The U.S. Embassy put out a statement in support of Malaysia’s LGBTQ community after portraits of two activists were removed from an arts festival.
Photographs of Pang Khee Teik and Nisha Ayub were withdrawn from display at “Stripes and Strokes,” a month-long exhibition held in conjunction with the George Town Festival on Penang Island. Festival Director Joe Sidek was “directed” to take down the pieces by federal authorities, as he told the BBC.
Islamic Affairs Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa, the government official behind the action, accused the festival of promoting “LGBTQ culture in Malaysia.”
“I was informed that there was an exhibition that showed the LGBTQ pictures, along with the rainbow pride flag to represent the struggle,” Rawa told members of the press on Wednesday. “That is not in line with what we have consistently repeated in Parliament and the policy of this government.”
The U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur responded to the outcry by giving LGBTQ activists the space they were denied in their home country. On Friday, it reposted Ayub’s photo on its Instagram account.
“Pictures are worth a thousand words, but actions speak even louder,” the government agency claimed on Friday. “We stand proudly with 2016 International Women of Courage Award winner #NishaAyub and @pangkheeteik PangKheeTeik and the work they do to promote #tolerance and #acceptance.”
The condemnation is unique under an administration which rarely wades into international LGBTQ issues.
Since the Malaysian government began cracking down on its LGBTQ population in the past few years, the White House has largely remained silent. In 2015, Malaysia affirmed its ban on trans people dressing in a manner consistent with their gender identity, while last year health officials held a contest in which entrants were asked for suggestions on the “prevention” of homosexuality.
Additionally the Malay language daily newspaper Sinar Harian published a spread this February entitled, “How to Spot a Gay.”
Although these incidents were met with universal condemnation around the world, President Trump has yet to release a statement about the treatment of LGBTQ people in Malaysia. The POTUS has also declined to respond to similar crackdowns in countries like Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Russia, and Tajikistan.
Most recently, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney claimed the Trump administration would not press African countries like Nigeria and Uganda on LGBTQ issues — calling it “religious persecution.”
While the U.S. government is unlikely to comment further on censorship by Malaysian authorities, prominent local figures joined in their disapproval.
Attorney Siti Kasim and activist Marina Mahathir ordered their portraits be removed from display, and Malaysian actress Jo Kukathas urged others to also pull out of the festival alongside them. In a Wednesday message posted to her Facebook page, Kukathas preached the need for “an act of solidarity with [our] fellow Malaysians.”
The Malaysian government has already begun walking back its earlier statements lashing out at the LGBTQ community. Mujahid claimed removing the portraits was necessary to shield Teik and Ayub from harm.
“We received a lot of comments from those who are hostile towards this group, so in order to calm the situation down, I had to make the call,” he told the Malay Mail. “My main concern, I don’t want them to get hurt or victimised. Many are enraged by their openness. I want to protect them.”
But for as much attention as they have garnered, the two portraits removed earlier this week were fairly conservative.
Ayub, a celebrated trans activist, was draped in the Malaysian national flag for her photograph. But in addition to being wrapped in the Jalur Gemilang, Teik — co-founder of the annual LGBTQ festival Seksualiti Merdeka — was also holding a rainbow Pride flag in his portrait.
The festival director has clarified that the exhibition’s intent was “Malaysian Pride, not Gay pride.”