Futuristic skyscrapers coexist harmoniously alongside mosques, Catholic churches, Buddhist temples, and Hindu shrines in Malaysia’s capital city, but it’s also a place where homosexuality is taboo and sodomy remains a criminal offence.
No one knows this better than Anwar Ibrahim. Malaysia’s deputy prime minister from 1993 to 1998, he was ousted from office by Prime Minister Mahathir, facing accusations that ranged from political corruption to homosexuality. After serving a prison sentence for corruption (a ‘sodomy’ verdict was partially overturned), he returned to politics and became leader of the opposition in 2008. Accusations of sodomy, however, quickly re-emerged, and he once again became embroiled in a courtroom drama.
The latest chapter of this drama came in February 2015 when Malaysia’s Federal Court, the highest court in the country, decided to uphold a sodomy conviction and handed him a five-year prison sentence. Although the likes of Amnesty International acknowledge this to be politically motivated, it nevertheless reminds Malaysia’s LGBT community of the fragile ground they stand on.
Same-sex relations aren’t the only culture clash that visitors to Malaysia must navigate. The consumption of alcohol in this conservative Muslim country is another cultural taboo, although widely available in bars, restaurants, and convenience stores, alcohol is disproportionately expensive due to Malaysia having the second-highest duty on beer in the world (only in Norway is it more expensive), and many locals drink only occasionally or not at all.
Public displays of affection are also frowned upon. Signage throughoutMalaysia strikes a red line though vices such as smoking and littering—and also kissing. This applies to everyone, no matter if you are gay, straight, bi, lesbian, or transgender (oh and this lyric, from Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” is one of numerous pop songs censored by Malaysian radio).
It’s not only provocative song lyrics that get Western pop acts into trouble in Malaysia, those who perform here must tone down their performance or risk being banned or fined for contravening laws governing modesty. This means that major artists such as Lady Gaga, Madonna, Shakira, and Katy Perry typically bypass Malaysia’s capital during their Asia-Pacific tours. If our favorite pop stars choose to bypass Kuala Lumpur, should we do the same?
Despite its cultural disparities with Western expectations, Kuala Lumpur (or KL as it’s popularly known) is not at all unwelcoming to international visitors, straight or gay. The increasing internationalization of KL has enabled a handful of gay venues to flourish, so you can quite easily come here and party on the gay scene, despite these issues.
Standing in the shadow of the landmark Petronas Twin Towers, fashionable bar and restaurant Market Place goes gay every Friday night for Lovemachine HOME Fridays, attracting a predominantly male crowd with top-name gay circuit DJs. To escape its crammed dancefloor, step outdoors onto the terrace where the sight of the Petronas Towers looming bright above is truly breathtaking.
Another hugely popular gay dance party, DivineBliss takes over the rooftop of GTower, a five-star hotel and office complex in the heart of KLCC, the central business district, every Saturday night. Located on GTower’s 29th floor, there’s an outdoor terrace with spectacular panoramas across the city, a sleek neon-lit bar, and a Champagne Room for cork-popping partying.
More down-to-earth is BlueBoy, Kuala Lumpur’s longest-running gay club. This small venue may lack Champagne and skyline vistas, but it nevertheless sparkles with regular drag cabaret shows. A mainstay of Malaysia’s gay scene for two decades, BlueBoy’s longevity means that it has endured several police raids throughout its history, perhaps explaining why its façade appears shuttered and invisible during the day, and only during opening hours in the darkness of night does it out itself with a discreet rainbow sign.
Raids by the police aren’t yet confined to history: when I visited BlueBoy one Saturday night in April 2016, the lack of customers was blamed on a police raid that had occurred just a few weeks earlier, with many locals still choosing to stay away. For international visitors, a police raid would be little more than an inconvenient end to an evening out, but if your ID card identifies you as Malay and Muslim, there’s a chance you may be taken to the police station and forced to pay a hefty fine, not for being in a gay bar, but for alcohol consumption. Alcohol consumption is one of the things prohibited among Muslims under Sharia law, but it doesn’t apply to non-Muslims under Civil Law (although it’s hard to imagine a similar raid targeting the bar of a five-star hotel).
Kuala Lumpur also boasts several gay saunas, one of the most popular and foreigner-friendly being DayThermos (note: that saunas are not allowed to carry condoms or display safer sex educational materials, so remember to bring your own).
Many gay and lesbian Malaysians prefer to be discreet by frequenting chains like Starbucks, or meeting in café-bars in places such as Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, a flagship shopping mall in the Bukit Bintang Shopping District with hundreds of swish stores. If your preference is for geeks and not fashionistas, you may favor Low Yat Plaza, a mall with floor upon floor of specialist electronics retailers. In this tech-savvy city, gay dating applications such as Grindr and Scruff are also popular.
When out on KL ’s gay scene, or when using gay apps, you’ll find a real mix of people reflecting Malaysia’s diversity. This is a country full of different languages, customs, races, and religions. A recent census shows that approximately 60% of the population practice Islam, but Malaysia’s multi-religious society comprises people of many other faiths including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and traditional Chinese religions such as Confucianism and Taoism.
As well as Malay, Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, and Thais, it’s perhaps not surprising that gay men from Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, choose to come here to study or work, because they can enjoy more freedom than they would in other much stricter Islamic countries. There are also Western expats, especially from countries such as Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.
This ethnic diversity is reflected in Kuala Lumpur’s must-see attractions.
KL ’s central business district is a gleaming tomorrowland, dominated by the Petronas Twin Towers. When built in 1998, they were a clear indication of Kuala Lumpur’s intention to be a major player in the region: a formidable rival to the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong. These two gleaming towers, conjoined by a skybridge, were the tallest in the world until Taiwan’s Taipei 101 superseded them in 2004, although they remain the world’s tallest twin towers.
Designed by an Argentine architect, Cesar Pelli, the floorplan of each tower is based on a Rub el Hizb, a traditional symbol seen in Arabic calligraphy, and the steel-and-glass façade is designed to resemble motifs found in Islamic art. Visitors may gaze from the double-decker skybridge, as well as from an observation deck on the 86th floor at the nearby Kuala Lumpur Tower, a distinct telecommunications tower that is the seventh-tallest freestanding tower in the world and provides the highest viewpoint in KL that is open to the public.
At the foot of the Petronas Twin Towers is Suria KLCC, a large shopping mall with upscale retail plus an art gallery, cinema, philharmonic theatre, aquarium, and science discovery center. There’s also KLCC Park, a landscaped public park whose fountain is the centrepiece to the Lake Symphony nightly light and water shows.
Located around the park is a broad selection of hotels, including the deluxe five-star Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur, plus stylish and contemporary Traders Hotel, both of which provide breathtaking views of the iconic twin towers. They’re also conveniently located close to KL ’s gay venues. The nearby Novotel is a more affordable option, with Fraser Place providing a range of modern apartments.