Skip to main content

Malaysia's first openly gay pastor to marry

By Elizabeth Yuan, CNN
  • He chose Malaysia's Independence Day to "remind keep fighting"
  • A Chinese-Malaysian, he plans a Chinese wedding banquet in Kuala Lumpur next year
  • Homosexuality is prosecutable under Malaysia's Penal Code 377
  • Both Ngeo and his fiance's previous marriages had been with women

(CNN) -- Malaysia's first openly gay pastor has chosen Wednesday, coinciding with the country's Independence Day, to get married to his American partner in New York, barely a month after same-sex marriage became legalized there.

"It means a lot to be married that day, to honor my country and people in Malaysia," said Rev. Boon Lin Ngeo, who also goes by his pen name O.Young or Ouyang Wen Feng, in a telephone call from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Malaysia's Sabah state, during a visit there last week.

He said the date was chosen to remind others that "we need to keep fighting for our rights and be independent from all kinds of oppression."

The two plan to make it legal at New York's City Hall at noon with the actual wedding ceremony on another date. A Chinese-Malaysian, Ngeo also plans a Chinese wedding banquet in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur next year for family and friends.

In Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim nation, sodomy and "carnal intercourse against the order of nature,"-- under which homosexuality falls -- are prosecutable under Penal Code 377. Offenders face imprisonment of up to 20 years and a whipping. Islamic Sharia laws in Malaysia also criminalize homosexuality.

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia declined a request by CNN to comment on gay marriage, with the public affairs spokeswoman calling it "a very sensitive issue and not a common lifestyle."

The marriage is the second for both Ngeo, 41, and his fiancé, Phineas Newborn III, 47, a Broadway producer and performer as well as progeny of two generations of jazz musicians whose name he bears. Newborn has a daughter from his previous marriage; both men's prior marriages were with women and ended in divorce.

"A lot of gay people, because of prejudice and discrimination, hide themselves in a heterosexual marriage because of social pressures, family pressures," Ngeo said. "So they lead a double life. That's no good to anyone. There are a lot of straight people who have been hurt by this discrimination."

A lot of gay people, because of prejudice and discrimination, hide themselves in a heterosexual marriage
--Rev. Boon Lin Ngeo

Ngeo said he had believed his wife was sent as an angel of God to get rid of his homosexuality. "We were good friends, but something was missing," he said.

In 1998, two years into his marriage, Ngeo went to the United States to study sociology and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. "It was an eye-opening experience," he said. "I began to look at Christianity from new perspectives and the Bible from new perspectives and realized there are many theologies out there, many theologians, relatively different understandings of the Bible from Christian fundamentalism."

Another formative milestone was when Ngeo went to New York in 2001 to pursue his Ph.D. in sociology at City University of New York. There he attended the New York City congregation of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), which was founded in 1968 as a ministry that welcomed gays, bisexuals and transgendered people.

"It was a very empowering experience for me to be in a church, and I didn't have to deny my sexuality," he said. "I could be very honest with myself, with all church members and also with God."

Queer theology took its place next to liberation theology and feminist theology, he said. "Christian fundamentalism is just one school, not the only one."

According to Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng, a gay theologian and member of the MCC theologies team who had been assistant pastor when Ngeo was struggling to come out, queer theology has developed since the 1950s. In his new book, "Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology," Cheng argues that radical love, "a love so extreme that it dissolves our existing boundaries," including "gay" vs. "straight," "male" vs. "female," lies at the heart of queer theology.

"Given that theology literally means "God talk," Cheng explained, referring to its Greek etymology, "queer theology can be defined as queer (that is, lesbian gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people talking about God."

"It is presumed that we have nothing to say about Christianity and/or the Christian tradition is opposed to our very existence," he added in an email.

Queer theology has increasingly appeared within the curricula of U.S. divinity schools, including the Chicago Theological Seminary, Episcopal Divinity School where Cheng taught a course this summer, and Harvard Divinity School, which is expected to offer a course next year. Durham University and the University of Birmingham in the UK also offer such courses.

When Ngeo came out to his wife in 2001, he recalled her saying that she had known. "She encouraged me to come out, to live my life, and she's been very supportive, and we remain very good friends until today."

Ngeo did not come out publicly until 2006, a year after his divorce, with the publication of his book, "Is Now the Future? An Asian Gay Man's Coming Out Journey."

The following year, Ngeo, newly ordained in New York, helped Joe Pang, a youth pastor, found the Good Samaritan Metropolitan Community Church in Kuala Lumpur. Pang was barred from the ministry of his Baptist church after revealing he was gay.

"We don't call ourselves a gay church," Ngeo said. "It's a Christian church that welcomes everyone."

Their church remains unrecognized by the Christian Federation of Malaysia, which comprises the country's three main Christian groups: Council of Churches of Malaysia, the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship and the Roman Catholic Church.

CFM's chairman, Bishop Ng Moon Hing, speaking not on behalf of the group but in his capacity as Anglican Bishop of West Malaysia, said in an email, "I believe everyone has his own right to do anything he wishes as long as that does not contravene the law of the land and the law of God (according to the faith he belongs).

"For my Church, we do not endorse same-sex marriage or gay ordination, but we love gay people just like any other humans. We will continue to pray for this gay pastor and his so-called gay church that one day they will see the orthodox teaching of their faith. The Anglican Church in West Malaysia believe the Bible teaches the sanctity of marriage of one man-one woman as husband and wife in a family."

Ngeo said he does not believe Christianity is against gays. "It's just the interpretation of some Christian fundamentalists," he said. "The Bible has been used to justify homophobia in the same way it has been used to justify slavery or the persecution of those who disagree with the church."

Ngeo said a literal interpretation of the Bible was dangerous. "You're making it an idol. You need to know the historical context of the Bible," he added.

Now an author and editor of 25 books -- among them "God Loves Gays," "Gays Love God" and "Our Stories," a collection of coming-out stories by ethnic Chinese -- Ngeo is finishing his dissertation for a doctorate in theology at Boston University. (He has yet to complete his doctorate in sociology.) He'll be teaching a course in women and gender's studies at CUNY as well as "Introduction to Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Studies" at Saint Peter's College, the only Jesuit college in New Jersey.

David S. Surrey, professor and chair of the sociology and urban studies department at St. Peter's, said the course was very popular and among many Ngeo has taught at the school. "His student reviews reflect on his strong teaching and his inclusion of all groups in the discussion," Surrey wrote in an email.

Ngeo said the toughest opposition he's faced is not from "religious bigots or straight people, but gay people who have internalized homophobia."