It will take a long time before equal rights are recognized for transgender people in Asia despite growth in the size of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and a visible uptick in activism in recent years.
Transgender people are those whose identity, expression, behavior or general sense of self does not conform to what is typically associated with the sex they were born with.
This month, Indonesia’s Ministry of Communications called for a ban on any LGBT-oriented mobile apps and media. This means popular hookup platforms such as Grindr and Hornet, along with 80 other apps, will be relegated to history in the country.
The ministry has been eager to ban gay “propaganda” since March and the constitutional court has expressed a willingness to raise a petition to make homosexuality illegal.
“Welcome back to the dark ages of Islam, darling,” said Ahmad Zulkernaen, an Indonesian assistant brand manager who works in the wine and spirits industry.
“Being gay is perceived as negative in Indonesia, and increasingly so in the last two years. Recent movements, partly supported by the government, made the view on LGBT people move from somewhat negative-neutral to very negative,” said Zulkernaen.
“They went straight from, ‘They’re gay, that’s still not okay, but they’re harmless’ to ‘They’re gay, they’re bad, let’s ban them.’ This is sick. There has been huge coverage of this in the media over the last two years. It has now died down a bit but the aftermath is clearly very negative.”
Indonesia’s Aceh province, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, is ruled by sharia law — principles that govern the behavior of Muslims. With a population of 4.7 million, it is the only province in the country where homosexuality is illegal.
Banda Aceh’s deputy mayor labeled homosexuality “a social disease that should be eradicated” and, according to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 93 percent of Indonesians do not believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society.
This lack of acceptance is visible in other parts of the region as well.
Like Indonesia, Malaysia has been undermining the rights of transgender people by overturning in October a landmark ruling that had given transgender women some protection.
The federal court reversed a lower court ruling that state-level prohibitions on “cross-dressing” are unconstitutional. The federal court also upheld sharia law prohibiting “a male person posing as a woman”.
The judicial decision has been seen as a serious setback in a four-year struggle by transgender activists to end arbitrary arrests of transgender women.
While Indonesia and Malaysia are backpedaling, in Hong Kong the move to recognize equal rights is coming together, albeit slowly.
Transgender people in Hong Kong have an unemployment rate four times higher than the average.
That said, on Jan 26, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), a statutory body, released a report recommending legislation to protect LGBT people against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity of “intersex status”.
“For a world city, Hong Kong lags behind in protecting and recognizing rights of the LGBT community. There are no laws that prevent discrimination in the workplace or laws to protect us,” said Leo Leonard, marketing manager at BloomMe, a beauty mobile app.
Still, blatant discrimination is not something Leonard faces regularly in the city.
“While Hong Kong lags behind in legislation, from a cultural perspective, I find that Hong Kong is relatively tolerant of the LGBT community and I have not experienced any direct discrimination based on my sexual orientation.
“Tolerance is of course not equal to true acceptance, however it is better than living in an environment of fear or hatred.”
Singapore, a rival financial hub, is more or less similar. The island nation is lagging in legislation, but there are no actual cases of prosecution in court.
Lynette Chua, an assistant professor of law at the National University of Singapore, said: “Legislation was passed in the mid-1990s whereby they allow people who have physically transitioned (fully undergone sexual reassignment) but that is quite limited. It only recognizes gender changes after full procedure.”
The author of Mobilizing Gay Singapore: Rights and Resistance in an Authoritarian State added that for transgender people who choose not to undergo full sexual reassignment, there is no specific legislation protecting them against discrimination.
However, Chua added that “there are other countries where human rights records are worse”.
Elsewhere in Asia, the recognition of transgender rights has been uneven. Some countries are progressive, while some could not be more backward.
Ei Ei Cho, a 24-year-old transgender man who works as an activist for the LGBT, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) community in Myanmar, recalled his experience while working for his former employer.
“In my previous job when I was working for the INGO Forum in Myanmar — a human rights conference — my manager told me to dress like a female. Some people who are working for human rights actually don’t understand what human rights are.”
Section 377 of Myanmar’s old British colonial penal code has been under the spotlight since atrocities by police toward the transgender community made international headlines.
Britain has long abandoned many of these laws, but they still haunt the LGBT community in emerging countries whose legal systems are based on them.
Aung Myo Min, executive director at Equality Myanmar, a non-governmental organization, said: “We don’t have any protection or legislation. It’s not specifically mentioned LGBT, but same sex is part of the unnatural sex. It’s threatening for the people who are LGBT including transgenders.”
Another country that shares Myanmar’s colonial penal code is India, but unlike Myanmar, on the policy level, India has been making strides.
“In India they tried repealing the law but the law is still active,” said Hla Myat Tun, a program manager at Colors Rainbow, an LGBT rights organization in Myanmar.
“They are also working hard in getting rid of the law (in India). The movement is stronger compared to Myanmar because they have been involved in LGBTQI activism for over a decade already.”
This year the Indian government’s union cabinet approved the transgender rights bill that was first proposed in 2014. According to the 2011 census, an estimated half a million Indians identify themselves as transgender male or female.
The approval of the bill means those who identify as third gender (called hijra) in India can safeguard their rights.
Similarly, courts of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal are now defending transgender rights to an extent.
Tun from Colors Rainbow noted that Nepal is doing “surprisingly well” when it comes to transgender rights.
“The (Nepali) government recognizes them as third genders; they can also mention their gender in ID cards. Other countries in Asia are not really recognizing gender identities. In Asia especially, we never talk about gender rights and it’s difficult to talk about genders.”
Yet, while most countries in the region shy away from the topic, Tun noted, some others have taken significant steps forward.
Equality Myanmar’s Aung pointed to Vietnam as a “very interesting” example, because the country is proposing to legalize same-sex marriage.
“It does not particularly cover or protect transgender people, but from a law perspective, legalizing same-sex marriage in Southeast Asia is quite progressive,” said Aung.
Although faced with threats and physical violence, public awareness through the media has done much good for the region’s LGBT community so far.
“The movement is growing and many young activists are taking part in this equality movement,” said Aung.
“It will take time, but so far, in terms of raising public awareness, public campaigns, LGBT rights, LGBT human rights issues across (Southeast Asian) countries, we are doing a good job.”