Zoey was only 14 years old when the Brunei Government implemented the first phase of its controversial Sharia Penal Code (SPC) in 2014. Assigned the gender of male at birth, Zoey has identified as a transgender female since a young age.
She knew that she needed to leave Brunei as soon as possible ahead of the eventual introduction of phase two and three, which would, in theory at least, render adultery and homosexual acts punishable by death.
“I just knew that [the government] wanted to go ahead and implement the Sharia Penal Code in its entirety,” she told the Globe in an interview in recent weeks.
In late-2018, at the age of just 19, Zoey left her family and the country she called home to start a new life in Canada. It is a decision that means that she is unlikely to ever be able to safely return to Brunei or see her family again, but it was a sacrifice Zoey had to make, or face the prospect of a lifetime of discrimination and persecution.
The decision, too, was fully vindicated, with the day Zoey had been dreading coming in April 2019, when Brunei implemented the final two phases of the Sharia Penal Code.
Under the Sharia Penal Code, those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) face severe and disproportionate punishments for a range of “offences” because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In some instances, Brunei risks violating its obligations under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which it is a signatory, should it carry out these punishments. Specifically, fines and/or jail terms for crossdressing, and fines, imprisonment and whipping for sexual relations between two people of the same gender. The SPC also prescribes death by stoning as a punishment for sodomy and adultery.
The international outcry that followed the introduction of the death by stoning law in 2019 led to Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah immediately declaring that the country’s de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty would be extended to include laws within the SPC. However, the death by stoning law has not been repealed, while Brunei’s LGBT community remains at very real risk of whipping, jail sentences and fines.
While the laws targeting Brunei’s LGBT community are not yet widely enforced, in March 2015, a man was fined BND1,000 after pleading guilty to crossdressing in a public place, and in August 2016, another man was charged with a similar offence.
In November 2019, seven months after Brunei implemented the final phases of the Sharia Penal Code, Canada granted Zoey the status of protected person. In extending to Zoey this status, the Canadian Government determined that she was in danger of persecution in Brunei on the grounds that, as a transgender person, she belongs to an at risk social group.
Beyond the obvious risk of persecution under the law, transgender people in Brunei face a myriad of other challenges.
Toby is a Bruneian transgender man who has lived in the United Kingdom since 2012. Toby, who prefers to identify as non-binary and use the pronouns they/them, considers access to safe and appropriate healthcare to be a primary concern for transgender people throughout Southeast Asia, and particularly in Brunei. It is one of the reasons why they have chosen to transition from female to male in the UK rather than Brunei.
Toby said that the Brunei government is “trying to police everyone’s body” by declaring as haram certain medication such as birth control pills, and they believe that the hormones needed for a transgender person to transition could be viewed in the same light.
“If I have a prescription for [testosterone], I would probably have to declare it when going back to Brunei and they might confiscate it,” Toby said. “Then they will know [that I am transgender]. This is the biggest nightmare for all trans people – just going to a border checkpoint is a nightmare.”
Unable to access appropriate healthcare, many transgender people are forced to turn to the black market online for the hormones and medication they need. In doing so, they are putting their health at serious risk, with the US’ Food and Drug Administration warning that “rogue sites often sell unapproved drugs … that contain dangerous ingredients”.
Stigma further compounds the challenges faced by Brunei’s transgender people, making it difficult for those who are transgender to earn an income and provide for themselves. Toby believes that most of the prejudice in Brunei is targeted at transwomen and stems from a lack of understanding about what it means to be transgender.
That’s actually one of the reasons I feel safe … Most Bruneians don’t understand that transmen exist. They don’t know I exist
Transwomen in Brunei are commonly referred to as “crossdressers” or “freaks”, while there is a widely held assumption throughout Southeast Asia that all transwomen are sex workers. This stigma contributes to a cycle where transgender people struggle to find meaningful employment and so, in turn, are forced into sex work as a means of survival.
Transmen, on the other hand, often lack visibility.
“That’s actually one of the reasons I feel safe,” said Toby. “Most Bruneians don’t understand that transmen exist. They don’t know I exist.”
This can be a double-edged sword. While existing in the shadows may afford transmen a degree of safety and security not available to transwomen, it also makes it much more difficult for gender questioning young people to understand their feelings. According to Toby, this means that many transmen only “come into themselves later because they don’t know that transmen exist”.
While as children both Zoey and Toby demonstrated traits of being transgender, it was not until they were much older that either of them fully understood and began to openly embrace their trans identity.
“It was from very early on I knew I was transgender, but I just didn’t know what the name of it was,” said Zoey. She added that she feared being outed as LGBT so tried to hide her identity.
“I knew [Brunei] was such a conservative Muslim country [and] the worst case scenario for me then was being imprisoned or discriminated against, either through close family members or friends or acquaintances of mine.”
For Toby, the realisation that they are transgender came much later and it has only been in the last two years, after living in the UK for several years, that they have started to come out as trans. This is despite Toby having had what they describe as a “typical trans boy childhood” and recalls being “a little girl who hated the fact that they were called a girl”.
In 2019, Toby began socially transitioning as a transgender man. This started with Toby adopting they/them as their preferred pronouns and was followed about two months later by cutting their hair, which had always been kept long. This was a profound moment for Toby, who came to realise that a lot of the dysphoria they had been experiencing was connected to their hair. Around the same time, Toby also began wearing a chest binder and replaced most of their clothing.
“[Now] every time I walk past a window, [I find myself] staring and I actually enjoy seeing my reflection,” Toby said. “I really thought that I was a happy person before, but I realise in hindsight that I wasn’t. I’m much happier now.”
Although Toby is seemingly comfortable with their trans identity, they remain fearful about people back in Brunei finding out who they are. It is a fear that is shared by most LGBT Bruneians and is well justified. Aside from the stigma, discrimination and risk of legal penalties that LGBT Bruneians face, there is also a very real risk of being forced to undergo “corrective” treatment.
At the age of just 11 or 12 years old, Zoey was forced by her parents to undergo a “cleansing” with a man she describes as being like a shaman after they became concerned about her sexuality. During the session, Zoey was made to sit naked with just a towel covering her groin while the man poured water over her head and chanted verses from the Qur’an. This left Zoey feeling violated and less trusting of her parents.
It is unclear how widespread such practices are in Brunei, but governments throughout Southeast Asia are increasingly endorsing the use of conversion therapy – the practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation through psychological, physical or spiritual measures – against LGBT people.
In March, legislation that will force LGBT people to undergo “rehabilitation” at religious treatment centres was introduced in Indonesia’s House of Representatives. And in July, Malaysia’s Minister of Religious Affairs, Zulkifi Mohamad Al-Bakri, gave Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department authorities “full licence to carry out its enforcement actions” against transgender people in Malaysia, including arresting them and providing them with “religious education” so that they will “return to the right path”.
However, Toby’s greatest concern about being identified as transgender in Brunei is the discrimination that their family could face because of it.
“I’m very cautious about my identity, [but] it’s not really about discrimination against me per se,” said Toby. “I also don’t want [my family] to be discriminated against because of it.”
While Toby has now revealed their transgender identity to a couple of trusted fellow Bruneians, they are ever mindful that Brunei’s small population means that “everybody kind of knows each other with a couple of degrees of separation”.
Toby also recognises that the country has changed a lot and become much more conservative in the eight years since they moved away, as is evident by implementation of the Sharia Penal Code.
While LGBT people throughout Southeast Asia continue to face their own challenges and persecution, Toby said that facing these challenges can be even more difficult for LGBT Bruneians. Whereas in countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia there are spaces where LGBT people can express themselves, get support and gain a greater understanding of who they are, the same cannot be said of Brunei.
“I’m really grateful because I [found] a community in London that gave me resources and gave me space to figure out who I am,” said Toby. “In Brunei, there is zero of that.”
Matthew Woolfe is the founder of human rights group The Brunei Project