Pride Month: LGBTQI+ in South East Asia

** For the purposes of being concise this article uses the acronym LGBTQI+ we hope this feels inclusive of the community as a whole.

From everyone at Women Going Beyond we’d like to wish you a Happy Pride Month! While this year unfortunately again means that for many it is not possible to celebrate in the traditional way of attending a pride parade, none the less, this is an important time to show our support for the LGBTQI+ community in whatever way feels meaningful. At this time it is also important to draw attention to the worldwide inequality of those who still do not have their rights to love and live on their own terms. ‘Walk for those who can’t’ is an important aspect of celebrating pride.

As we are an organization whose activism is largely focussed on south east Asia, we would like to draw attention to the experience of being LGBTQI+ on that continent. The geographical area of south east Asia is a large landmass, which it is first important that we define. For the purposes of this article, I will use the countries included in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). These 10 nations are:

  • Brunei

  • Cambodia

  • Indonesia

  • Laos

  • Malaysia

  • Myanmar

  • The Phillippines

  • Singapore

  • Thailand

  • Vietnam

Across these nations there is a large amount of diversity, they are not homogenous in terms of values, languages or cultural norms. The infographic below demonstrates some of the variations that exist across the continent in terms of gay rights. Most notable is Brunei, which separates itself as a country with severe lack of freedom for its LGBTQI+ citizens. Under 2014 Sharia-based law, LGBTQI+ individuals are subject to the death penalty for same-sex relationships between men, and whipping between females. Freedom house gives Brunei a lowly 28/100 in its categorization of 2020 Freedom in the World.

Before proceeding any further, it needs to be addressed the influence colonial history has on the continent of Asia. For example, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore were all affected by Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalized same-sex activity, a direct ruling that came from old British colonial power. The varying levels of colonial influence is an undeniable factor in local attitudes towards the LGBTQI+ community, particularly its negative consequences in these three countries.

In Thailand, the notion persists that homosexuality is a ‘karmic punishment’ for heterosexual misconduct in a previous life. Thailand and the Philippines are the more favorable countries for LBGTQI+ folks as they are the only two, to date, who have national-level laws on anti-discrimination. However, no country yet has protective laws written into their constitution.

One of the predominant religions in south east Asia is Theravada Buddhism, which doesn’t have a strong stance on policing LGBTQI+. Most commonly people refer to the third of the Five Precepts, that states ‘refrain from committing sexual misconduct’, but sexual misconduct is taken broadly and doesn’t specifically target same-sex relationships. Abstinence is expected of both Buddhist monks and nuns regardless of sexual orientation.

Instead, as the result of colonial history or otherwise, societal and cultural norms are much the root of the lack of acceptance within south east Asia. While in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and The Philippines, and Indonesia, homosexuality is not criminalized, discrimination is prevalent. This is inclusive not just in terms of opportunities but acts of public violence towards members of the community.

Outright international calls for a multi-faceted approach to greater human rights in the ASEAN region, due to the vast cultural diversity. An important element of this is holding states accountable and utilizing new media to portray positive LGBTQI+ role models. Improving these standards will have benefits across the board for the nation as a whole.

Love Factories in Cambodia

The Kingdom of Cambodia is on the Indochinese mainland of south east Asia. While comparatively it is more progressive than some of its neighbors, that progress has been slow. Outside of the capital of Phnom Penh, there is lower visibility for LGBTQI+ individuals. While it is generally considered a safe place to travel for LGBTQI+ foreigners, locals are not always well received by their communities.

This short documentary by Journeyman pictures, highlighted the gender inequality in the way the LGBT women are treated in parts of Cambodia. Lesbian women in particular were subject to enormous pressure from their families to enter into a homosexual marriage, sometimes resulting in alienation from their families. Sor Kanika, featured in the short film, fled to a local factory where she lived with her girlfriend, until her parents forced her to change jobs.

An estimated 55,000 Cambodians are subjected to forced marriages every year. Much like in Thailand, some believe that same-sex orientation is a result of karma, bad spirits or mental illness and attempts at trying to ‘cure’ homosexuality are not unheard of. There is still a prevalent stigma against LGBTQI+ people even if there is no legislation against them.

Moving Forward

In 2018, India made the landmark decision to decriminalize same-sex sexual activity, a move that had ramifications across the continent. Then in 2019, Taiwan made a revolutionary move to legalize same-sex marriage. Both of these are notable steps in the fight for LGBTQI+ rights as a whole, that have an effect across the entire continent.

Later in 2019, the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, met to discuss how to enhance Asia’s underrepresented role in LGBTQI+ conversations. They describe the region as on a ‘tipping point’ in terms of achieving the legal rights for its members, but acknowledged also the need for reform of attitudes in society in order to achieve inclusivity. After removing the legislation that discriminates members of the community and replacing it with laws that protect them, there needs to be an increase in visibility of positive role models and more education about LGBTQI+ issues.

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