This LGBT band is using music to fight Malaysian discrimination
- Four-member punk group Shh...Diam! want to give LGBT+ people encouragement and change Malaysia’s skewed perceptions
- Lead singer is a 34-year-old transgender man
With songs like I Woke Up Gay and Lonely Lesbian, LGBT punk band Shh...Diam! are making a rare splash in Malaysia, using music to fight long-running discrimination.
The four-member group are a rarity in a country where gay and transgender issues are often seen as taboo, cross-dressing is illegal and sodomy is banned under a British colonial-era law.
Its name, which means “shut up” in the Malay language, is meant to mock critics for seeking to silence the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
“We never intentionally set ourselves up as an LGBT band,” lead singer Faris Saad, a 34-year-old transgender man who began transitioning in 2014, says before a performance on the outskirts of the capital Kuala Lumpur. “But eventually your life experiences make their way to your music so you can’t help it. You’ve got to be honest – so that’s what we are with our music.”
Several incidents in the Muslim-majority nation this year have stoked concerns among campaigners that the climate for the country’s LGBT community is deteriorating further.
In August, government officials ordered the removal of portraits of two LGBT activists from an art exhibition and a transgender woman was attacked, sparking public outrage.
And in September, two women in the conservative state of Terengganu were caned under the Islamic sharia law after being caught attempting to have sex in a car.
Shh...Diam! had their unlikely beginning nine years ago. The organiser of a lesbian pool party was looking for a band to entertain revellers, so aspiring musician Faris quickly assembled the group with some acquaintances.
Since then, they have built up a small but steady fan base among the LGBT community while producing two albums and performing in several European countries.
Raised in a Muslim family, Faris knew from a young age that the female body he was born with was wrong. He decided to transition soon after turning 30. But to get the hormone treatment he needed, he first had to undergo a six-month psychiatric evaluation to be diagnosed with “gender identity disorder”. “I feel more confident that I am now in my own body,” he says.
Faris, who is also a freelance journalist, explains that the band wanted to encourage other LGBT people to embrace themselves like he had, while changing the skewed perceptions toward the community. “We have been vilified by the government. According to the government, LGBT people are perverts and paedophiles. I want to change that.”
The recent surge in attacks on the LGBT community and anti-gay rhetoric from senior officials has dovetailed with what critics say is a rise in religious conservatism, which has eroded Malaysia’s traditionally tolerant brand of Islam.
More than 60 per cent of Malaysia’s 32 million people are Malay Muslims, but the country is also home to a large number of ethnic minorities who practise other religions. Religious leaders are among those who have spoken out against the LGBT community, arguing homosexuality is forbidden by religious teachings.
“God has created man and woman and created them in pairs. We cannot go against this, it is wrong,” says Harussani Zakaria, an outspoken mufti, or Islamic scholar, based in Malaysia. “We are not against democracy, we just can’t defy God’s orders. Even animals do not engage in homosexual acts.”
Since Shh…Diam! were set up, they have not had any run-ins with the authorities, and have stuck to performing in independent venues and in urban areas which its members see as generally accepting of their music.
The band’s music is a mix of metal, punk and jazz. Their songs also touch on topics such as housemates fighting, Bollywood movies – and even toilets.
The guitarist, who asked to be referred to as Yon, says the band aimed to give LGBT+ people a way to escape daily discrimination and just have fun through music.
“It’s our experiences and random things that we like which we put into our songs,” says Yon, who is bisexual. “The main purpose of the band is to have fun. We love to play music … the LGBT activism that comes with the band is just a reflection of who we are.”
Indie music fan Gary Tay, who was among the small crowd that showed up to watch the band’s performance, says he believes artists such as Shh...Diam! should be allowed to sing about what they believe in.
“I wish that one day in Malaysia in the near future, we can talk about these kinds of issues very openly,” he says.