Malaysian authorities have sent 66 Muslim schoolboys identified by teachers as effeminate to a four-day camp where they will receive counseling on masculine behavior to discourage them from being gay, an official said Tuesday.
Gay rights advocates decried the measure as a symptom of widespread homophobia in this Muslim-majority country where gay sex is illegal.
The boys between 13 and 17 years old reported Monday for what is officially being called a "self-development course" after their schoolteachers in Terengganu state identified them as students who displayed effeminate mannerisms, said Razali Daud, the state's education director.
They will undergo religious and motivational classes and physical guidance, Razali said. He declined to give further details.
The camp is meant "to guide them back to the right path in life before they reach a point of no return," Razali told The Associated Press. "Such effeminate behavior is unnatural and will affect their studies and their future."
It is the first such program in Terengganu, a conservative state. Over the years, Terengganu's officials have held programs aimed at promoting Muslim morality, such as offering free honeymoons to save the marriages of couples considering divorce.
Razali denied the boys were compelled to attend the camp, saying they were simply "invited" to do so. After it ends, their teachers and parents will monitor and continue advising them.
"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."
Pang Khee Teik, the co-founder of a Malaysian sexual rights awareness group, called the camp "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 government policies such as a law that makes sodomy punishable by 20 years in prison. The law is seldom and selectively enforced, but some states also impose jail terms for public cross-dressing.
Last year, a young gay Malaysian who posted a Youtube clip defending his sexuality received online death threats. Government authorities accused him of insulting Islam, though no official action was taken.
Malaysia's most high-profile use of the anti-sodomy law involves opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is on trial on charges of having sex with a male former aide. Anwar, who is married with six children, insists the charge was fabricated to smear his reputation. The government denies plotting against him.