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Open Houses, Open Hearts: Raya Tales from LGBT Malaysians

Compiled by RYAN ONG.

What I think I know about Raya comes from friends who invite me to their open houses, Raya songs by our favourite divas, Datuk Vida and Rosmah, and those mushy tear-jerking Petronas ads (thank you for making me cry all those years, Yasmin Ahmad).

But what we rarely hear about are the ones that don’t have a happy ending or the ones where acceptance and forgiveness come in unexpected ways. For queer people who have endured traumas and rejections from families, Raya sometimes amplifies these feelings.

So I interviewed 4 LGBTQ Malaysians on how they celebrated Raya. Their stories contained the usual themes typical of Raya narratives but also so much more. Some are heart-wrenching, some bittersweet, but all of them are meaningful. These stories need to be heard but they don’t always get to see the light of day except here on Queer Lapis, so read on.

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“Everyone just kept giving us weird looks”

Armie, 27, Genderqueer lesbian

Raya is something I just don’t look forward to every year, but I still go back. It’s a time when I have to repress myself to conform to the social norms forced upon me by my family. My mum pressures me to wear baju kurung and tudung, which I despise, but still, I always give in. If not, she will say she is embarrassed to show me off to her friends like I’m some sort of broken prized doll.

I do what she wants so that Raya becomes bearable for me but also because I still have some respect for her. You can say the only reason I go back for Raya is for my mum because I care about her thoughts and feelings.

But don’t get me started on how she tries to matchmake me with other people’s sons. In the past, I brought my ex-partner to Raya and everyone just kept giving us weird looks. Everyone pretended like nothing was going on even though they clearly had suspicions. My mum never liked my ex since the beginning of our relationship. What I found odd was how she and everyone else acted like this didn’t bother them. An exercise of tolerance perhaps?

My mum knows I’m lesbian but I haven’t officially come out, so she still acts like I’m straight. She still asks me to get married – which intensifies during Raya – because she believes the Prophet (PBUH) won’t recognise me as a follower if I don’t… but I still believe in my religion and I know that I have to be myself in order to be happy.

In the end, it’s compromise on so many levels. I never hide who I am but I conform in order to be respectful. My mum has been more and more accepting accept of me because I’m an adult and I try to be a good daughter to my family. However, she still disapproves because she feels there is no compromise in following Islamic rules, which I know isn’t true. Life is about compromising and tolerating each other in order to be happy.

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“I would rather have a sour Raya than a sad one”

Mischa Selamat, lesbian trans woman

My thoughts on Aidilfitri as a trans woman: Mixed feelings. Raya would usually turn sour with how my dad reacts to me. Not to mention the restrictions on my dressing that my mum attempts to impose upon me in her effort to salvage the relationship between me and my dad. But when you have already developed breasts, what you wear don’t matter. And seriously, why should I act any differently? How does a trans person act “normal” anyway?

But I’d still go back for Raya. I would rather have a sour Raya than a sad one. Life is too short to hold grudges; we never know if this is the last Raya we would ever see them alive. I cope by not staying too long. Leave for the kampung early in the morning and leave for KL on the same day even though I live 4 hours away. It’s better than having to deal with everyone’s sour face.

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“Me and my friends are a chosen family”

Adam Ummar, 22, cis gay male

I don’t really consider myself religiously Muslim now, perhaps culturally Muslim. I think this reflects how some of those amongst the younger generation feels about Islam. And yet I have complicated feelings towards Raya at best. I have a dysfunctional family and my parents are divorced. So I don’t think I ‘celebrate’ Raya per se but it is more of a formality I have to go through each year.

My siblings pick between joining my dad’s side or my mum’s side but I just spend my time with friends in KL who don’t really have a kampung to go back to, or, like me, don’t have a functional family to celebrate with. Last year I cooked rendang for my friend who was working during Raya. I hung out with her and another friend who wasn’t close to their family either.

Me and my friends are a chosen family. We bond over how fucked up our real families are e.g. divorced parents or uninvolved dads. Also a lot of them don’t come from privileged backgrounds and work in retail or F&B, not office work. They can’t afford to take off during Raya. So we spend time together instead, prowling the streets and taking OOTDs.

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“I didn’t go back for over two years”

Gemsy, 29, bi trans man

Raya wasn’t really great for me three or four years back when I came out. My dad accepted me from the beginning but I got into arguments with my mom quite often. I didn’t go back for over two years to avoid my family because the arguments got so heated. I needed to remove myself from the toxicity of it all. But then one day, my dad had pneumonia. Only then, I went home for the for the first time in a long time.

At the hospital with all my relatives, I was afraid of being scolded. But my mom and I did not argue one bit. My relatives told me they accepted me as the man I am. They hugged me so close and told me they missed me and loved me.

They said, “however you turn out to be, we will always accept you. Cause’ we’re a family.” I couldn’t stop crying. It was the most meaningful bond to me.

Maybe my dad told my mom something before he died. I’m not really sure. At the end of the day, I was dad’s little boy. I also owe it to my auntie who had a gay son. She told my mom to open up. She actually scolded her!  Her other son, who also knew my identity back then, had my back all the while.

From then on, I could balik kampung knowing that I have an open and accepting family to return to.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Interviews were condensed and edited.

Ryan Ong is a writer, activist, and Gender Studies major at Monash Malaysia who wants to facilitate discussions on new and local perspectives around culture, ethics, feminism, LGBTQ issues, and various other intersections.