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Tea Leaves

Asian LGBT activists strike at colonial era attitudes

Civic awards reflect changing society in Asia

Pangina Heals performs in the residence of the British ambassador in Bangkok. (Photo by Apcom)

For me, the image of Thailand's most famous "drag queen" strutting past a statue of the 19th century British monarch -- in whose name homosexuality was outlawed throughout her colonial empire -- spoke volumes about the shift in Asian attitudes toward LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people.  

The performance by Pangina Heals (the stage name of Pan Pan Narkprasert) took place in the august residence of the British ambassador in Bangkok. Guests filed past the stern-faced image of Queen Victoria, whose colonial-era laws outlawing homosexual behavior, known as Section 377, remain on the statute books decades after independence in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. The same law was in force in India until September 2018, when it was struck down by the Supreme Court.

The soiree, which occasionally strayed from ambassadorial protocol, was held to mark the Hero Awards, an event organized by Apcom, a Bangkok-based advocacy group, to recognize campaigners and groups fighting discrimination and promoting LGBT rights throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Amidst pumping music and animated cocktail conversation, I dragged four of the winners to a quiet corner of the ambassadorial porch to chat about the societies they live in, and how at various stages they battled bias and even condemnation.

Raymond Tai, representing Malaysia's PT Foundation, pointed to a recent backslide in attitudes toward LGBT issues as the biggest obstacle in his socially conservative country. "We have regressed," he said candidly. "If you are gay and Muslim there is no way to make your voice heard." Tai cited the recent caning of two women for having sexual relations in the conservative state of Terengganu as "something that would have never happened 20 years ago, yet it is happening today."

With limited means -- the foundation received less than $15,000 in public funding in 2017 -- PT's challenge is to be creative, running its clinic as a self-sustaining social enterprise and reaching out through social media to offer services such as HIV-testing.

Veteran activist Jean Chong, from Singapore, argued that overturning "a leftover colonial law" outlawing homosexuality should be a national priority in the island state. "Personally I think some of the politicians are sympathetic," she said. "But they're politicians, right?" The fight will be difficult, she noted, pointing to lessons learned from Taiwan, where a referendum has complicated plans to recognize same-sex marriage.

"I think what has happened in Taiwan tells us that we cannot rely on the majority to give us minority rights because they've never walked in our shoes," Chong said, adding that framing gay rights as a fundamental human right rather than a minority issue is a more effective strategy to raise awareness and support.

Filipino activist Justin Francis Bionat said that when he was 18, he successfully organized the first "Pride" march for homosexual rights in his "very small, very conservative" hometown of Iloilo. He also spearheaded a municipal anti-discrimination ordinance that includes protection of gender identity and sexual orientation. "I was young and no one wanted to listen to me," said Bionat, who is now 22 and a regional coordinator of Youth Voices Count, a support network for young people.

Bionat carried off the prize for the evening's best tear-jerker story. "The greatest gift that any son could ask [for] is acceptance and love from their parents," he said to his mother and father in the audience. "I feel loved and accepted, and not many young people have that."

Another award winner, Taiga Ishikawa published "Boku no kareshi wa doko ni iru" (Where Is My Boyfriend?) in 2002, a frank memoir about growing up gay in Japan with no visible role models. He became one of the country's first openly gay politicians when he was elected to the assembly of Toshima ward in metropolitan Tokyo in 2011.

"I realized I was gay in middle school, and I wanted to do something to help others in society," Ishikawa said. But it was not until he turned 25 that he came out, made gay friends and started a nonprofit organization that supports young homosexual and transgender people.

"I think recognition of LGBT partnerships is most important," Ishikawa said, pointing to nine Japanese cities that now register same-sex civil partnerships. He also praised the handful of Japanese companies that acknowledge same-sex couples as families for everyday services such as mobile phone plans, health insurance or frequent flyer miles.

Ishikawa, who hopes to stand for a seat in the House of Councilors, the upper house of Japan's parliament, in polls later this year, said Japanese society is "moving in a very positive way."

Some things remain problematic, however, raising sensitivities that go way beyond Asia. "With so many positive changes, where is your boyfriend?" I asked him, quoting the title of his book. "That," he said after a pause, "is a very difficult one to answer."

Vincent Vichit-Vadakan is a Bangkok-based writer.

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