LGBT is an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. In recent years, LGBTQIA has become more popular with the addition of the more diverse word “QIA” (Question or Queer, Intersex, Asexual). Later, the term LGBTQIA+ is more widely used as LGBTQIA with a “+” at the end, meaning that there are many other sexualities.

Having an orientation other than heterosexual before and during the 1960s was more challenging than it is today. Same-sex relationships were illegal in most parts of the planet and even considered a mental illness. The community made up of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) people raised their voice in the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969 during a historic protest to bring together in the same movement those who suffered any type of discrimination in their daily lives because of their sexual or gender identity (Morris, 2009). After decades of activism, in 2008, 66 UN members agreed to a declaration recognizing that the protection of international human rights involves sexual orientation and gender identity. This is the first time that LGBT rights violations have been brought up in the General Assembly (Human Rights Watch, 2008). Unfortunately, no countries from ASEAN represented to sign the statement at the General Assembly.

  • Present scenario in ASEAN

There are large communities of LGBTQIA+ identifying persons in ASEAN. In the past few decades, LGBT rights have been considered a controversial topic, especially in ASEAN due to cultural/religious beliefs and laws. However, the scene is changing in recent years. As Taiwan became the first country to allow same-sex marriage in Asia, Vietnam followed by declaring same-sex marriage lawful in 2015. In the same year, Vietnam passed a law supporting transgender rights and allowing those who have had sex reassignment surgery to register a new gender (Ariffin, 2018). According to research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013, the Philippines is ranked in the top 10 most gay-friendly countries in the world (Pew Research Center, 2013). The Philippines has signed many relevant international covenants that promote human rights. Homosexuality is not prohibited in Cambodia, Indonesia (beside Aceh), Laos, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. However, four countries in ASEAN such as Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Myanmar still criminalize homosexuality (Kwatra, 2017). Brunei prohibits homosexuality due to a national-level Sharia law that provides for the death penalty for homosexuals. It is known that Brunei has become the first East Asian country to adopt Islamic Sharia law in 2014 (Brooke & Lunn, 2019). Similarly, Myanmar and Singapore penalize same-sex intercourse through imprisonment. In Malaysia, the LGBT community has to deal with moral policing not only in civil courts, but also in national Sharia courts (Ariffin, 2018). Criminal law against same-sex acts violates privacy and equality provisions in the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). However, ASEAN countries such as Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore do not take any part in the ICCPR (Sanders, 2020). 

  • Challenges in ASEAN

The lack of anti-discrimination laws against the LGBTQIA+ community in ASEAN countries causes discrimination to occur frequently. Social stigma and homophobia are still high in many Southeast Asian countries, especially countries whose social and political arenas are influenced by religion, such as Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia (Kwatra, 2017). 

Religion is particularly prominent in the campaign against the recognition of LGBTQIA+ legitimacy. In ASEAN, Sharia law has certain criminal law jurisdiction, and it coexists with secular national criminal law. Brunei, Indonesia’s Aceh province, and several states in Malaysia have enacted Islamic Sharia criminal laws that prohibit sexual activities other than legal marriages (Sanders, 2020). LGBT identity is struggling to gain recognition as subjects of full rights in institutional discourses and practices, since prejudice materializes in different forms of discrimination, violence, torture and death of people who dissent from the prevailing binary heterosexual norm in each country society.

As a main premise, within families there is no talk about sexuality. According to UNDP data in Thailand, 63 percent of respondents said they do not like it when a member of their family falls in love with an LGBT person (UNDP, 2019). Homosexuality as a pathology is deeply rooted in the family, which is reinforced by religious discourses about sin. For this reason, the silence of sexuality and homosexuality in particular, lies in a polarity filled with ignorance and fear that a son or daughter is crossing or remaining on the edge of the boundaries of heterosexuality and its gender expression.

In education, topics about sexuality are taboo in the school curriculum, since there is strong pressure from conservative sectors linked to norms to prevent the discussion of these topics in the classroom, then relegated this matter to the realm of private individuals and families. Lack of preparation to address these issues by teachers, these in most cases reproduce discrimination schemes within educational spaces (UNDP & USAID, 2014). This situation results in the invisibility of LGBT people from the educational system because unpleasant treatment such as bullying ranging from verbal to physical, both inside and outside of school often occurs because of their identity (Human Rights Watch, 2017). So, invisibility is the first school survival strategy that many LGBT children, adolescents and youth use as a means of protection to avoid discrimination. Meanwhile, children, adolescents and young people who begin to develop a feminine or non-normative gender expression quickly become the target of jokes, harassment, even physical attacks (UNDP, 2019).

  • Recent survey in ASEAN

In a 2021 survey conducted with over 450 respondents by gender research team (Authors) at the ASEAN Youth Organization, a significant percent of respondents in ASEAN countries experienced or know that LGBTQIA+ people been fired from workplace (16%), been sexually assaulted for their sexuality but could not report is because fear of discrimination (43%), been forced to take conversion therapy treatment (25%), been refused service in public place (22%), and suffering in gaining education or training (22%) because of their LGBTQIA+ identity. In the same survey almost half of the respondents (47%) believed that most people from the LGBTQIA+ community are suffering from a mental disorder. This clearly shows that still ASEAN countries are slow to safeguard the LGBTQIA+ peoples’ rights due to which these communities are still marginalized and face discrimination.

  • The future direction

On the other side of the coin, the visibility of the LGBT community in ASEAN is greater in the last decade. Although there are quite a few opposing sides, there is also a lot of support from various parties in various ways. Pride events have been held in several ASEAN countries, such as Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Cambodia, and Laos (Das & Sharma, 2016). The annual Pink Dot event in Singapore has garnered the attention of the local and international community and has even won support from big corporations. An NGO in Vietnam, Sexual Rights Alliance, holds an event on freedom of expression to urge the government to protect the LGBT community. In Laos, the government has included LGBT people in the participation of the Action Plan for HIV/AIDS prevention (Stewart, 2020). Few of these activities raise the hope for better LGBTQIA+ people rights and inclusion in future. Ariffin (2018) in The ASEAN post wrote that “the situation in Southeast Asia right now might not be perfect, but it’s clear that the LGBT community and the activists that surround them have been making an impact on the region. Long associated with backward attitudes to LGBT rights, attitudes may be shifting now. While some countries might progress at a different pace, it needs reminding that the political landscape in ASEAN is unique in each country, so the many obstacles and challenges ahead will vary”


By Samantha Okta Manuputty, Ishwar Khatri, Michel Kezia Yosephine, Caecilia Ega Sanjaya


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