Criminalisation, state sponsored homophobia, discrimination and bigotry, correctional therapy, threats of ‘warfare’ against gays, increasing fundamentalism, refusal by the state to recognise people’s basic right to privacy and familial pressure are just some of the issues faced by the LGBTIQ community and sexual minorities in the Asia-Pacific region.
In the face of increasing attacks and shrinking tolerance for the LGBTIQ community, activists, NGOs, academics, lawyers from 11 countries – Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Fiji – and ARROW convened a three-day meeting, “Conversations on Advancing SOGIESC Rights in Asia Pacific”, recently.
Reflections from Day 1
“As of May 2017, there are 124 States where there are no legal penalties levied for consenting same-sex sexual activity between adults in private,” said Sivananthi Thanenthiran, ED of ARROW. “But, about 72 countries in the world still criminalise same sex marriage. Of this 13 are in Asia and 2 in Oceania,” she said referring to ILGA’s State-Sponsored Homophobia Report. LGBTIQ persons face horrific rights violations based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. The infamous ‘Section 377’ – a remnant of the colonial legacy which criminalises “unnatural sex acts and against the order of nature” – continues to be used in several countries, decades after the colonists have left, to harass and jail LGBTIQ persons.
Other than regressive laws, politicians have also fanned homophobia and assault on gay rights from hardliners. Ryan from the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus (ASC), a co-host of the meeting, recalled how an Indonesian minister said the gay community was a threat and called for a warfare against the community.
The meeting addressed three key challenges:
- The language or lack thereof for SOGIESC rights and LGBTIQ persons in the local context of the region.
- Coopting of religion and culture by states and religious leaders to deny rights.
- Invisibility of communities within movements and the need for intersectionality in approaches towards advocating human rights.
The politics and hegemony of language
Participants formed four groups to discuss the subject of ‘Language: What does identity mean?’ and how both have evolved to either become controversial, sensitive, accepted or how historically derogatory terms had been reclaimed and being used with pride. Activists in Nepal – a country which on the surface has more liberal LGBT laws – said they could openly talk to their government about the rights of sexual minorities but ironically, were unable to initiate discussions on other human rights issues or economic emancipation of its citizens. Whilst in India, the term ‘Hijra’ – a word used to refer to the transgender community – was used as a pejorative but also connotes a way of living. It was explained the word had been reclaimed by transgenders and some of them use it with pride and is part of their identity. In fact, many prefer being referred to as ‘Hijra’ than as transgender.
Participants also spoke about the “politics” of language that was at play in different countries and spaces. For an instance, in international spaces, the use of the term ‘LGBTIQ’ was common whereas in local spaces, activists and NGOs had to use terms that was more locally understood and acceptable. An example of this is in countries like Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Nepal, the use of local translations for homosexuals, transwoman was more prevalent and this had increased accessibility of language. The other question raised was if the use of Western terminologies could alienate sexual minorities, who are more comfortable using local or native languages.
Day 2: To engage or not to engage with religion and the issue of invisibility
The second day saw participants engage and debate on the extremely complex, sensitive and explosive topic of Influence of religion and culture on SOGIESC Rights. “Religion and culture is encompassing and are being used to control us like (the concept of) Asian values,” said Pramada Menon, the meeting’s facilitator. She said the predominant notion that only Muslim countries have religious barriers was not true and Hindu and Catholic faiths were also the same.
While some activists felt there was not enough engagement with religion and a proper interpretation of religious texts was necessary to understand what they were saying about homosexuality, transgender and so on, others argued that it was important to minimise the relevance of religion and not be used as a framework for advocating SOGIE rights. Suri Kempe, the co-facilitator, reiterated that not a single Shariah law had the same interpretation or application and varied from Muslim country to country. “For every conservative interpretation of a religion, you can find a compassionate interpretation,” she said.
Activists from Pakistan concurred that while progressive interpretations of Islam were needed, it was not just religion but family structures in Pakistan were a force to reckon with as women were bound by cultural and familial expectations of marrying and procreating despite not being heteronormative. “For lesbians and bisexual women, the family likes to see woman as the ultimate martyr,” said Sarah Suhail, a Pakistan-based activist. “Religion becomes a justification for what the family wants.” CSOs agreed that while there were risks in engaging with religion, there were also many opportunities with moderate and progressive religious voices who can strengthen SOGIESC advocacy.
On the session on invisibility, it was noted that homosexuality and transgender issues were largely invisible and LGBTQI organisations were set up as a response to rising HIV infections in the 1990s. Donors and NGOs started working extensively on homosexuality issues, in particular, to stem the alarming rise of the fatal infection. Activists also pointed out that lesbians in some countries prefer to remain invisible and activism becomes difficult in such cases.
Day 3: Ways forward as feminist activists
After three days of intense debating and brainstorming, activists highlighted key areas in the region which needs to be prioritised.
- Movement building – There is a need to mobilise communities and increase grassroots work including proving support systems for self-identified LGBTIQ young persons; utilising of feminist frameworks while building capacity of movements and organisations and in the advocacy for SOGIESC rights and coming together to learn from each other’s experience.
- Campaigns – Public campaigns are essential to destigmatise women’s sexuality and non-normative sexuality, where issues should be addressed in an understandable manner and relatable to local contexts. Story telling rooted in lived realities was one such strategy. The online spaces are significant in current times but is necessary to link the online spaces with offline spaces.
- Organisational Development – Smaller networks and smaller organisations that provide support services for LGBTIQ persons, especially young LGBTIQ persons, do not have access to resources, especially financial. Larger organisations should work with smaller community-based organisations for better utilisation as competition for limited resources especially in in regard to funding for queer work has created rivalries within the movement than can result in organisations working against the larger cause.
- Frameworks/Mechanisms – There is a need to build capacities of national organisations to work with treaty bodies and universal periodic review to ensure accountability. The demystification of use of religion and culture using a human rights framework is a very useful strategy. Participants also shared the need to learn, strengthen their capacities of countering religious arguments by institutions and persons.
- Intersectionality – It is important to do intersectional advocacy work and look at SOGIESC rights in a holistic manner learning from the feminist movement and advocacy. It was reiterated that SOGIESC advocacy should be rooted in feminist understanding of gender and patriarchy and feminist principles of empathy and compassion.
 The term, Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression and Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC), is widely used since the language around intersex-inclusive terminology is evolving internationally.