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LGBTQIA Rights in Southeast Asia

    June is widely recognized as Pride Month, during which celebrations take place worldwide to commemorate and support the LGBTQIA community. These festivities often include large-scale carnivals and events centered around the theme of promoting gender equality and advocating for equal rights within both the legal framework and society. However, Pride Month is not without its controversies, and differing opinions exist globally, including among ASEAN countries.

    LGBTQIA practices in Southeast Asia, especially in local traditions and culture, are nothing new. This is reflected in the androgynous culture found in Southeast Asian countries. In Bugis, Indonesia there are Bissu; in Thailand, there are ubhatpbyanjanaka and pandaka, witch doctor practice or Bong Cai from Vietnam; Bayog from the Philippines, and many more. 

    Although Southeast Asia has had a cross-gender culture historically, the treatment and rights afforded to LGBTQIA individuals vary significantly across ASEAN countries. While some nations have made significant progress in recognizing and protecting the rights of LGBTQIA people, others still have laws and social attitudes that discriminate against or marginalize this community.

    A bissu leader (in black clothes) with a pasere bissu prepares to carry out a traditional reception at a wedding in Soppeng, South Sulawesi, Sunday (17/7/2022).
    A bissu leader (in black clothes) with a pasere bissu prepares to carry out a traditional reception at a wedding in Soppeng, South Sulawesi, Sunday (17/7/2022).

    When we talk about the LGBTQIA community within the region, we can divide ASEAN countries into two main categories: opposing and supporting. In opposing countries such as Indonesia, Brunei, Myanmar, and Malaysia, becoming part of the LGBTQIA community or supporting them is against the law. The repercussions faced by individuals in these countries can be severe, including being subject to questioning or detention by authorities, physical and non-physical assaults, public discrimination, limited access to employment, housing, recreation, and education, criminalization, and in extreme cases, even the possibility of facing a death sentence.  

    Brunei implemented Sharia punishments to suppress LGBTQIA people in their country. With the penalty of stoning, Malaysia banned all things related to LGBTQIA. In 2021, Myanmar LGBTQIA individuals were regularly arrested by police due to the Demonstration against the Military Junta government. Additionally, the law was often used to extort bribes from LGBTQIA people. 

    In Indonesia, there is no national law explicitly banning the LGBTQIA community, but certain same-sex activities are socially stigmatized and can lead to imprisonment or fines. In 2018, a local research institute conducted a survey where 40% of respondents considered LGBTQIA very dangerous. But even if the actions of this country are violating ASEAN declaration on human rights, the bloc cannot interfere in the internal affairs of its member countries.

    Conversely, the remaining ASEAN member states support the LGBTQIA community. In countries like Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Timor Leste, the Philippines, Singapore, and Cambodia, same-sex relationships have never been banned in state law. The LGBTQIA community tends to be more accepted by both the state and society, although their union as a family is not a hundred percent guaranteed by the state. 

    In recent years, attitudes towards LGBTQIA individuals have evolved in these seven countries. Vietnam, for instance, has witnessed a shift towards greater tolerance following the holding of the 2012 PRIDE parade. According to VOA, public opinion has become more accepting of the LGBTQIA community. The nation has also stated that LGBTQIA is no longer a disease that must be cured. 

    According to the UN, Cambodia started to protect the LGBTQIA from discrimination. Singapore also repealed a law that discriminated against LGBTQIA couples. Surveys show increasing support for LGBTQIA in The Lion City, especially from young adults. In other countries like Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, many gay bars and saunas attract tourists worldwide. 

    Society and government have increasingly shown a positive trend of change toward the LGBTQIA community. This can be seen in the many dramas with LGBTQIA themes accepted by the wider community, such as the series Ben x Jim, Gaya Sa Pelikula, I Told Sunset About You, and I Promised You to the Moon. Even in countries that have banned LGBTQIA, they have the same series, such as Arisan, Arisan 2, Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku from Indonesia, and Stay Away From Me from Malaysia.

    The LGBTQIA movement may have originated in Western countries. Still, it is essential to recognize Southeast Asia’s traditions and cultural elements related to diverse gender and sexual identities. Therefore, as young people, we must embrace tolerance and respect for all human beings, honoring their identities and experiences. 

    Article by: Yuta Tri Waskita

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