the vicious cycle” and help fight misunderstandings about the gay community.
“When society discriminates against gay people, you only push gay people into the closet,” he told AFP in an interview last week on a visit to Hong Kong to launch a new book on homosexuality and Christianity.
“When gay people stay in the closet, people don’t know what is gay or homosexuality and because of ignorance they keep discriminating and that will perpetuate prejudice,” said the outspoken 41-year-old.
“Gay people cannot just blame straight people for not understanding us.” Ouyang, wearing a flesh-coloured top with a crucifix and tattoos on his shoulder and arm, called on gay Malaysians to show their “true faces and tell them who we are”.
“Gay people should keep coming out and straight people who are okay with homosexuals should also come out to say publicly that being gay is okay — ‘I’m okay with my gay friends’,” he said.
Ouyang’s own “coming out” took place in 2006 when he published the story of his decision to make public his sexual orientation, after a nine-year marriage to his now ex-wife, whom he described as an “angel”.
“She encouraged me to come out. She asked for a divorce, and this is the biggest gift she could ever give me, she literally set me free. I owe her big time,” said the pastor, who grew up in a conservative Christian family.
Ouyang now lives in the United States, where he is pursuing his doctoral degree in theology, while teaching sociology at a college and works as a staff pastor.
But he regularly returns to Malaysia and other parts of Asia to promote awareness of homosexuality. Also a prolific writer, he has published 23 books, about half delving into gay-related themes.
Ouyang said the church he co-founded, which has been operating quietly in suburban Kuala Lumpur, is “growing and developing” and continues to draw gay Christians for Sunday services and bible studies.
“I am not promoting gay culture. I am promoting honesty, love and justice,” he said, in response to the government’s stance that it would not allow the church to run officially and religious leaders’ claims it would encourage homosexuality.
Ouyang has previously said the church — which also embraces bisexual, transsexual and heterosexual people — would help the gay community know they are “not alone in fighting the battle”.
But influential Malaysian religious figures remain vehemently opposed to the growing prominence of the country’s gay community, with a vocal Islamic cleric last year saying homosexuality was “going to destroy the world”.
Authorities periodically raid gay-friendly bars or massage parlours, leaving some with a constant fear of persecution, while a prominent religious body in 2008 issued a fatwa, or Islamic religious ruling, against lesbian sex.
Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is currently on trial accused of sodomising a former aide, which he has repeatedly dismissed as trumped-up charges designed to prevent him from taking power.
Meanwhile Ouyang is set to wed his partner, an African-American Broadway musical producer, after the latter popped the question on June 26 — two days after New York City legalised same-sex marriages.
“It was also the day of our two-year anniversary,” said the pastor.
“He went to the church and he wrote a song for me. He proposed at the end of the song in public,” he smiled, saying the wedding date has yet to be set but the couple are planning to hold a wedding ceremony in the US and in Malaysia.