The struggle for LGBT rights in Asia is a mix of encouraging wins and exhausting setbacks. In a number of countries, homosexuality remains illegal and people caught engaging in same-sex intercourse face fines, caning or jail.
Taiwan is a pink beacon of progress, while some SE Asian nations are ignoring it (Vietnam) or moving in the opposite direction (Brunei and Malaysia). Meanwhile, China’s leadership appears to be getting tougher on progressive social issues.
Across Asia, gay rights have lagged behind those of the rest of the world. But some countries are beginning to take steps to address their disparities. Vietnam lifted its ban on same-sex marriage in 2015, and Cambodia has committed to amending its constitution to ensure equality. In Taiwan, a proposal to allow same-sex couples to register civil unions passed through parliament this week, but activists say it is far from enough.
The issue of homosexuality in Asia is complicated by religion and traditional family values. But, according to polling data, a growing number of people support LGBT rights. Those who identify as leftists, for example, are more than twice as likely to say homosexuality should be accepted by society as those who describe themselves as conservative.
Even so, many countries in Asia remain resolutely opposed to gay marriage. Nepal is the first country in Asia to offer third-gender options on citizenship documents, but homosexuality remains against the law there, and in Bangladesh and some former Soviet states. And Brunei has a law that authorizes stoning for sexual offenses, although it has not been carried out since a moratorium began in 2001. For this reason, Poore believes that effective strategies include educating religious leaders and clerical workers about LGBTQ rights. She also advocates social organising, which involves convening liberal progressive leaders and practitioners from different faiths and Southeast Asian countries to educate their congregations and spheres of influence.
Although Asian countries have made progress on LGBT rights in recent years, discrimination against transgender people is still widespread. In fact, a global survey of LGBTI communities found that more than one in five Asians report being victimized for their sexual orientation or gender identity. These figures are alarming, especially given that many Asian countries have patriarchal and conservative cultures that criminalize homosexual acts or those of individuals with different gender identities. The UK’s Foreign Office has worked with governments in the region to raise awareness of these concerns, and its diplomatic network is active in tackling the issue.
The Towards Transformative Healthcare Module, an online training tool developed by the Asia Pacific Transgender Network (APTN), aims to increase knowledge and support the work of health workers who are able to provide culturally sensitive and gender-affirming care to LGBTI patients. It promotes a rights-based approach to healthcare and moves away from pathologising models that treat LGBTI people as abnormal.
Although Vietnam has made progress on gay rights, the country is not without its challenges. A study conducted by Ipsos found that LGBT people in the country are subject to a variety of forms of violence and harassment. Moreover, their legal rights are limited. Even in countries like Singapore and Malaysia, where there are well-organized LGBT communities and pride marches, laws do not protect them from discrimination.
In Asia, the fight for LGBT rights can feel like a never-ending battle. But as Malaysia’s President Lee Hsien Loong recently declared that homosexuality is a part of the country’s cultural fabric and Thailand’s junta government has backed a bill to recognise same-sex civil partnerships, there are signs of progress in the region. But, says Remy Choo, the secretary of the IBA LGBTI Law Committee and Managing Director of Nishimura & Asahi Chambers in Bangkok, legal activism alone isn’t enough to bring about lasting change.
Legal protections vary from country to country, but even in countries where gay sex is not illegal, discrimination against the community continues. For instance, in Brunei and the Aceh province of Indonesia, homosexual acts carry the death penalty while in Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar, punishment can include a prison sentence.
While attitudes towards homosexuality are changing globally, religious differences remain a barrier to progressive social agendas in the region. For example, in South Korea, people who are religiously unaffiliated are almost twice as likely to say homosexuality should be accepted than Christians or Buddhists. In the few countries surveyed with Muslim populations, attitudes are also divided. In contrast, a majority of Christians in Sweden and a significant minority of Jews in Israel think that homosexuality should be accepted. Overall, however, in the 34 countries surveyed, a median of 52% agreed that homosexuality should be accepted by society.
In Asia, where a significant proportion of the population is religious, attitudes toward LGBT people are complex. In some countries, such as Brunei and Indonesia’s Aceh province, acts of homosexuality can result in the death penalty or lashes. In others, such as India and some former Soviet states, state-sanctioned interpretations of sharia criminalise gay sex.
But despite these restrictions, progress is being made. In 2018, Hong Kong’s top court struck down a colonial-era ban on same-sex marriage, while the Indian Supreme Court recently overturned laws that criminalise homosexual relationships. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry is being debated by parliament.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is running a programme called “Being LGBT in Asia” to bolster LGBT rights in the region. Its activities involve supporting LGBT civil society, engaging with local institutions and advocating for LGBT protective laws and policies.
The programme also works to address gaps in research about stigma, discrimination and violence against LGBTI people in Asia. By addressing these gaps, the programme equips duty bearers with the strategic information needed to address the challenges facing LGBTI people in Asia. These include ending harmful practices that fuel human rights violations and providing access to public services. It aims to help Asian societies move beyond the current polarisation of attitudes towards LGBT people.