Hans How: The Malaysian Gay Man Fighting for His Life, and Many Other LGBT Asylum Seekers
In Malaysia, Hans How experienced extreme homophobia at home, school, and as a victim of gang violence. Now he’s seeking asylum in the U.S., and helping other LGBT asylum seekers.
Moments after Hans How was queerbashed by a gang, two watching policeman taunted him with the possibility of being arrested and imprisoned, and murdered in jail. One of those policemen then pushed How to the ground and spat on him.
At the time How was 15 years old, walking from his all-boys’ school to the train station in Kuala Lumpur at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon on his way home. The gang of four young men, one from his class at school, surrounded him, calling him “pondan,” Malaysian slang for “faggot.”
Two of the gang physically restrained How, while the other two, one of whom was a classmate of his, beat him up. “Obviously, I was very scared,” How recalled in a recent interview. “I sort of expected it was going to happen one day. I was attacked and targeted at a much younger age, especially starting from the age of 13, but the most intense attack that I remember vividly was the attack by gang members when I was 15.”
There is scant support for LGBT youth, or LGBT equality and people generally, in Malaysia. Parents are encouraged to send children they suspect of being LGBT to “conversion camps,” as How calls them. (His own parents were advised to do the same.) Bullying is rife. Same-sex sex is illegal, and LGBT people widely condemned and stigmatized. How’s parents beat him.
Today, How is in a unique situation: Now 24 years old and based in San Francisco, he is in the early stages of applying for asylum in the United States at the same time as helping lead Asylum Connect, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBT asylum seekers and which has built an online resource guide to help LGBT asylum seekers find safe, high-quality resources during the U.S. asylum process.
The organization, of which How is vice president, was co-founded in 2014 by Katie Sgarro and gay asylum seeker Sayid Abdullaev at the University of Pennsylvania.
The support that Asylum Connect offers is vital. As The Daily Beast’s Samantha Allen reported in April, there are large numbers of LGBT asylum seekers in the United States “who are stuck in a large backlog of applications that has grown to unmanageable levels under the Trump administration.”
The stakes for How are high. A recent editorial he wrote, documenting and condemning the anti-LGBT laws and homophobia of his home country and published in independent Malaysian media outlets, went viral, bringing praise and condemnation—and, he believes, leading the police to his family’s home in Kuala Lumpur to look for him.
“It is time for Malaysian politicians to repeal anti-LGBTQ laws,” How wrote. “We need anti-discriminatory structures in place to help protect Malaysians from all walks of life.”
How is “terrified” for his life if he is deported back to Malaysia, but he is determined to keep speaking up over injustice and inequality and helping others through his work at Asylum Connect.
"Gay kids have been routinely attacked and targeted," he said. "As a kid, I was going through something many other people might have experienced but did not have the courage to talk about. That day I was beaten up I was very scared, and then it was over."
Except it wasn't. Nearby there was a police car, with two officers inside. They had heard the gang calling him "pondan," and one officer asked How what was going on. "Obviously I was crying, very afraid. One of them said, 'That gang beat you up because you are gay.'"
How said he knew he could not tell the officers he was gay. The colonial-era crime of sodomy remains illegal in Malaysia, as does "gross indecency" between men. Transgender people are subject to "assault, extortion, and violations of their privacy rights" by police, according to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report.
According to HRW, "Numerous Sharia-based laws and regulations prohibiting a 'man posing as a woman,' sexual relations between women, and sexual relations between men effectively criminalize LGBT people."
The sentence for those found guilty of sodomy, under 377A of the country's penal code, is up to 20 years in prison and whipping. Most LGBT people in Malaysia try to stay as "invisible as possible" to avoid police detection, How said. "They stay in the closet. It's not safe to come out."
The day he was attacked, How recalled that one of the officers took him by the collar and said, "Is it true you are gay? And do you know what the consequences are if you are?"
Terrified of the cops, their taunting, their power and his vulnerability, How responded that he was not gay, that there had been a misunderstanding and that he was trying to get home after school.
The other policeman laughed at How as the young man wept. How saw he had a gun in a holster at his waist. He told How, "If we arrest you and you go to jail, you could get killed. It isn't common for there to be gay Malaysians in prisons. They could be sexually assaulted and sometimes beaten to death."
How repeated that he was not gay. The cops asked for his ID. They took down his name and full address. He was living with his family at the time. The policemen told him they now had his details, and if he was "caught" again, he knew what the consequences would be.
"The policeman who took me by collar pushed me to the ground and spat on me," How recalled.
Then the teenager went home. "I realized then it wasn't safe to remain in Malaysia."
In recalling Malaysia's many LGBT-related flashpoints, How recalled the long, complex saga around former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed twice for sodomy (and who has denied the allegation).
"Malaysia is an Islamic country, where the majority population is Muslim," said How. "Even if you're not Muslim you have to obey the very same laws. I had to be cautious in that environment and not get in trouble with police."
That is why the incident after the beating he took was so frightening. "I knew I was gay, I couldn't be open about it. I went to an all-boys' high school. I knew that maybe the way I behaved showed that it was true. The other kids there targeted me. The bullying included name-calling and intensified when some of my classmates joined gangs in the city which are very homophobic and target young kids they think are homosexual."
As well as the increase in anti-LGBT rhetoric by the authorities in Malaysia, How spoke about the Ministry of Health's invitation to Malaysians to participate in a national video contest in 2017, one specific topic being "the best ways to prevent homosexuality." There are public workshops on how to do the same, he said.
Earlier this year, Malaysian authorities banned out-lesbian Hong Kong pop star Denise Ho from performing in the country. In an extraordinary move, foreigners who are LGBT, or who can be identified as such, have also been forbidden from entering Malaysia.
"They're not only attacking local citizens, now they want to arrest people from all over world," said How. "Things are actually getting worse. I don't think things are likely to improve in my lifetime unfortunately."
How said he was brought up in a lower-middle-class home; his father was a businessman, his mother a hotel booking agent turned full-time housewife. He was a middle child with older brother and younger sister. His family was not supportive of him, indeed quite the opposite.
As a young boy, How didn't think about how to conform to social expectations, and would receive abuse, "just for acting more feminine."
"When I was younger the abuse was more from my parents," he said. "My dad liked to use a belt and the garden hose, my mom used a really long cane."
Why were they beating you, I asked.
"To correct my behavior," said How.
The beatings had begun, aged 6, with a hard slap in the face from his mother. She had caught him dressing up in her clothes ("It was just dressing up, I was a little kid"). How realized he was gay early, around the same age, from watching TV and reading magazines and books. "I had a lot of curiosity as a child. When my brother and I watched cartoons his heroes were the lead guy. I always liked the female characters."
Just like the bullies who beat him, How's father also used the word "pondan," meaning faggot, about his own child. "He told me, 'I will not have a 'pondan' in the family. I would rather not have a son than have a 'pondan' in the family,' Dad said. They made it very clear where they stood."
"They would say, 'Start acting like other boys. Why are you doing this to us? Your teachers called us and said you might be sent to this camp.'"
His school teachers had noticed the bullying How received at school, and— like the police officers who watched him get beaten up, then added to his misery by calling his parents, and suggesting that the extremely young How, then aged 7 to 9, would benefit from going to a sexuality "conversion camp to 'correct' my behavior."
His parents didn't do this; they sent him to another school. It wasn't because they objected to the idea of the camp. "If you send your son to a camp like that it brings enormous shame onto the family," How said. "There was a lot of emphasis based on the honor of the family, not the individual. If I went to the gay conversion camp, word would spread pretty quickly, people would know, and I would be at risk of getting thrown out of the house and disowned. I knew the risk, and I knew I had to start conforming just to survive."
Eventually, he had to transfer schools twice. His parents would tell him to behave "normally, like the other kids" at the new school. He would try, but after the beating by the four other boys and the police threats, "I knew I couldn't go to my parents and say, 'I've experienced all this. Please help me.' They thought the blame was always on me. 'Why can't he just man up?'"
How never came out to his parents, never had a conversation about any of it. "I wouldn't say anything. Anything I would say would just provoke them. I would just silently endure, and say that I wouldn't do it again, even though I hadn't done anything anyway."
The bullying and beatings at school got worse as How got older. When he was a teenager, the Malaysian government endorsed an anti-LGBT musical, Abnormal Desire, which school pupils were taken to see. "All the LGBTQ characters were killed by lightning in it at the end," How recalled. His friends at school found it funny, he thought it was horrible. "That's how systemic homophobia is in Malaysia," he said. "It's not one-off, it's the whole government, the whole education system, the whole society."
There are no positive role models for LGBT youth, no options. Even straight allies are put off from voicing support because of the opprobrium that is heaped upon them should they do so, said How.
How had crushes at school. He spent a lot of time with another boy who was two years older than him. "The relationship was mostly platonic, but it was clear we both liked each other. We spent a lot of time together. But after I got beaten, the very next day I saw him, he had bruises on his face. I tried to talk to him, but he was with his friends. He called me a faggot, and told me to stay away. I connected the dots. He had been attacked as well, and was trying to fit in. It was the last time I ever talked to him."
The following year, he had a friend, another classmate, who put less effort than How into fitting in. "He was flamboyant. He got attacked. His parents transferred him to another school, and before that transfer he was sent to a conversion camp. Around the same time, I had started trying to conform.
"This boy returned to school. I tried to talk to him, but he was quiet and withdrawn. Then he moved to the new school. Then I heard he had committed suicide. I was devastated, and I related to him because at that time I was thinking of doing the same thing. I thought, 'That could have been me.' The only difference was, he chose not to spent as much energy as I had, trying to 'hide.'"
"I had a severe depression, and didn't have someone to go to for help," How said of the time he considered committing suicide himself. "I felt very alone. I didn't see a solution. I couldn't go to my parents. I didn't actually make an actual suicide attempt, and when I thought about it I would try to distract myself by doing more productive things, like writing. I had things published, I won a few writing competitions."
All around him the anti-gay message was the same. As a teen, How heard Lady Gaga's 'Born This Way,' which became an inner anthem of hope. But, he said, he couldn't contemplate the possibility of ever being out. In 2017, the country even picked a fight with Disney over a gay-themed scene in Beauty and The Beast (later backing down over a threat to cut the scene).
When How was 18 in 2011, he participated in a street demonstration, calling for fairer and more democratic electoral processes in Malaysia. He was about to apply for entry into local colleges and universities.
The protest turned violent, he said. The police and the military deployed tear gas and began beating protesters. He witnessed the whole thing, even though his parents had not wanted him to participate in case he got arrested and "blacklisted" in terms of his university ambitions, future employment, healthcare, and housing. The government could also stop you from traveling out of the country, he noted.
He managed to get home without getting arrested, and wrote an essay about the demonstration and electoral process. It was published, won a prize, his name was revealed.
All his applications for local colleges were subsequently rejected; in some phone calls, those colleges explained How's name was indeed on a blacklist. He had wanted to study law. "I thought it was the only way that I could be, in the future, in some kind of position to change things in Malaysia in the long term," he said.
He had hoped to get a scholarship. "I was obviously devastated. I had done well in high school and could not go to college."
Determined to fulfill his potential and find a means of escape, How applied for colleges in the U.K. and U.S. which offered merit-based scholarships. "I knew they were my only ticket out of this environment," he said. At the same time, he observed the worsening state of LGBT rights in Malaysia. "Extremist religious groups had gained much more prominence, and conservatives were becoming more vocal in their views on LGBTQ."
How received a scholarship from the Freeman Foundation to study in the U.S. At the time, How was still closeted. "For me, my safety and survival were a top priority rather than coming out and putting myself in situation where I was a target, prosecuted, and my future destroyed."
In 2013, aged 19, he left Malaysia to study economics at Wesleyan University, Connecticut. It was his much-wished-for new life, though he was still heavily traumatized.
"It was a great four years, but I spent a fair amount of time with the college therapist," said How. "I had a lot of issues to understand. I blamed myself for who I was. I asked, 'Why can't I be normal?' I wasn't accepting of myself. I didn't know I could be.' I used to have a lot of nightmares about what had happened.'"
In his junior year in 2016, How came to New York City to do an internship, and met, through apps, the first out gay men he had ever known. He had his first kiss: "It didn't feel forced or unnatural." (He is currently single, and going on dates.) "I met so many great, interesting gay men. I went to the Stonewall Inn, which was so huge for me. I didn't know I would ever reach that point of going to that place and being proud of who I am. But I did it."
The breakthrough, said How, was being away from Malaysia, "and the longer I am away, the easier it is to be who I truly am inside. Without all the mental and physical harassment, I realize it's OK. I can just be who I am."
In 2016 he attended his first Pride march for the first time in New York. "Hillary Clinton was there that year. There were so many people happy with who they were. I felt the same. I could finally be who I was. It definitely helped my own acceptance."
How began the process of applying for asylum last November. He has a work permit. He's amassing supporting letters for his application, and is awaiting a date for his asylum interview.
How misses his friends and the food of Malaysia. But he doesn't miss how oppressive the environment was. "I don't miss the things I went through, the government, the media. That's why I made the decision to become a little more public on where I stand. Many asylum seekers come to this country, without access to any useful resources."
How's viral polemic attracted hundreds of comments. A professor at an Islamic university in Malaysia reposted it, and said How was wrong, which led to the professor's followers posting hateful comments, including encouraging How to kill himself. "They've also told me not to return to Malaysia, that 'this country doesn't need someone like you.'"
How did not respond to his critics. He also heard from LGBT Malaysians, grateful to hear an all-too-rare voice of support—such as from a transgender man getting thrown out of his home by unaccepting parents. He asked How what should he do; How passed on what useful contacts he had, which were not many. The only useful nonprofit, he said, was the AIDS-based PT Foundation. There are no LGBT-specific organizations.
How also heard from a gay man who had had sex with another man who was now blackmailing him, "saying if he doesn't give him all his money he'll report him to the police, which could lead to this man going to jail. There are LGBT people in Malaysia experiencing such persecution and harassment."
How is not out to his parents, even if the editorial that was published effectively outed him. He said they are not tech-savvy and had not seen it. His brother, however, has been left "very concerned. Even though he doesn't necessarily support or agree with me, he knew that we cannot let our parents know because the consequence would that I would get disowned. He's trying his best to keep things quiet."
However, a few months ago, just after the article was published, two police officers came to the family home. How's brother was there alone. They asked where How was. His brother told them he was not living there. They told him to let them know if How ever returned to Malaysia.
"That's when I realized I'd put myself in danger by writing a simple article. I didn't think it was that big a deal. I wasn't naming public officials. I felt bad about my brother being roped into a situation he shouldn't have been in the first place. He's about to start his own family."
How thought about writing a second editorial, but hasn't—yet at least—because of how it would affect his family.
But you're talking very publicly to The Daily Beast, this reporter said.
"I told my brother there's nothing they can do, because I am here," said How. He felt his family had nothing to fear because they have committed no crime. "I'm the one who has committed 'a crime,'" said How, raising his fingers as quotation marks around the last two words.
The possibility that his application for asylum would be denied is "frightening. It's different if the government doesn't know who you are, and you can just go back anonymously. But it's not a great life in the closet. And now I've outed myself with my role at Asylum Connect. The dangers have become even more real. That just inspires me to do more work with Asylum Connect because what we do creates so much impact. I know that there are a lot of people out there in different countries who are unfortunately still persecuted, and I want to do all I can to provide safe resources for them."
His case of persecution is well-documented, he said. The authorities here can see the dangers he faces in Malaysia, as well as what the general LGBTQ populus faces there.
The Trump administration's rhetoric and practice around asylum seekers and migrants—and towards LGBT people—has been "stressful" for How to observe as he has made his application for asylum. But he is still determined to fight for LGBT asylum seekers, even while he is one himself.
"I have a personal connection to it. I understand their pain and where they're coming from because I was Asylum Connect's target audience myself. I used their catalog of resources when I arrived here. Now I live in a country where I can be safe. I'm speaking from a place of privilege just by living here now."
How is inspired by New York City Pride March director Julian Sanjivan, also from Malaysia, who successfully applied for asylum here. "The fact he is so visible is great, and that he has no doubts about being so visible. He shows how important it is to speak out, to be a voice for people who don't have that voice."
How has volunteered for Asylum Connect for almost a year and a half. As well as seeking donations for their work, the group also is also looking for staff and volunteers. Their clients, said How, are seeking to escape LGBT persecution in Middle Eastern countries like Iran and Iraq, from African countries like Uganda and Ethiopia, from Russia, and from Asian countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, and Malaysia.
The special issues LGBT asylum seekers face are centered around the persecution they have faced because of their sexuality or gender identity. Asylum Connect helps connect them with the best legal and other representation. As with How himself, many LGBT asylum seekers are heavily traumatized because of experiences in their home countries.
The bar is "getting higher" in the U.S., said How; many asylum seekers try to enter more accepting, pro-LGBT countries like Canada and those within Europe.
How remains quietly optimistic. He graduated from Wesleyan last May, moved to San Francisco, and got a job working in commercial real estate.
He has volunteered for San Francisco Pride, "and found a community that is very accepting, that is not just tolerated but celebrated. Every June the whole city celebrates Pride. This year I marched in Pride, which I would never have imagined doing a couple of years ago—marching in one of the largest Pride parades in the world.
"I'm thrilled to meet people who are very passionate about social issues. At the same time they understand being gay in San Francisco is a privilege. We get to enjoy certain things many people don't in other parts of the country, and other parts of the world, do not. I'm very aware of that."
How added quietly, "The life I'm living now is so different from the life I had in the past. When I look back I realize I had something similar in common with LGBTQ people who experience persecution: a sense of resilience. When things become very difficult, you try to find ways to be resourceful and survive in that environment. That quality is what makes the LGBT community so wonderful. It's why we continue to try and make progress."
Does he fear for his life if sent back to Malaysia? "Absolutely, especially with the backlash against the article I wrote," How said.
From afar, How hopes to campaign for change in Malaysia. The editorial he published certainly created an impact. "I want to make sure the government and public officials know that what do to LGBTQ people is wrong. I hope I can find a way to help unravel the laws in place that persecute the LGBTQ community, and the way to do that from this country is to make sure the government knows how wrong the laws are, and how it should do better to give LGBTQ people basic protections."
To any LGBT Malaysians reading this, How said: "Stay strong and do whatever you can to survive and not put yourself in danger. That should be your priority because unfortunately to be out is impossible. Know that there are people like me who are speaking out."
If his application for asylum is granted, How would like to go to business or law school, and create a career from that. He'd like to expand his volunteering with Asylum Connect, both nationally and internationally.
"This is so personal to me," said How. "I'm willing to risk getting targeted. I experienced persecution especially at a young age, when I did not have a role model or someone I could talk to to help. I realize how important role models are, and an awareness that there is someone out there like me able to speak my mind.
"LGBTQ youth in Malaysia are at risk of depression and suicide. I think the work I do could be very impactful if I do my best to make those people realize that things may be bad, but you have so much power to survive and thrive. By doing this work, I know the trauma I went through was worth it in some way."
To the younger gay kid version of himself, the 24-year-old one would say: "Don't be so depressed. I know things are hard, but you're stronger than you think, even though you don't have someone you could turn to. You'll succeed in whatever you do. Stay strong."
Very quietly, How said that he is involved in a "fight for my life. I'm always in survival mode. I can't make any mistakes. Everything is at stake. My life, my livelihood, my job, my ability to be myself and be happy and not be attacked. It's a huge pressure. It keeps you on your toes. You're in such a vulnerable position. Everything can be taken away in a second if you don't fight for it."
Which makes it even more impressive that, as well as fighting for himself, How is dedicated to fighting for others.
To How it simply feels the right thing to do. "Being someone who has experienced persecution, I know how important it is to fight not just for myself but for other people too."