Matty Healey: not a ‘white saviour’ for decrying Malaysian homophobia

Matty Healey: not a ‘white saviour’ for condemning Malaysian homophobia

His actions did more than anyone else to draw global attention to anti-LGBT+ repression in Malaysia

London, UK – 25 July 2023


A slightly edited version was published in The Guardian on 25 July 2023:

By Peter Tatchell

Matty Healy of the 1975 pop group is being condemned by critics for having a “white saviour complex” and seeking to impose “western values” on Malaysia.

The accusation comes after he used his recent Kuala Lumpur concert to denounce the country’s harsh anti-LGBT+ laws and did an on-stage same-sex kiss. He received roars of approval from the crowd. They clearly agreed with what he said.

And while some Malaysian LGBTs were critical, others were supportive. They argue that queer rights are a universal human right, not a western one, and that these rights are now supported by a sizeable minority of the Malaysian population – especially young people.

I seriously doubt it was Healy’s motivation or intention to “save” Malaysia from homophobia or hijack the LGBT+ struggle there. As far as I can see, he simply wanted to show solidarity with Malaysia’s persecuted queer community. He was also anxious about his own band members’ risk of imprisonment if they had same-sex relations. That strikes me as perfectly valid.

Calls for the 1975 to show “sensitivity and respect” to Malaysian culture are tantamount to giving a homophobic government a free pass. It wants acquiescence and deference, not protest.

In my view, it was honourable for Healy to admit that it was a ”mistake” to perform in Malaysia. When booking the gig, he says he was not aware of the country’s homophobic laws. By speaking out, he was seeking to atone for the band’s de facto collusion with an anti-LGBT+ regime. Surely that’s commendable?

Healy also appears to have realised that speaking out would lead to the cancellation of the show – and presumably hit the band with a hefty compensation payment to the festival organisers. The 1975 lost their show and probably their money. That’s a substantial price to pay for supporting LGBT+ equality.

I’m not keen on the manner of Healy’s expletive-laden content speech but he’s a pop star. That’s what they do, and the fans did not seem to mind. Nevertheless, an equally passionate but more polite denunciation might have been a better tactic.

Whatever you think about Healy’s actions, he succeeded in drawing global attention to Malaysia’s persecution of its queer citizens – more so than any other action by anyone else. Hundreds of millions of people are now aware that Malaysia penalises LGBT+ people with up to 20 years jail, plus caning and fines – under a colonial-era law originally imposed by Britain in 1871.

Moreover, discrimination and hate crime are rife, with no laws to protect LGBTs. State-sanctioned forced conversion practices are commonplace.

Typical of the country’s homophobia, last year police raided a private gay Halloween party, arresting dozens of participants. Only two months ago, Malaysian authorities confiscated Swatch watches, merely because they were rainbow coloured.

Homophobic repression has worsened since 2018 and coincides with the increasing Islamification of Malaysian society, which even some Muslims reject.

This crackdown is despite allegations that some of the country’s political and religious figures who condemn homosexuality are themselves secretly gay or bisexual. If true, that’s shocking hypocrisy.

The Malaysian government was quick to denounce the 1975 and ban them from playing again. But that’s a clear violation of Article 10 of Malaysia’s constitution which guarantees freedom of expression. The ban on homosexuality is also against the constitution. Article 8 states that all citizens are entitled to equal rights.

Moreover, Malaysia has signed and pledged to uphold two international conventions that prohibit all discrimination: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Commonwealth Charter.

Criticisms of the 1975 deflect attention from where the criticisms should be most urgently directed: against the homophobia of the Kuala Lumpur regime. It is delighted when people focus on the conduct of Healy, rather than the LGBT+ human rights abuses he was condemning.

Having said that, it’s true that white European critics of global south tyrannies must avoid acting like neo-colonial overlords. That’s offensive and counterproductive. It is why my international campaigns are based on consultation with local activists. I was acting at their request and in solidarity with their struggle, when I attempted a citizen’s arrest of the Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe in 2001, when I went to Moscow in 2007 to support Russian LGBTs and when I staged a LGBT+ protest shortly before last year’s football World Cup in Qatar. It is unclear whether the 1975 liaised with any Malaysian LGBT+ activists. They should have.

Critics claim that Healy’s actions will provoke a crackdown on Malaysian LGBTs. It’s a valid concern but so far it remains mere speculation. In any case, backlash and repression is a standard reaction to every social justice struggle, from the Chartists to the Suffragettes, the US black civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa. They never gave up their fight, despite the intensified crackdown. That’s how they triumphed in the end.

Malaysian queers are already suffering persecution and it’s driven by Islamic-inspired state homophobia, not by the pro-LGBT+ comments of western pop stars.