Why Laws In Asia Need To Catch Up With The LGBTQ Movement
Can you be fired for being gay? Can you be jailed for it? Or lashed for it? Or can you prosecute someone for making a homophobic slur or treating you like a second-class citizen? The answers to these questions depend entirely on the country you live in—and the laws that have been put in place by the government of each individual state to either help or hinder the LGBTQ community.
While cultural and societal attitudes towards equality are undeniably important—see the current global debate over teaching children about same-sex relationships in schools—LBGTQ people can only flourish in places where the law allows them to do so.
Paradigm shifts occur in these moments. “We have to bid adieu to prejudices and empower all citizens,” said Dipak Misra, the Chief Justice of India’s Supreme Court when homosexuality was decriminalised in September 2018 for the first time in the country’s history. It was a powerful moment for India’s LGBTQ community, and while local culture still needs to catch up, legalising same-sex activity allows pressure groups to be far more vocal about advocating for equal rights in the workplace or education.
Asia in general lags behind Europe, North America and even parts of Africa when it comes to progressive LGBTQ laws. Taiwan legalised gay marriage last year, and parliaments in countries including Japan, China and South Korea have begun looking into the process. Hong Kong courts are slowly chipping away at same-sex marriage benefits through the courts, and Thailand is on track to legalise same-sex civil partnerships.
"I think marriage equality is still one of the forefront issues when it comes to LBGT rights," says Kanachai Bencharongkul, a Bangkok-based photographer and LGBTQ campaigner, who has also shown his work in art and photography exhibitions such as Woof Pack's Kaleidoscope, which raises money and awareness for the gay community. "As we just saw the legal change in Taiwan, I hope that many other countries in Asia, including Thailand, will follow. Having said that, I think we are still luckier than a lot of other countries such as Russia or Iran where people are still facing horrendous punishments or charges for being gay. So I'm hoping that the more message we spread and the more political rights we push for the LGBTQ community, the sooner we will get to live in equality where everyone is treated equally."
From marriage equality in Taiwan to the right of same-sex couples to immigrate to Hong Kong, each win has been brought about by brave individuals and stubborn LBGTQ groups—but on the other end of the scale, in countries such as Singapore, same sex activity remains illegal. And as a result, protest is both more dangerous, and more important.
“Singapore’s Section 377 A of the Criminal Code directly targets gay and bi men by criminalising sexual acts between men,” said Paerin Choa, a Singaporean lawyer and spokesperson of Pink Dot Singapore, in a briefing for LGBT campaigner, Stonewall. “This law is rarely enforced in practice, but it acts as a serious barrier to progression. As such it doesn’t only affect gay and bi men, but also the LGBT community as a whole. For instance, health services and campaigns tailored to the needs of LGBT people are not allowed, as they would ‘promote’ sex between men. In education, teachers are not trained how to counsel and support LGBT students. LGBT organisations that have applied to be registered as societies have had their applications rejected, denying them the status of a legal entity.”
Colonial-era laws are still in place throughout the region, where anyone caught participating in homosexual activity can be whipped, flogged or jailed. And in these countries—which include Sri Lanka and Bangladesh—people are, again, rarely prosecuted, but the criminalisation of their choices has kept the community shackled. Those who push for laws that keep LGBT individuals safe in Pakistan, the Maldives and Afghanistan have to grapple with the presence of Sharia law.
However, certain groups are fighting tirelessly against it. Pink Dot Singapore—an annual gathering where people come together and celebrate the freedom to love who they want—faced a major set-back in 2016 when the government amended the law so that only Singaporean residents could attend. But they have fought back, found a loophole and are growing larger each year, with international sponsors and a televised event.
I'm hoping that the more message we spread and the more political rights we push for the LGBT community, the sooner we will get to live in equality where everyone is treated equally
— Kanachai Bencharongkul
“Discrimination comes in many forms," says Choa. "Being denied rights, receiving unequal treatment, and being left behind yet again with the latest legal reforms – these are what LGBTQ people in Singapore are dealing with. Discrimination happens every day, in our homes, in our schools and at our workplaces. Many in our society remain ignorant to the hurt they are causing their LGBTQ friends and family members. It is this ignorance that we seek to address, and we hope our political leaders will not continue to ignore the discrimination that their LGBTQ citizens face every day.”
In China, LGBTQ-related words, such as ‘homosexuality’ are listed as both sensitive and negative by the government, meaning they are prohibited from being shown on public screen—a restriction that makes it challenging to advocate for LGBTQ rights in the country. One group that is doing so is the Aibai Culture and Education Centre, based in Beijing.
“LGBTQ people are largely invisible and neglected in society, mainly because of the serious lack of education and awareness about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, workplaces and other public spheres,” says Jacob Huang, the Aibai corporate programmes director, in a briefing for Stonewall. “This leads to many LGBT people being closeted their whole lives. However, for younger generations the social mobility and access to information provided by the internet is changing the conversation quickly.”
Aibai has held five conferences in Beijing and put heavy pressure on the government to update its laws—and while the conferences have been well-attended and sponsored by major corporations, few Asian multinationals participated.
Interestingly, where Asia lags behind in marriage equality, it strides ahead on transgender rights. In 2015, the Vietnamese government recognised transgender citizens, making the country one of the transgender rights leaders, not only in Asia but the world.
In 2007, Nepal passed a law ruling against gender discrimination and legally establishing a third gender category, making it another one of the more advanced countries in the world, and even places such a Bangladesh—where same-sex activity is outlawed—allows its citizens to opt for a third gender on all official documents. Nepal is also the first country to register its citizens under a third gender category in its 2011 nationwide census. Other countries that offer the third-gender designation include India, Pakistan and Thailand.
Nepal hosted the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum earlier this year, which discussed how participants could help mobilise entire nations to legally acknowledge their LGBTQ citizens. Amid all the details, it is easy to forget the simplicity of the task at hand—one that the forum in Kathmandu was keen to emphaise: LGBTQ rights are human rights, and while people around the world face violence and inequality because of who they love or how they look, if they have no recourse to the police or judiciary, then the law is not fairly representing them.
The theme of the Gen.T Asia Summit is Breaking Barriers. The mission of the event, which takes place this November 20-21 in Hong Kong, is to help people break down the barriers that usually divide them—of generation, gender, culture and geography. In the run-up to the summit, we're exploring these barriers through our articles and Deep Dive newsletter. Under the lens first: gender.