Calls from some conservative groups for Asian cities from Singapore to Hong Kong to boycott Disney’s Beauty and the Beast over a “gay moment” in the film have drawn flak from rights activists, as the US studio stands by its decision not to cut the scene ahead of a regional release this weekend.

The episode has cast a spotlight on rising friction between Southeast Asia’s tiny but vocal gay rights lobby and influential conservative groups that hold significant political sway.

In Malaysia, Disney rebuffed officials’ demands for the censorship of 4.5 minutes of footage deemed to depict homosexuality, putting the film’s release in the country in jeopardy. In neighbouring Singapore, the national council of churches said in a statement that some Christian leaders were “deeply concerned about the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and questioning) representation in this new Disney movie”.

“They see this as an attempt to influence young children and socialise them at an early age into thinking that the homosexual lifestyle is normal,” the statement said.

It urged parents to be “aware of this strand in the movie and its possible influence on their children”.

Rights activists in the region deplored the conservative backlash against what they said was a minor element of the partially animated film staring Emma Watson as the titular character.

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In the 130-minute film, the character LeFou – sidekick to the main villain Gaston – expresses affection for his macho boss and also dances with a man at a ball. Director Bill Condon said in an interview earlier this month that the “nice, exclusively gay moment” was a first for a Disney film.

“When people protest over a gay character in a film, what they are really saying is that LGBTQ persons should not exist, and please go back to the closet,” said Jean Chong from the Singapore gay rights group Sayoni. “With growing acceptance worldwide, there’s really no point in burying one’s head in the sand,” she added.

Dede Oetomo, founder of the Indonesian gay rights group GAYa NUSANTARA, said the “brouhaha is another episode of moral panic, not based on scientific evidence” about the influence of media on sexuality.

“It is also an example of the total ignorance among many adults of the possibility that a child may be gay and that could lead to a good thing,” said Oetomo.

The outcry in Asia is seen by some as inspired by similar protests in the West. A drive-in theatre in rural northeastern Alabama banned the screening of the film earlier this month.

“The actual film features a tiny scene in which a villain is shown thinking romantically about another villain – it doesn’t serve as a positive or justifying representation of homosexuality at all,” said Ng Yi-Sheng, a Singaporean gay rights activist.

“It’s only because ultra-right Christian groups in the US began making noise that conservative Christians and Muslims in our part of the world began to imitate them,” Ng added.

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Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, will screen the film without cuts but only for audiences above the age of 13. Singapore’s censors gave the film a PG rating, meaning it is deemed suitable for all ages, with the caveat that parents are advised to accompany their children.

Malaysian censors had originally given the film – “gay moment” edited out – a similar P13 rating. Phil Robertson, deputy director in Asia for the US-based Human Rights Watch, said groups calling for a blanket ban of the film were “extremist”.

“The governments should recognise that peace and stability requires promoting tolerance, not kowtowing to extremists who haven’t figured out that their children are going to watch everything on the internet anyway some day,” said Robertson.

“These three governments should protect freedom of expression and the arts, and tell the gaggle of extremists to stay at home if they don’t want to see the movie,” he said.

Southeast Asian political observers say regional governments have their work cut out keeping the lid on tensions between conservative groups and segments of the population that are demanding equal rights for the LGBTQ community.

“The contestation by both camps has to be adroitly managed… governments are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Once the confrontation has crystallised, it’s often too late and the domestic concerns tend to prevail,” said Eugene Tan, an associate law professor at the Singapore Management University.

Consensual sex between men is a crime in Singapore, owing to a colonial-era law. But officials have vowed that the section of the penal code called Section 377A will not be enforced.

However leaders, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, say the law must remain in the books as most Singaporeans are conservative and do not accept homosexuality.

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In neighbouring Malaysia, homosexuality is punishable by caning and up to 20 years in jail. Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister turned top opposition leader, is serving a five-year jail term for “sodomising” a male aide, the second time in two decades he had been convicted of such a charge. His supporters say the charges are trumped up to keep the charismatic leader out of politics.

In Indonesia, homosexuality is not illegal but the country’s resurgent hardline Islamist groups are fomenting intolerance of the LGBTQ community, rights activists say.

In Hong Kong, where the Legislative Council repealed colonial anti-homosexual laws in 1991, an anti-gay group on Wednesday submitted a petition to the city’s film classification authority opposing its decision to classify Beauty and the Beast as suitable for all ages. The film, which premiered in London last month, opens in most cities starting Thursday.