The South Asian region has seen a lot of changes in their legal recognition of LGBTQ people in the past decade. Most of these changes have focused on gender identity, with Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan recognizing “third genders” and/or gender transition.
Nepal in particular, the only country in the region to decriminalize homosexuality, has come very, very close to beating Taiwan to legalizing same-sex marriage in Asia. After a writ petition demanding civil rights, anti-discrimination laws and reparations to LGBTQ Nepalis was submitted by the Blue Diamond Society and other LGBTQ rights organisations to the Nepali Supreme Court in 2007, the 2015 Constitution prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ people — but did not include any provisions for same-sex marriage. Specialized task forces are still hard at work at implementing same-sex marriage and protecting LGBTQ Nepalis from the violence and discrimination they still face on the regular; meanwhile, Nepal is starting to sell itself as a tourist destination for gay weddings. (Blue Diamond Society and other Nepali LGBTQ activists were contacted for comment but none had responded at the time of writing this article.)
India very nearly decriminalized homosexuality in 2009 through the repeal of Section 377, a British colonial law forbidding “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” that still exists in the books of former British colonies in South and South-East Asia, by the Delhi High Court; however, Section 377 was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 2013, who declared the repeal a “judicial overreach.” While LGBTQ communities and rights are gaining visibility in India, including India’s first and only openly gay royal Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil working on campaigns promoting safer sex and HIV/AIDS education, responses to Taiwan’s ruling have been decidedly mixed.
Annie, a representative of the Sangini (India) Trust for LGBTQ women in New Delhi, was delighted to hear about Taiwan’s ruling. “Being the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage is a big step ahead for the continent,” she says. “We are hoping that more countries would follow suit and support its LGBTQIA communities.”
Other respondents were less sanguine. “Taiwan’s law is path-breaking and their law makers are torch bearers but it will have very less impact on India,” says intersex and genderqueer activist and Commonwealth Youth Worker Award recipient Gopi Shankar Madurai. Self-described “Brown Trans Dyke” Rae adds, “India continues to be insular as always. Our local queer politics are also in [such poor] state that the ruling in Taiwan does not register as much of a victory at all. India is about as xenophobic [with regards to East Asia as China is to [South Asia / Southeast Asia], but the media does not pay much attention to their governmental happenings that much.”
Claims of India’s insularity stand in contrast to sentiments expressed by the Acting Chairperson of Bangladeshi LGBTQ magazine Roopbaan, who is currently based in the United States for personal safety after the murder of their editors Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy last year. Talking about how Bangladeshis complained to BBC Bangla about their coverage of Taiwan’s ruling “making people gay”, similar but not as intense as the complaints levied towards Roopbaan, he commented: “Funny thing is if it was India, Pakistan [or] Nepal, people [would] react differently than [they did about] Taiwan.” Indeed, bigger than Taiwan in Bangladesh news was the very recent wedding of British Bangladeshi Jahed Choudhury to his partner Sean Rogan, the first same-sex wedding in Britain to involve a Muslim — which, according to the Roopbaan Acting Chairperson, led to controversy about the United Kingdom “destroying Islam” and questioning the idea of Muslims being gay.
Both Annie and Rae brought up the current political climate as major factors affecting the treatment of and support for LGBTQ people in the region. “Although the visibilization of the community has increased through efforts in the movement, but still we have a long way to go,” says Annie. “Especially in the current political climate, there has been lesser and lesser support of the movement and several allies have gone silent even for supporting. It has become about how to tiptoe one’s way around the ‘valid’ issues so we can talk about the community.”
Rae was more pointed in her criticism of Indian politics. “The problem is that right-wing sentiment is very entrenched in India right now — solidified with the Modi Government,” she explains. “He’s disguised a conservative agenda as a progressive one. He’s pitted his own ‘economic-focused’ policy platform against the ‘frivolity’ of socially-liberal platforms like those of the AAM [Centre-Left political party Aam Aadmi Party] or Congress.”
Rae feels that the prioritization of economic concerns over social concerns — the idea of “we have better things to worry about” permeates much of Asia’s insularity, especially around LGBTQ issues. “In India as elsewhere, economic ‘concerns’ are used to disguise conservative agendas as ‘practical’ or progressive agendas as ‘fanciful.’ The mentality is the problem, not our actual agendas.”
The Acting Chairperson of Roopban is conflicted about whether Taiwan, or even Asian Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia or Indonesia could be of help to the Bangladeshi LGBTQ community, which has seen a spate of incidents such as the mass arrest of 27 gay men in May or the suicide of the moderator for a support group on Facebook, one of the main avenues for LGBTQ Bangladeshis to find support and community. “Definitely they have a lot of resources which we can utilize, but it’s more like our social-cultural situation. The most difficult thing [as a] Muslim-majority country [is that] they don’t want to go with a logical argument, they just want to hack [you] to death since [you are] not like them.” Other Muslim-majority countries could provide a frame of reference for Bangladesh on dealing with LGBTQ issues and people in the country, but right now the prevailing perception is that “LGBTQ issues are [of] Western influence which [is] destroying our culture, but they never accept that we have a long LGBTQ culture in our society.”
For LGBTQ Bangladeshis, and likely those elsewhere, personal safety and mental support has been key in ensuring the survival of their community, and media reports both positive and negative have raised the awareness of the existence of Bangladesh’s LGBTQ community. “Our community is brave and our people [are] very understandable,” says the Roopbaan Acting Chairperson. “People believe and love and respect love. We just need that support from all.”
Southeast Asia, like the Middle East, runs the gamut on laws affecting LGBTQ people. Homosexuality has been decriminalized in Timor Leste, parts of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, while there have never been laws against homosexuality in Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam. Indeed, as Cambodian LGBT community organizer Sokdom, explains, “[the] Civil Code has been passed in 2007, which has been applied in 2011, removing [the] prohibition of same-sex marriage in Cambodia. However, the law [still] mentions that marriage should be between ‘female’ and ‘male’.” Some Cambodian government officials have expressed their support for same-sex marriage. There has been one recorded case of a legally recognized same-sex marriage in Cambodia: in March 1995, between Khav Sokha and Pum Eth, two women from the Kandal province.
Prior to Taiwan, Vietnam too was in the international news as an Asian country negotiating same-sex marriage, repealing laws prohibiting same-sex marriage in 2015. Decriminalizing same-sex marriage isn’t the same as recognizing same-sex marriages legally, however, and such legal measures have not been enough to combat violence faced by Vietnamese LGBTQ people, especially youth . (LGBTQ activists and organizations based in Vietnam were contacted for comment but none responded at the time of writing.)
Laotian LGBTQ activist Anan Bouapha, who has organized Laos’s first Pride Proud To Be Us since 2012, feels that the lack of laws reflects Laos’s cultural values of “living together peacefully”. “The LGBT community lives their life happily and hardly encounter any severe hate crimes like it’s happening in many corners [of] the world.” However, there are still difficulties talking about LGBTQ issues openly in Laos, possibly because some of the population find homosexuality “still unbearable”. “So, we are in the gray area, which means that there’s a way to advocate for acceptance, but it has to be [a] very local approach, not using a [W]estern ideology in this unique environment.”
Tailoring LGBTQ advocacy to the needs of the local community is very important for the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, a collective of LGBTQ activists from eight South-East Asian countries formed at the ASEAN Civil Society Conference in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2011. Advocacy and Communications Officer Cornelius Hanung explains: “Within the South-East Asian context, we are very careful not to put the message of marriage equality in our works because we don’t want our stakeholders (and oppositions) [to] see it as the ultimate goal of our struggle.” Hanung says that while Taiwan’s ruling may positively impact countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, which are already making strides towards marriage equality, it may be detrimental to countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Brunei Darussalam that are still far from according civil rights to LGBTQ people. LGBTQ people are subject to imprisonment, fines, caning, or even the death penalty in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei Darussalam; meanwhile, while homosexuality is decriminalized in most of Indonesia (except for the province of Aceh, which publicly canes gay people), police raids and lawsuits from organizations like AILA (Aliansi Cinta Keluarga or The Family Love Alliance) aiming to criminalize LGBTQ activity have placed LGBTQ Indonesians in a very precarious position.
“Many lesbians are forced to marry men. Women aren’t seen as perfect or complete without marrying men.”
Cultural norms around gender and family play a major part in the treatment of LGBTQ people in the region. “There’s a lot of expectations going on to construct foundations of families, carrying on the family name, producing offspring and the stifling adherence to societal expectations of what constitutes success both within the work sphere and ticking checkboxes and the correct ambition makers. More so for Asian culture rather than Western, kan?” explains Malaysian queer woman Kay Lee. In recent years the Malaysian Government has claimed that LGBT rights are “deviant” and “against Islam,” held seminars helping teachers and parents to ‘identify homosexuality’ in children, and even sponsored an anti-LGBTQ musical. “The shame and stigma here is tenfold when that’s not fulfilled, and that path towards building that traditional family unit like our parents and forefathers always have simply crumbles when we are LGBTQ – either because our partner will be of the same gender, or we have difficulty adopting children, or because we are a different gender than what’s on our birth [certificate].”
Women in the region are especially affected by such expectations. “Since I became the Women’s Representative for ILGA Asia, I’ve seen that many places in Asia hold similar patriarchal traditions,” says Indonesian activist Poedjiati Tan. “Many lesbians are forced to marry men. Women aren’t seen as perfect or complete without marrying men.” For Tan, Taiwan’s ruling could help lessen the pressure on queer women. “When there are examples of marriage not needing to be with men but also with women, the pressure on women to build families will be lessened.”
The attitude of LGBTQ identities as a ‘corrupting influence from the West’ is prevalent in the region, making LGBTQ people convenient scapegoats. “Our basic rights as human beings are often stripped off of us on a daily basis: to simply exist as an open LGBTQ person in Indonesia is a struggle in and of itself,” explains media analyst, translator, and writer Fajar Zakhri. “There’s a very strong Don’t Ask Don’t Tell mentality in Indonesia, and a persistent public confusion between homosexuality and pedophilia, which is funny in its idiocy if you ask me. It’s very much, like, it’s OK if you’re gay but don’t flaunt it.”
“Everything in Brunei is not revealed — there are subtexts and cracks in our society. That includes sexuality, depression, suicide, lesbians, and gays. They exist but we just shouldn’t acknowledge it,” adds Bruneian filmmaker Abdul Zainidi, who created Brunei’s first LGBTQ film Haram Queen, about the local drag queen scene existing in a country with extremely strict anti-LGBTQ laws. “That being said, my films are not there to denounce my country — instead, I beautify it through the unusual.”
Kay Lee points out the ease in blaming supposed ‘social ills,’ from drug addiction and promiscuity to the sheer existence of LGBTQ people, on something “unMalaysian, unAsian and removed from our culture.” “If they originated or were also derived from people from an Asian culture (I mean, just look at the people in non-urban areas who are LGBTQ without much access to Western media) then that would mean the problem doesn’t come from the Western media, and that LGBTQ people can be fostered and born into any family, right? Can’t have that. Must find [an] easy way to scapegoat the untouchables.”
Religion also came up as a major factor amongst respondents in South-East Asia. “Obviously a lot of it has to do with the fact that we’re a religious country, with a heavy emphasis on Islam, and the popular notion is all religions are against the concept of LGBTQ, which of course is untrue,” says Fajar. “I’m inclined to agree. Conservative Christians are also a very formidable group in Indonesia,” adds Dede Oetomo, founder and webmaster of Indonesian LGBTQ community organization GAYa Nusantara.
Indeed, as Australian queer feminist activist and Women’s March Jakarta organizer Kate notes, these religious assumptions may affect the way Indonesians view Taiwan’s decision. “Many Indonesians do not know much about Taiwan to begin with and most are likely to claim that Taiwan is different because it is not particularly religious. […] The argument will be “That might be fine for them, but we are Muslim/Catholic/Protestant and LGBTQ is now allowed by our religion.”
Fellow Indonesian Maria C. F., who co-founded Diversity LGBT+ at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China, pushes back against both the idea of Taiwan not having to deal with religious or cultural stigma and, echoing Jordanian Queer Muslima, about Islam being a barrier to acceptance of LGBTQ people. “According to a poll conducted by Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCR) in 2013, around half of Taiwanese support same sex unions whereas 75% of the opposition came from the Christian community. In addition, there are also Taiwanese who oppose same-sex unions on the grounds of upholding traditional Chinese family tradition,” she notes. “Therefore, if the same logic is applied to Indonesia then I think ‘Islamic teaching’ is just a short-sighted excuse to justify homophobia and transphobia. The fact remains that there are prominent Muslim figures in Indonesia and overseas such as [Indonesian women’s rights activist] Dr. Siti Musdah Mulia and [Mayor of London] Sadiq Khan who strongly support LGBT+ rights.”
Indeed, as Timor-Leste LGBTQ organization Hatutan Youth demonstrated when they organized the country’s first Pride in July, having a significantly religious population does not need to be a deterrent in advancing LGBTQ rights. “It takes courage to organize such an event in a Catholic majority country who has only gotten independence for 15 years,” says Chief Coordinator Natalino Ornai Guterres, who discusses both the negative and positive responses they received about Pride, including a message of support from the Timor-Leste Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araújo.
Southeast Asia has one of the largest Chinese diasporic populations, with the Chinese making up the dominant race in Singapore and being part of the “Main 3” in Malaysia and Indonesia. Would Taiwan’s ruling then have a larger impact on Chinese LGBTQ locals compared to those of other races? Possibly. My respondents mention locals with Chinese heritage joking about moving or holidaying to Taiwan to marry, though even if they follow through it would be at best a symbolic gesture.
For some in the sub-community, the ruling provided a powerful moment of representation. “The Malaysian Chinese see themselves in the Taiwanese Chinese lens. Suddenly, it seems possible. We can pass, we can leave and blend in there,” says Kay Lee. “Representation is such a strong thing. When our Malay and Indian brethren look at couples and pairings who got married there who don’t exactly look like them, it’s harder to visualize leaving and being free to be with whomever you choose. It’s harder for them to think, ‘I deserve love and happiness and to be who I am,’ I reckon.”
However, the ruling might end up being weaponized against the Chinese community, especially with the already existing demonization of Chinese people being an “unwelcome bridge that propagates the sins of the liberal West” (according to Kay Lee) through drinking, clubbing, and pork consumption. “Sinophobes in Malaysia would have more excuses to use the awful phrase ‘pergi balik Cina’ [go back to China],” adds fellow Malaysian queer woman Nana.
Would the wider South East Asian LGBTQ community, regardless of ethnic background, be helped by Taiwan’s ruling? Opinions are mixed. “I don’t think that the decision in Taiwan will have much impact in Indonesia, although it might motivate activists by showing that there is a bit of good news out there after all,” muses Kate. “Other than that it almost certainly will not affect policy or the law. The average Indonesian will probably raise their eyebrows at the news, but then move on.”
For Guterres, while Timor-Leste is considered “a champion of human rights in the region” due to laws in support of LGBTQ people, marriage equality is not as strong a priority due to strong Catholic and cultural associations around marriage. “At the moment our focus is to promote the message of respect and acceptance — which was our theme for this year’s Pride event — and to call for the prevention of violence and discrimination against LGBTI people, and to give hopes to those who still struggle to feel accepted in schools, at homes, and on the streets because of their differences.”
“There are people who think [marriage equality] isn’t needed in Asia since many are closeted — however, I feel that some are getting their way onto feeling the same rights they want in Asia. Doesn’t mean they think it isn’t necessary but it just requires a slower process,” adds Malaysian queer woman Christy Yang. “Some might feel equal rights or marriage isn’t in their dominating reasoning since their mindset might be more towards a quiet commitment instead of an open relationship for everyone to know.
“Taiwan just showed to all Asian fellows that same-sex marriage is not a Western influence, but it’s about human beings.”
Tan and Bouapha are more optimistic. “While this is a very sensitive subject in Islamic countries, this is still a moment of hope for the future,” says Tan. “Legal recognition will provide benefits for lesbian relationships, such as insurance, inheritance, and the rights for partners to sign off on actions recommended by doctors while their partner is ill.”
For Bouapha, the decision is a moment of celebration. “Taiwan just showed to all Asian fellows that same-sex marriage is not a Western influence, but it’s about human beings.”