Whippings, prison and death by stoning: To be gay in Brunei

Written by Phil Coatsworth

Illustrated by Bee Anderson

On Saturday 6th April, hundreds of people waving rainbow flags and holding signs with phrases such as “Love is love” and “If you’re going to whip us we’re going to need a safe word” gathered outside The Dorchester hotel on Park Lane.

Protestors outside The Dorchester hotel in London. (Ella Braidwood)
Saturday 6th April protests at The Dorchester (Source: Pink News)

This event was not, however, a typical LGBTQ+ pride parade, but a crowd of protestors angry with the government of Brunei.

The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, has been widely condemned across the world for introducing Sharia law into the country’s penal code.

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Hassanal Bolkiah and Vladimir Putin (Source: en.kremlin.ru)

It’s a process that was first announced in 2013 but has finally come into full effect, and full global awareness, on Wednesday 3rd April 2019.

These laws, which apply to Muslims in Brunei, include punishments such as amputation for theft, 40 whips and/or 10 years jail time for lesbian sex and, the most widely condemned, death by stoning for sodomy, i.e. sex between gay men.

Notable celebrities, including George Clooney, Ellen DeGeneres and Elton John, have called for a boycott of Brunei-owned luxury hotels. Included are world famous hotels such as The Beverly Hills Hotel in California and The Dorchester in London.

Boycotting five-star hotels, however, is beyond the means of most people, and so a protest against the Brunei-owned Dorchester hotel was organised by Benali Hamdache, a campaigner for the Green Party.

One thing I noticed at the protest was the diversity of the crowd, with people of all ethnicities, gender presentations and religious expression.

Peter Tatchell and Emily Thornberry speaking on Saturday (Source: LBC)

Oftentimes this is not something necessarily observed at traditional pride celebrations, where the demographic is primarily white and religion is almost non-existent.

I remember at London Pride 2018 watching the parade and being both excited and surprised when a Christian group came past; having been raised Catholic, religion is something I still somewhat identify with.

The unusual diversity of the protestors at the Dorchester is reflected by the Stonewall riots of 1969, where people gathered by necessity rather than for enjoyment or celebration, therefore opening up the doors to any and all who felt affected and needed to get their voices heard, rather than just serving a specific part of a community.

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Stonewall riots 1969 (Source: LGBTCenterNYC)

I remember one protestor arguing that Brunei is not the only country to have the death penalty for gay sex, but that there are a number of countries that also have the same system of Sharia law and that we as a group should be protesting all these countries.

While he is technically correct, I believe putting all the blame on Sharia law is unjust, as other non-Islamic countries also have harsh punishments for same-sex sexual activity.

Many anti-LGBTQ+ laws are also present due to the extent of British colonialism; India in 2018 legalised same-sex activity, of which a law against it was only put in place in the colonial-era.

All sexualities finally became subject to privacy laws in India last year (Source: VOA News)

The protest outside the Dorchester was not simply a protest against Sharia law, but against a growing sense of an increase in homophobia.

There have been numerous well publicised instances of homophobia around the world in recent times, including the banning of LGBTQ+ education in Russia, the persecution of gay men in Chechnya, and backlash against an inclusivity class in Birmingham where LGBTQ+ issues were to be discussed.

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Protests in Birmingham (Source: BBC)

The case of Brunei is horrific not only because of the death penalty against LGBTQ+ people, but it is far worse because a country in the modern world has introduced such laws, especially when it is hoped humanity is striving towards equality rather than away.

This is a time to be inclusive of all people and not point the finger at certain religions. We need to close these divides, not make them bigger.

After all, it is our brothers and sisters in Brunei, and around the world, who may be a different race, religion or other identity to ourselves who are in desperate need of help.

Phil Coatsworth and Vala Biggart holding their sign at the protests on Saturday

The Author

Phil is currently doing a PhD in Bioengineering at Imperial College London. He is an avid lover of witty protest signs, all things Kate Bush and water colour painting.

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