This is another in a series of special edition columns focused people and issues that affect the continent. This week’s column is focusing on gay rights throughout Asia. As the LGBT community gains major victories in the fight for equality in the West with the overturning of DOMA in the US and the legalization of gay marriage in the UK, it’s also losing battles, most notably in Russia. In Asia, the acceptance or condemnation of homosexuality ranges from open, acknowledged and even somewhat accepted to repressed, denied and roundly condemned. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to focus on a handful of countries that demonstrate varying degrees of cultural and legal acceptance of LGBT peoples. Some stories are pulled from personal experience and anecdotes from my time in Asia, specifically South Korea.
Myanmar (or Burma as it is still sometimes called) has some of the most repressive laws and attitudes of any Asian nation in regards to homosexuals. Section 377 of the penal code outlaws same-sex acts and is punishable of up to 10 years in prison, though with the recent democratization, there is confusion among gay rights groups about whether the law is still in effect. Still, both gays and the transgendered face harassment and arrest by police. Most recently, a group of gay and transgendered people were beaten and arrested by police and held under section 35(c) of the Myanmar 1945 Police Act which stipulates,
Any person found between sunset and sunrise having his face covered or otherwise disguised, who is unable to give a satisfactory account himself “¦ may be taken into custody by any police-officer without a warrant, and shall be punishable on conviction with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three months.
It mostly seems the harassment and legal ramifications against the LGBT community in Myanmar is at the whim of the police and many human rights groups are lobbying for greater protection of minority groups as the country moves towards a democratic government.
South Korea is somewhat typical of many Asian nations in that same-sex acts are decriminalized though marriage is not legal and there are no special protections for LGBT Koreans in regards to discrimination. Additionally, cultural attitudes of many Koreans towards the LGBT community remain widely negative, though attitudes are slowly beginning to shift, especially among the younger generation. The acceptance of homosexuality is more concentrated around the bigger cities such as Seoul and Busan with the former celebrating Gay Pride in the spring in the well-known section of the Itaewon district known as “Homo Hill” (yes, that’s really what it’s called.) Some well-known celebrities have also come out in reason years, including Hong Seok-cheon and actor Kim Ji-hoo, though tragically, Kim committed suicide in 2008. On an anecdotal note, the cultural attitudes towards homosexuals in Korea also extend to the foreigner and expat communities. It was commonly acknowledged that if you were gay or lesbian and an ESL teacher, you would never, ever to come out to your colleagues or students for fear of discrimination. Though there are not hard numbers or statistics, there were enough cautionary tales on message boards and online communities of foreign teachers coming out to their schools only to be fired a short time later under the guise of poor performance (though no problems were reported previously) and summarily kicked out of the country as their visa was no longer valid. Most LGBT expats living in Korea are out in the foreign communities, but keep that aspect of their lives as far away from their work life as possible.
Homosexual activity among gay men in Singapore is technically illegal and punishable by up to 2 years in prison, while female same-sex activity is legal, a fact I was unaware of until I suggested that a friend and his partner could teach in Singapore together after their stint in South Korea was over. Though the law against homosexual acts is generally not enforced, there is a growing swell of support for overturning the measure completely. As Singapore looks to draw in more international business and become a truly global city, the time seems right for a greater push towards equal rights as evidenced by the “Pink Dot” rally that took place recently with a record 21,000 people in attendance. A constitutional challenge to the law is now underway, though a previous challenge in 2010 was rejected by the courts. Social media is widely credited with changing attitudes and while portrayals of homosexuality are banned from Singapore television and movies, the Internet has allowed citizens to see gay relationships play out in shows like Glee and Modern Family.
The island nation is rapidly moving towards granting LGBT citizens more rights. Homosexuality is accepted by up to 75% of its citizens and Taiwan Pride is the largest LGBT event in all of Asia. While gay marriage is not technically legal in Taiwan, laws are pending to recognize civil unions and the first same-sex Buddhist wedding ceremony in Taiwan took place in 2012. Most recently, the government recognized the marriage of a transgender couple after previously invalidating their marriage.
There is no criminalization of homosexual acts in Vietnam, though marriage is still not recognized. In fact, historians believe that homosexual acts have never been punishable in Vietnamese law. Human rights have long been an issue in Vietnam, though never in the area of gay rights. In 2012, the government set about reviewing the issue and could rule in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage later this year. The Youtube sitcom, My Gay Best Friend, is a viral hit in Vietnam and is credited with helping to mainstream views on the LGBT community.
Nepal joins Vietnam and Taiwan as having growing acceptance of homosexuality, at least legally. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 2007 and the new draft of the Nepalese constitution is expected to have laws granting marriage rights to same-sex couples. Additionally, Nepal is probably the most progressive country in the world in regards to transgender rights or as they are more commonly referred to in Nepal, third gender. Third genders are officially recognized in the national census and the government has begun issuing citizenship certificates that recognize third gender as a category for those who do not wish to identify as male or female. The human rights group, The Blue Diamond Society, has been at the forefront of the fight for rights of the third gender community and while they still face harassment and discrimination, progress is being made.