Is Southeast Asia becoming more tolerant towards its LGBT community?
Consider these recent developments in the region: A Singaporean politician admitted on Facebook that he is gay. A Malaysian transgendered person was appointed political secretary in Penang State. Two government ministries in Vietnam and some legislators in Thailand have publicly endorsed legislation that would permit same-sex marriage if passed. And in the Philippines an LGBT political party was able to participate in the party list elections.
Singapore’s annual Pink Dot celebration became more memorable this year not only because it gathered more than 21,000 people, but also because an opposition leader bravely admitted in public that he is gay. Through a simple Facebook status update of “I am going to Pink Dot tomorrow. And yes, I am gay,” Dr. Vincent Wijeysingh of the Singapore Democratic Party suddenly became Singapore’s first openly gay politician.
Wijeysingh’s decision to come out could mean that there is a new breed of leaders in Singapore who are not afraid anymore of conservative backlash; and that the LGBT network has grown considerably in recent years – something local political forces can no longer afford to ignore.
Meanwhile, in Malaysia former NGO worker Hazreen Shaik Daud became Malaysia’s first transgendered politician after being appointed political secretary to Tanjung Bungah state assemblyman Teh Yee Cheu of the Democratic Action Party. The appointment instantly divided the nation, with some praising it as a courageous and respectable initiative while others denounced it as disrespectful to the values cherished by most Malaysians.
Curiously, many detractors of Hazreen never questioned her competency, instead only focusing on her gender. This further validated the campaign to fight discrimination based on sexuality and gender.
Speaking of equal rights, the prospect of legalizing same-sex marriage got a boost this year in Vietnam when the Health Ministry and Justice Ministry offered no objection to the proposal. In July, the Justice Ministry even suggested the repeal of Clause 5, Article 10 in Vietnam’s Law on Family and Marriage which bans same-sex marriage.
Another country where discussions on same sex-marriage are gaining ground is Thailand. The initiative is led by Wiratana Kalayasiri, a Democrat parliamentarian from the southern Thai city of Songkhla, who drafted a bill that would legalize same sex unions. Perhaps Thai legislators can derive inspiration from the fact that they were able to pass a law which decriminalized sodomy in 1957. Maybe it can beat Vietnam to the punch and earn the distinction of being the first Asian country to institutionalize same-sex marriage.
But asserting LGBT concerns is extremely difficult, especially in conservative parliaments. Aside from soliciting the support of policymakers and legislators, the LGBT community must strive to have a voice of its own inside the government. This means organizing its own ranks to wield greater political influence. In the Philippines, an LGBT political party known as Ang Ladlad was able to get government accreditation and even participated in the recent party list elections. Here is a party whose founding leaders, members, and core constituency belong to the LGBT community.
So back to the question at the start of this article: Is Southeast Asia becoming more tolerant towards lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people? While there are encouraging developments in several countries in the region, it would be wrong to claim that Southeast Asia has become a semi-paradise for the community. On the contrary, it is still a bastion of homophobia and feudal culture.
Singapore continues to enforce the notorious Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalizes sex between mutually consenting adult men. When Dr. Vincent Wijeysingh ran for parliament, he was forced by his political rivals to deny that he had a hidden gay agenda, as if it is immoral or wrong to fight for LGBT issues.
Meanwhile, homosexuality is still outlawed in Malaysia, Thailand’s draft legislation on same sex marriage was initially rejected by older members of parliament, and the Ang Ladlad Party failed to get enough votes to win a seat in the Philippine Congress.
Vietnam leaders may be supportive of the idea of same sex marriage, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that LGBT issues are being properly addressed. Writing for TuoiTreNews, Valentine Vu explains why he is inclined to reject the legalization of same-sex marriage in Vietnam: “The nation’s conservative base still recognizes homosexuality as a taboo act and not as a personal identity, more disparities between the people would happen resulting in further isolation of gay families if gay marriage is recognized without any foundation to properly support it.”
The pink dot used as a marker for the community in Singapore is an apt symbol for the general state of LGBT politics in Southeast Asia. It remains a pink dot amid the black plague of feudalism which dominates the region.