3 Challenges in Addressing LGBTI Rights in SEA

Opinion25.04.2017
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Southeast Asia is home to some of the region’s most advanced economies that hold a lot of opportunities for citizens. Poverty continues to be tackled head on while other development issues like education, gender equality, human rights have been given priority both regionally and locally. However, one area that still poses a challenge for the region concerns effectively addressing LGBTI rights. While the region has lagged in addressing some pressing international development issues through regional cooperation, over the past decade regional bodies like those of ASEAN have encouraged and increased cooperation in tackling these issues efficiently. This can also been seen in the rise in cooperation in addressing LGBTI rights and networking of government bodies across the region to discuss the ways forward. But despite this, the region still faces challenges that are defining for LGBTI groups who seek to access equal rights. These include challenges in local legal frameworks, social and cultural attitudes, and discrimination at the workplace.

Legal Frameworks

Legal frameworks pose the biggest challenge in addressing LGBTI issues in the region. However, they also hold the most impactful changes that can help improve the lives of LGBTI groups in the region. In some countries like Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore, being gay is punishable by law, while in others like Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines, access to equal rights in terms of marriage, gender recognition, and safeguard from discrimination are either vague or nonexistent. In Thailand for example, a proposal to include sexual identities under the anti-discrimination clause of the 2017 constitution was rejected. Moreover, Transgender individuals cannot change their gender on legal documents and same sex marriage is not recognized under existing marriage laws. In the Philippines, while the country is signatory to many international human rights conventions, LGBTI rights are not always supported by the state. In Indonesia, homosexuality is criminalized in five local ordinances where it is considered “immoral” to be homosexual.

Social and Cultural Attitudes

While many countries in the region are viewed as very accepting of outsiders and differences in cultural norms and attitudes, LGBTI groups still face a lot of pressure from societies across the region. This takes place in different contexts, whether it is in school, in the media, or in public. In Vietnam for example, students who identify as LGBTI may face bullying in the form of physical and verbal abuse in schools. This can also be seen in other countries like Thailand and the Philippines. In Indonesia, while LGBTI rights are socially accepted by progressive groups, there is still a lack of understanding of LGBTI issues by the majority of the population. In the media, LGBTI groups are often stereotyped and portrayed negatively. While generally, progressive and more liberal minded groups in the region are better versed with the issues surrounding LGBTI groups, a lack of education on specific issues often result in a lack of sensitivity towards these issues. Ultimately this translates into a lack of support for the rights of LGBTI groups.

Discrimination at the Workplace

Perhaps the most prominent and visible forms of discrimination can be seen at the workplace. Most LGBTI groups in the region do not have access to equal employment opportunities. In Thailand for example, due to stereotyping and lack of opportunities in other sectors, LGBTI groups often end up working in hospitality, entertainment, and sex-work industries. Also, due to a lack of acceptance at the workplace, quite a few LGBTI individuals choose to hide their gender identities in fear of being laid off or not having access to equal opportunities as their fellow citizens. In Indonesia, discrimination against LGBTI groups is not clearly spelled out in existing laws. Additionally, anti-discrimination laws at the workplace do not exist for LGBTI groups. In the Philippines, access to equal employment for LGBTI groups are limited and harassment by employers and coworkers at the workplace is not uncommon.

Besides the above-mentioned challenges, LGBTI rights involve the interlinkages of other challenges that make it a complex issue for governments to tackle effectively. These are often tied to historical, cultural, and religious norms and beliefs. At the policy level, there is still a lack of consistent monitoring of LGBTI issues in the region, coupled with a lack of data to inform policy makers. While LGBTI rights groups have branched out from other human rights groups to give more emphasis and awareness to the cause, the majority of the region’s public are still not well versed with rights violations faced by LGBTI groups. Perhaps the solution begins with the broader public whose voice also counts toward supporting LGBTI rights and speaking up on behalf of their fellow-citizens when their rights are being violated. It has to be borne in mind that the broad recognition of LGBTI rights is a relatively recent phenomenon even in Europe and the US. In Asia, on the other hand, Nepal and Taiwan are the most LFBTI-friendly, underscoring the fact that this is issue is determined by social norms and democratic governance as much as by economic development that leads to more complex and urbanized societies. Moreover, attitudes in many Asian societies are clearly shifting, e.g. in the Philippines and Thailand. The more people realize that LGBTI rights are basically meant to protect innate rights of people, rather than seeing them as an attack on traditional society, the more this shift will gather pace.