Special for SEA-Junction
The predominantly Catholic nation of the Philippines recently took an historical step by electing a transgender woman, Geraldine Roman, to the House of Representative in May 2016. She is not only the first transgender woman to be come a Member of Parliament in the Philippines, but in the entire Southeast Asia. Will this unprecedented event translate in greater acknowledgement and acceptance for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) people? Will it inspire other countries in ASEAN to recognize LGBTrights?
Although it is too soon to give a “Yes” or “No” answer, a review of the current situation shows a very mix picture.
Let’s start from the Philippines. The country is ranked as the 10thmost gay-friendly nations in the world by a 2013 global survey conducted by Pew Research Center entitled, “The Global Divide on Homosexuality”. Of the 39 countries surveyed only 17 had majorities accepting homosexuality, including the Philippines where 73 percent of adult Filipinos agreed with the statement that “homosexuality should be accepted by society”. However, the survey also found that the LGBT community in the Philippines is still discriminated as LGBT people face disadvantages in getting hired for jobs or even in starting up personal businesses as well as acquiring rights to marriage. Conservative politicians have blocked more than once legislation supporting same-sex marriage.
Not to talk about the environment in Muslim majority countries in the region. In Malaysia, homosexuality is punishable by law through caning and up to 20 years in prison. Brunei recently introduced the death penalty by stoning for same-sex acts, although no executions are known.
While Indonesia’s constitution does not discriminate LGBT, there are at least two legal instruments that criminalize the act of same-sex –the criminal code and the anti-pornography law. In the special region of Aceh there is a Sharia-based anti-homosexuality law that punishes anyone caught having gay sex with 100 strokes of the cane. The global survey mentioned above found that 93 percent of Indonesians declared that gay people should not be accepted. Few months ago, an anti-LGBT hysteria swept the country fomented by public officials’ prejudiced speeches, and although it has lost much of its intensity, it still affects public discourse to this day.
At the same time, however, in every day life there is growing social acceptance of LGBT people and they have become more visible in society and more outspoken in advocating their rights. For instance, one transgender and a gay were nominated to the Human Rights Commission and found competent, albeit they lost in the final more political stage.
Even in modern Singapore, homosexuality –specifically among men– is illegal. A remnant of British colonial rule, Section 377A of the Penal Code states that: “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years.” Although arrest and punishment as commanded by this clause are hardly ever enforced, attempts to repeal it continue to fail.
Like Singapore and Malaysia, also Myanmar continues to adhere to the British colonial-era law that bans same-sex intercourse and punishes it with 10 years to life in prison as stated in Section 377 of the Penal Code.
Differently from its neighboring countries, in January this year Vietnam took the groundbreaking decision to accept gay marriage, revising regulations that prohibited “marriage between people of the same sex”. Still occurrence of same-sex unions does not guarantee legal protection in cases of disputes, since they are yet to be sanctioned by the Law.
Cambodia is also relatively open towards LBGT as there are not any laws criminalizing gay and lesbian sex and Phnom Penh has always been a highly recommended destination for gay couples. In spite of a lack of national provisions, some provinces have gone ahead in recognizing same-sex unions. For instance in 1995, two women were fully acknowledged as partners and granted official approval to marry in Kandal Province.
Thailand, with its many gay bars and queer-friendly hotels and its highly visible transgender and transvestite people, is known as one of the gay-friendly country in Asia. However, LGBT people are still discriminated. There are a lot of misunderstandings about LGBT people and disrespect of their rights. LBGT are often bullied verbally and physically both in school and workplace or even at home, and violence against lady-boys and tomboys is widespread, especially in schools. Just recently, one famous TV program host announced he married with his boyfriend with whom he had been together for nine years and the influx of comments to his Facebook and Instagram account were mostly negative rather than congratulatory.
Thai law does not recognize same-sex marriage, and only allows for performance of marriage rituals and ceremony. Change of name after sex operation is also not allowed and this discordance complicates the after-surgery life of transgender people, for example in travelling abroad or in applying for a job. LGBT and intersex job applicants in Thailand face invasive questions about their sexuality, gender identity or sex characteristics and more than a few have been rejected due to their non-gender conforming appearances and discordance between their gender-identity and the gender shown on identity documents.
A positive development is the enactment of Gender Equality Act 2015. This is the first legal instrument in Thailand that bans discrimination on the basis of gender and is inclusive of LGBT people. The implementation of the Act is expected to provide safeguards against gender-based workplace discrimination, including in the private sector.
In summary, ASEAN countries are struggling to include LGBT and uphold their rights, let alone recognize same-sex marriage. Negative attitudes also emerge in countries supposedly more open to sexual and gender diversity. If during the Philippine election, the district of Bataan elected with landslide vote the first transgender MP Roman, in another district the famous boxer Manny Pacquiao proclaimed that same sex couple “worse than animals” and was elected senator.
Roman is aware of the challenges, but still willing to become a force for change. As quoted in the Guardian: ““I want to inspire everybody. There are many factors for discrimination: on the basis of gender, age, educational attainment, and creed. So to all people who experience discrimination, I want to inspire them.”
On her and other advocates of social justice and LGBT rights will depend whether ASEAN member countries will eventually fully accept diversity. For now we can only wonder whether there will be more LGBT in political bodies or whether Geraldine Roman,will be the one and only transgender MP in ASEAN.
(The writer is a former journalist who covered the Greater Mekong Region (GMS) and ASEAN. Now she is a freelance writer and consultant on HIV/AIDS, migration and other social issues.)