Feature writing

LGBT issues

This is what it’s like to be gay in Brunei, where LGBT people can now get stoned to death

The Daily Beast

April 3, 2019

Wednesday, despite world outrage, Brunei legalizes the stoning to death of LGBT people. A gay asylum seeker from the country describes a scared LGBT population ‘going underground.’

Shahiransheriffuddin bin Shahrani Muhammad, a gay asylum seeker from Brunei now living in Vancouver, has been talking to friends in Brunei about the law to stone gays to death, which comes into effect Wednesday, April 3.

“Shah” (as his friends know him) told The Daily Beast his gay friends were nervous, afraid, and becoming more and more isolated as the impact of the new law hits home. He wanted to use his full name, he said. It makes him feel safer to be open.

The law in the Southeast Asian country, ruled by the Sultan of Brunei as an absolute monarchy, will impose death by stoning or whipping for sodomy, adultery or rape, and amputation of a hand or foot for theft.

Following international outrage, the Brunei Prime Minister’s office claimed in an unapologetic, doubling-down statement that the new anti-gay stoning law was intended “to educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals, society or nationality of any faiths and race.”

George Clooney and Elton John have called for boycotts of the Sultan’s international hotels, while—after nearly 24 hours of ignoring Daily Beast requests for comment last week—the U.S. State Department told us exclusively that the Trump administration was “concerned” about the new stoning law, but would not condemn Brunei for introducing it.

Britain, the European Union, and the U.N. have all condemned the law.

For gay people in the country, the practical implications of the new law are sinking in. In a country where homosexuality is illegal, LGBT people are already cautious and private; this new law, said Shah, has made them even more fearfully so.

“I think we all think the same thing: the burden of proof is high,” said Shah. “Four people have to have seen you have gay sex. Imagine that, unless it’s an orgy, and you all testify against each other. People make jokes like that, but there is nothing to laugh at.”

“People are becoming paranoid,” said Shah. “They are nervous about talking to each other. Things will go underground.” And this in a country already without LGBT meeting places or groups. Gay men meet each other using social networking apps.

A Facebook post Shah wrote critical of the government’s then-new guidelines about halal certification led to Shah being charged with sedition in 2017. “People wouldn’t talk to me, friends wouldn’t talk to me. Eventually, I took an illegal taxi across the border into Malaysia. I made sure no one was following me,” he said. He arrived in Canada in September 2018.

Shah reminds his friends that even if a burden of proof isn’t reached, homosexuality is still illegal in Brunei and gays can still be thrown in jail for up to 10 years or face a sizable fine. “Or all of that all at once. Then there’s the shame and guilt of it all, you will be constantly reminded of it by your family.”

“My best friend and I spoke,” Shah said. “He told me, he and other LGBT people are stopping talking to each other, because they are worried about people finding out about them. Another friend has had a partner of 10 years. They just decided not to see each other so much. They are afraid of being discovered. And they have been together for 10 years! This is what this law does; it makes gay people paranoid, nervous, mistrustful. A lot of gay people will try and isolate themselves from other people to be completely safe,” said Shah. “I’m not sure how long it will go on for. A lot of people will see psychiatrists and psychologists.”

Shah’s friends hope they won’t fall foul of the new law or be affected by it, but Shah has reminded them it has happened to him. He cannot live in his homeland, he is estranged from his family. He has had to start a new life. A 40-year-old out-gay critic of the Sultan of Brunei’s regime, he fears for his life if he is made to return to the country, especially given the new law.

“LGBT+ people in Brunei don’t often talk openly about things like this and this is no exception,” said Matthew Woolfe, founder of human rights group The Brunei Project. “For the most part, they tend to try to lay low and get through it. From those LGBT+ with whom I have connected with, there is a real fear about these laws and what is going to happen to them. I know of one person who is considering leaving the country and am aware of another who has already done so out of fear about what the future holds.”

There is little chance of persuading the government of Brunei to reverse its decision.

“The commencement order (for the new law) is an official government order that was posted on the website of the Attorney General’s Chambers so there is every reason to believe that the Government is serious about implementing these final phases (of the Syariah Penal Code),” Woolfe told The Daily Beast.

“After years of repeatedly delaying implementation, this was the first time the Government gave an actual date for the laws to come into effect. To now not proceed with implementation after committing to a date would undermine the Government’s credibility.”

“What we want to see most of all is diplomatic pressure placed on Brunei,” said Woolfe. “I think that is the best chance we have of seeing these laws revoked so I encourage people to lobby their governments to take action. Governments should be taking every opportunity to place whatever pressure they can on Brunei to revoke these laws. They need to stop being so passive in their approach and really apply pressure. They need to make these violators of human rights believe that it is in their best interests to stop the violations.”

“I think that it is very unlikely that the laws being introduced will be reversed or revoked once implemented,” said Woolfe. “I think that all we can hope for at best is that they are never carried out and there is a good chance that they won’t be.”

On Tuesday, when asked by The Daily Beast, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department again would not directly condemn the new law.

On Tuesday evening, Robert Palladino, the department’s deputy spokesperson, reissued statements already sent to The Daily Beast last Friday.

“Brunei’s decision to implement Phases Two and Three of the Sharia Penal Code and associated penalties runs counter to its international human rights obligations, including with respect to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

“All governments have an obligation to ensure that all people can freely enjoy the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms to which they are entitled. The United States strongly opposes violence, criminalization and discrimination targeting vulnerable groups, including women at risk of violence, religious and ethnic minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons.

“We continue to encourage Brunei to ratify and implement the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which it signed in 2015, and to sign, ratify, and implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

As well as declining to condemn Brunei, the State Department did not respond to questions from The Daily Beast on the existence or nature of any discussions Secretary of State Pompeo or officials had had with the Brunei government about the new law.

Shah was born and bought up in Brunei, though he attended boarding school in Britain. He spent 11 years in the U.K. from 17 to 28, where he lived a more open gay life and had boyfriends, then returned to Brunei and worked in health promotion. It “became more and more frustrating” from going from living an out life to a closeted one.

“Brunei is a very conservative country, in politics, religion and social views,” said Woolfe. “It is very hard for people to truly express themselves and this goes for not only LGBT+ but everyone really. It is harder for LGBT+ though because they are expected to conform to certain ideas and views about how they should act, look and live their lives.

“There are also no community-focused services available within the country that can provide LGBT+ people with information and support, so LGBT+ often have to rely on their own private networks for that support and if they don’t have a strong network of people they can trust, it can be very lonely.

“Plus, there is also the fact that homosexual acts have a long history of criminalization in Brunei, which extends back to the time of British colonial rule, and this helps add to the stigma surrounding LGBT+.”

Shah’s Muslim faith continues to mean a lot to him. He grew up knowing that being LGBT was wrong in his religion. “But this is my faith. I still pray five times a day, observe Ramadan. My faith is very strong. I still consider myself a Muslim. I think LGBT people, LGBT Muslims, are a test of the established religion. I was born this way, what are they going to do about that? They condemn us, but God made us this way. By criminalizing us, killing us, they are failing God’s test, they are saying that God is wrong.”

Asked what being gay in Brunei was like, Shah said, “Quiet. It’s easy enough to find people if you have the app. And the app is a great metaphor to describe the LGBT community in Brunei: you won’t see any face on it unless it is a foreigner’s. Even when you meet someone either one of you can be so nervous identifying the other in public that you sometimes don’t meet. That’s how careful people are. You don’t give real names, or where you work. People hide, and it puts great strain on your relationships if you fall in love.”

Shah fell in love with only one Bruneian man. They were together for five years, but eventually the boyfriend’s family told him that he shouldn’t see Shah any more. They were worried that their neighbors had noticed Shah coming to visit too much. “We tried to keep on going, but it got too difficult. We had normal relationship issues, and all of the other stuff of being gay in Brunei on top of that. It was too much.”

A Brunei-based psychiatrist he saw had been helpful and positive. Some, he said, tell LGBT clients “to act straight so they can fly under the radar. They are not saying being gay is wrong—I have never heard any psychiatrist say that—but in this country it is more advice to be safe. Growing up, I tried to be ‘straight acting.’ Those who acted ‘gay’ were seen as gay or trans. Bruneians don’t make any difference between the two. It’s so screwed up, and those people who are trans have the worst of the hassle and bad attitudes because they are the most visible.”

As a boy, Shah had been attracted to other boys, but “never admitted” it to himself. “I had girlfriends, but preferred looking at their ex-boyfriends,” he said. “Boarding school in England was as homophobic as Brunei sometimes.” He came out in the U.K. at university.

His mother would “throw suspicions” in his face about the friends he bought home to play games with—“but mostly they were straight and we were playing World of Warcraft.”

His sister would never stop matchmaking. His Chinese father would try to pair him with “nice Chinese girls.” To escape, Shah would go to gay bars in “KK,” Kota Kinabalu, in Malaysia.

“None of my family accept the fact I am gay. When I came out to my sister over the phone from here, I said, ‘You do know I’m gay.’ She said for the millionth time that she hoped I would find ‘the right girl.’ In her own way she’s trying to understand.”

He came out by text to his parents. “I told them because I’m being open, and telling the media about what it is like to be gay in Brunei. That’s why my family isn’t talking to me. I love them very much, and in a way I’m glad they’re not talking to me. I didn’t feel safe, but I have felt more safe naming myself and sharing my story. I want people to know that I am here, who I am, and what my story is.

“In Brunei I am seen as a traitor, so this way my family can claim no knowledge of me and be safe from the authorities. Distant family members keep an eye on them for me. I like to think we can repair our relationship in time.”

He doesn’t know when he will see his family again. “I fear for my life if I ever go back. I have never encountered anyone like me before: somebody openly gay from Brunei. I know I’ve pissed off the authorities. People who work in the civil service have told me to be careful if I go back. They won’t let what I’ve said go. I don’t think they’d execute me straight off. There would be a show trial.”

As well as the authorities, Shah is also nervous about the possibility of mob violence against LGBT people in Brunei. He is also concerned with the new Sharia laws affect women. A female friend has a non-Muslim male partner, who he is concerned for—”anyone who in their private lives goes against what the law says.”

Clooney and John’s hotel boycott would have no material effect, he said, but was still a useful international awareness-raising exercise. “There is also the Asian concept of ‘having face’ and trying to preserve that—and Bruneians being aware of the detrimental way the world sees them.”

Even if the anti-LGBT laws were changed, Shah said, “the culture would have to change too. It would take a lot, a revolution in political and public attitudes to make Bruneians OK with people being LGBT.”

In Vancouver, Shah is planning on getting a work permit and then a job, maybe in health promotion as he was in Brunei, or do something to ‘give back to the community,’ like volunteering. And “find somebody to settle down to live with.”

Vancouver is a big city, Shah said, but has quite a small gay scene. “I was out shopping and saw two men holding hands. First, I thought, ‘Why can’t I have that? When can I have that?’ And then I thought, ‘There aren’t so many gay bars here because people literally don’t need them.’”

To LGBT people in Brunei, Shah says, “Stay safe, try to get out.”

“I have no hope really,” he added. “If you cannot get out, I would say to go to see a psychiatrist or psychologist who can help you find the healthiest way to survive this, and feel OK about yourself. Help strengthen your mental defenses—anything to get through it.”