Long road to equality
US ruling on gay marriage has resonated around the world but cultural and religous taboos remain strong in Asia.
Same-sex marriage has taken a major step forward in the United States but equal rights for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community remain elusive in many parts of Asia, with the possible exception of Taiwan.
The US Supreme Court on June 26 ruled that the right to marry was fundamental no matter who the partners were. Thirty-eight US states already allowed gay marriage, so the ruling applied only to the 12 holdouts, but its symbolic importance was considered huge.
While many Asian societies today are much more open than they were a few decades ago, none officially allow same-sex marriage. In some countries, homosexual behaviour remains a criminal offence, while in others discrimination persists against LGBT citizens in areas such as employment.
Few expect hardline attitudes against homosexuality to erode soon in some societies.
“I don’t think the decision in the US will affect Myanmar’s attitude toward LGBT people,” said Nay Lin Htike, the programme coordinator of Rainbow Colours, a nongovernmental organisation that promotes human rights education and advocacy in Myanmar, where same-sex activity is illegal.
“Most people in Myanmar tend to think that LGBT are sinful for mistakes made in their past lives. It will be difficult for Myanmar people to change the tide.”
A highly politicised Myanmar Buddhist association called Ma Ba Tha, he added, spreads beliefs such as “women are more degraded than men” and that “LGBT are even more degraded than women as the lowest class in society.” Though the association’s influence is not widespread, he believes it has the tacit support of the Myanmar government.
The same group is responsible for violent hate speech, often from senior monks, directed at Muslim Rohingya minority.
Homosexual activities are also banned in Malaysia and Singapore, but only among males. Section 377(a) of the Singapore constitution, while rarely enforced, states: “If any act of gross indecency with another male person [is] detected, [it] shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years.”
In Malaysia, male “outrages of decency” are forbidden, along with sodomy (as well as oral sex but seldom enforced), both heterosexual and homosexual, with sentences of up to 20 years, sometimes with fines or even corporal punishment.
The Sultanate of Brunei, meanwhile, last year introduced a toughened sharia-based penal code for a number of offences, including homosexual activity which can carry a penalty of death by stoning.
In other countries, court rulings have opened the door for greater rights for LGBT people, only to be overturned.
India is one such case where gay sex was decriminalised in 2009 when the Delhi High Court said banning such activities violated basic human rights. But the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2013 declared that homosexuality was seen as immoral in India, and the government revised its stance.
TOLERATED BUT NOT ACCEPTED
Some eastern and Southeast Asian countries show more tolerance toward homosexuality. It may not be against their laws, but traditional values and patriarchal cultures make it difficult for people to pursue gay relationships openly.
“The acceptance of LGBT people in Chinese society is very low. I am pretty sure that more than half of the people could not accept LGBT, let alone same-sex marriage,” said John, the programme manager of the Beijing LGBT Center, who asked not to give his last name.
A Pew Research Center poll in 2013 showed 57% of the Chinese population said homosexuality should not be accepted by society whereas only 21% showed acceptance.
“Although China does not have any [official] religion, Chinese society is dominated by traditional values, which recognise giving birth to a child as one of the main goals in life,” John continued.
“Because of the old values, discrimination based on sexuality, which is usually hidden in form, is common in workplaces and schools. If an LGBT person comes out from the closet in the workplace, it is very likely that you will not be employed or even be laid off.”
Social pressure is validated by government opposition. A draft law on funding from foreign countries would bar money that supports organisations in China seen as violating local norms. This could include LGBT organisations.
The government also intends to bar activities that violate “Chinese society’s moral customs”, though the term is not clearly defined. “When it comes to small activities, there is no problem. But when it comes to larger events, police have been calling them off, especially in these two years,” said John.
Vietnam, another communist country, abolished its ban on same-sex marriage earlier this year. But only 30% of Vietnamese support same-sex marriage according to a survey early last year by Information Connecting and Sharing (ICS), an LGBT organisation in Vietnam.
However, ICS programme director Tran Khac Tung is upbeat about the future of gay rights in Vietnam.
“ICS was initiated in 2008. At the time the situation was not so favourable. Our research found that around 50% articles written about LGBT held negative views,” said Tung. “Almost 50% of people held the wrong perception; for example they viewed LGBT as some kind of infection or disease. Fewer than 50% of LGBT people were out of the closet.
“After years of campaigns and promotions, things are getting better. Nowadays, LGBT groups are more confident. More than 60% LGBTs have come out to at least one person while they need not hide their community in forums but [can communicate] openly in Facebook.”
“Whether same-sex marriage can be passed in the future is still unclear. It may take five to 10 years or longer to await the revision of the law.”
ONE STEP FORWARD
Thailand is one country where there is cause for optimism, believes Anjana Suvarnanon, the co-founder of Anjaree Group, the country’s largest gay and lesbian rights organisation.
“Thai people can be categorised into three groups: the first is those who uphold their old values and remain conservative on the issues; the second is those who are willing to change with time and follow the world trend; the third is those who hope to accommodate everyone equally,” she said. “I would say the last two groups are the majority in society.”
Thailand is well known for gay tourism; the Tourism Authority of Thailand even has an official “Go Thai Be Free” website. Transgender people and ladyboys are familiar sights. However, beyond the world of entertainment, traditional prejudices persist, especially in rural areas. A government survey conducted nationwide in 2012 showed 60% of respondents opposed same-sex marriage.
However, Thailand moved to the forefront with a same-sex-partnership draft law introduced in parliament in 2013. The bill was placed on the back burner after the 2014 military coup, but Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya, the HIV and Aids national programme officer of Unesco Bangkok, believes change is just a matter of time.
“It could take a long time and it is a long process due to the political situation,” he said. “We are trying to push forward the process. My expectation is that within 10 years, hopefully both homosexual and transgender people’s rights can be guaranteed.”
Apart from Thailand, Taiwan is also one of the most liberal jurisdictions in Asia. Major cities allow same-sex marriages to be registered, though they do not yet have full legal status.
A survey conducted in 2013 in Taiwan showed 52.5% of respondents — close to the 55% seen in similar US surveys — supported same-sex marriage while 16.9% had no opinion, indicating a high acceptance.
However, a bill that would legalise same-sex marriage in Taiwan remains stalled.
“We started drafting the same-sex marriage bill in 2012 and successfully brought it up in parliament in 2013,” Jian Zhi Jie, the secretary-general of the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights, told Asia Focus. “After three weeks, the bill passed the first reading while discussion started one month later. However, it was stuck in the process of committing and has been suspended up until now.”
The Democratic Progressive Party proposed the bill but has not actively campaigned for it, though some individual members have expressed public support, while the Chinese Nationalist Party opposes the bill. Until the Democratic Progressive Party clarifies its position, the law may remain stalled.
“The US ruling on same-sex marriage has already raised the attention of society to the issue,” said Jian. “Now, it is our last chance to urge the committee to bring up the discussion and deliberation again before the election next year. Otherwise, we would have to start the whole process again in 2016.”
While Asian governments tend to be conservative and slow to act, momentum from citizens can be a catalyst for change, as Thailand and Taiwan are showing. Nepal offers another good example.
In 2006, when Nepalese citizens took to the streets to demand full democracy and an end to monarchy, LGBT rights activists seized the moment. The Blue Diamond Society, the first LGBT organisation in Nepal, successfully convinced political parties to include LGBT issues in party manifestos.
Their advocacy has led to gains in legal and constitutional recognition, and in 2007 the Supreme Court ruled that laws must be created to protect LGBT rights. Homosexuality was legalised and the government is now looking into same-sex marriage.