The Malaysian authorities are at the centre of an increasingly heated row after it emerged that 66 Muslim boys identified by teachers as "effeminate" had been dispatched to a special camp to discourage them from becoming gay.
In an incident that highlights the difficulties faced by gay people in a country where homosexuality is officially illegal and homophobia widespread, educators in the conservative eastern state of Terengganu sent the children aged 13-17 for counselling on so-called masculine behaviour and self-development. They also received religious guidance and physical education sessions.
"[The camp] is to guide them back to the right path in life before they reach a point of no return," Razali Daud, the state's director of education, told the Associated Press. "Such effeminate behaviour is unnatural and will affect their studies and their future."
It is the first time Terengganu officials have organised such a camp, but they have previously arranged programmes to promote Muslim morality and have offered free honeymoons for couples set to get divorced – with the hope of rekindling romance.
Mr Razali said the camps were voluntary and no boys were forced to attend. At the end of the four-day camp, teachers and parents will monitor and continue advising them, he said
"It is not an overnight cure," he said. "We can't force the boys to change, but we want them to know what their choices are in life. Some effeminate boys end up as a transvestite or a homosexual, but we want to do our best to limit this."
Malaysia's Women's Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil told local media the programme broke the law and should be banned. "It is in clear violation of the Child Act," she said. "The experience of being singled out on the basis of perceived characteristics is an extremely traumatising experience, particularly for adolescent teens."
Gay rights activists say the incident highlights the challenge they face as they struggle for equality. Pang Khee Teik, the co-founder of a Malaysian sexual rights awareness group, said the camp was outrageous. "If we don't do anything to stop the rot of homophobia, I worry it may get worse," he said.
Gay Malaysians say they face discrimination from policies such as a law that makes gay sex punishable by 20 years in prison. While the so-called anti-sodomy law is not commonly enforced, it has been selectively used.
The most high-profile such case relates to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is on trial on charges of having sex with a male former aide. Mr Anwar, who is married with six children, insists the charge was fabricated to smear his reputation. The government denies this.
It is the second time he has been so accused. He was charged in 1999 and sentenced to nine years in jail, then freed on appeal in 2004. In the latest twist, he is accused of appearing in a video of a man having sex with a woman. He says it is an attempt to frame him.
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