Asian Countries Fight For LGBT Rights

Across Asia, the fight for LGBT rights has seen encouraging wins and exhausting stagnation. This year has been a mixture of both, as highlighted by recent events in the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan.

The “Being LGBT in Asia” program helps LGBT civil society engage with country-level institutions and advocates for LGBT protective laws and policies.

Thailand

By international standards, Thailand is among the most LGBT-friendly countries in Asia. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1956 and the right to change legal gender was enshrined in law in 2015. The country has a thriving transgender community, hospital services tailored for LGBT patients and many Thai companies provide medical leave for people undergoing reassignment surgery.

However, this social acceptance is not enough to protect the country’s most vulnerable citizens. A recent report found that discrimination against people who identify as LGBT or non-conforming continues to be widespread, with the majority of respondents stating that they have either experienced or witnessed such discrimination.

In addition, the same survey found that media representations of transgender people are “often depicted inaccurately or stereotypically” and that there is a lack of understanding of the diversity of sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions. The report was commissioned by UNDP’s Being LGBT in Asia, an innovative regional initiative that works to bolster basic rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. It is supported by the Embassy of Sweden in Bangkok, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Government of Canada and Faith in Love Foundation.

Throughout the region, there is an urgent need to match growing social acceptance with policies grounded in international human rights norms. To this end, the partnership aims to develop an Asia-wide approach for legally recognizing gender identity, based on international best practices and with strong participation from local stakeholders.

Taiwan

In 2019, Taiwan joined the ranks of the most gay friendly countries in Asia, becoming the first in the region to legalise same-sex marriage. But that hasn’t stopped the country’s conservative opponents from pushing back. A group of evangelical organisations led by international church networks opposed the bill, arguing that the government’s version of “same-sex marriage” trampled on the idea that families should consist of a husband and wife.

In fact, the same-sex marriage law is just one small piece of the country’s effort to secure a wide range of LGBT rights that protect diverse family forms and intimate relationships. It’s also part of a growing trend across Asia towards more openness and acceptance of LGBTQIA+ people, spurred on by young generations who are driving social change and demanding equal treatment.

However, the 748 Act’s narrow legal framing still produces stigma interactions and excludes. For example, LGBT co-parents who plan to adopt a biological child face discrimination from adoption agencies and societal attitudes that stigmatize homosexuality. A tongzhi couple who planned a joint-adoption of their daughter recounted that their father firmly opposed their plans and refused to visit them throughout the pregnancy, citing concerns that his granddaughter would be teased and bullied by other children because of her father’s sexual orientation (Gash and Raiskin Reference Gash and Raiskin 2018). The same-sex marriage laws’ restrictions on stepparent adoption only compounds this exclusion.

Philippines

Among Asian countries, the Philippines stands out as an exceptionally gay-friendly place. It’s a country where a majority believe that homosexuality is morally acceptable, while in China, for example, the figure was just 13 percent.

In the Philippines, however, tolerance does not necessarily translate into equality for LGBT individuals. A number of gay-friendly bars, clubs and saunas can be found in Manila, but the nation’s macho culture remains strong.

Gay men and women may find it difficult to openly express themselves and are often subjected to violence, especially at home. Sources report that gay men and women also face discrimination in schools, including when teachers and curricula limit students’ gender expression to the sex they were assigned at birth (Outrage Magazine 2 Aug. 2009; Philippine Daily Inquirer 14 Nov. 2009; Akbayan 28 Oct. 2008).

Gay and lesbian activists have fought hard for equal rights, and in 2019, the SWS survey indicated that a majority of Filipinos agreed that LGBT people experience discrimination. Still, the country is a deeply religious one, and the Catholic Church continues to oppose marriage equality and legal recognition of same-sex relationships. LGBT advocates say there’s a need for further education on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as for more representation in government, proper training for law enforcement officers and an end to hate crimes against LGBT people.

Vietnam

The campaign supports LGBT communities in Asia by providing training and advocacy opportunities to help them access basic rights. This is accomplished through a network of partners, including the Swedish Embassy in Bangkok. The program will run through 2017.

While Vietnam has moved closer to accepting LGBTQ people over the years, the community still faces discrimination and lacks legal protections. The announcement by the Ministry of Health was a welcome boost for the community, but it did not put an end to all discrimination or the practice of “curing” LGBTQ patients, says Ngo Le Phuong Linh, board member of the Ho Chi Minh City-based Information Connecting and Sharing (ICS) Center.

Huy also sees the potential of the international system to promote LGBTQ rights. Whether countries accept or reject recommendations, they must work hard to implement them and understand the reasons for rejection in order to focus their advocacy efforts on addressing any underlying hostility or reluctance to promote LGBT issues.

This is not to say that Vietnamese activists do not aim for broader political change. They are working on a number of long-term surveys to demonstrate how much the community needs changes, especially regarding equality in family law. But they realize that progress is a slow process, due to the country’s deeply conservative society. Ultimately, what the LGBT community wants is equality and to be treated like anyone else.