From Bangkok to Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur: We’re here, we’re queer and we’re organising!

Mobilising for LGBTIQ rights in Indonesia in 2016. Photo courtesy Arus Pelangi.
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Homophobia and transphobia are on the rise across South East Asia. So is LGBTIQ activist organising, determined to turn the tide and advance queer visibility and rights across the region. 

Last year, two lesbians were caned in Malaysia and a male couple experienced the same fate in Aceh. Also in Aceh, a dozen transgender women were arrested at a beauty parlour, where they worked. Before being released, they were forced to dress as men and have their heads shaved. A same-sex couple was arrested in Bandung for running a gay community Facebook page. Police raided Kuala Lumpur’s oldest gay club — the first time in 30 years — justifying this as necessary to “mitigate the LGBT culture from spreading into our society.”

Those in the Malaysian LGBTIQ community who had hoped the change of government last year — after six decades — might bring improvements have been disappointed. One government minister ordered that photos of LGBTIQ activists be removed from an art exhibition celebrating reform. The Minister for Tourism, when asked at a travel fair in Germany if the country was safe for queer visitors, claimed there are no gays in Malaysia!

In the small Sultanate of Brunei, laws came into effect in April that punish gay male sex with death by stoning. Women found guilty of lesbian sex can be given 40 cane strokes and jailed for 10 years. 

As the global economic crisis worsens, dictatorial and rightwing populist leaders are gaining a foothold, and the far right is finding fertile ground to put down roots. Religious sectarianism, reactionary nationalism, racism and anti-immigrant hysteria, climate change denial, and the demonising of feminism and sexual and gender diversity are tactics that are becoming familiar. In South East Asia, strong anti-imperialist sentiment is manipulated to brand LGBTIQ organising as Western inspired and antithetical to tradition. 

Long traditions of diversity. Indonesia’s post-Suharto era has seen a rise of rightwing Islamist vigilante groups across the archipelago, and the general climate has worsened since 2016 for queer sex and gender diverse Indonesians. Despite this, the country does not have anti-gay laws or a tradition of targeting LGBTIQ people. Gender diversity has long been a part of traditional Javanese culture, with male to female transgender folk, known as Waria, well accepted and integrated into the community. 

Malaysia has similar pre-colonial traditions, and gender diversity is a part of the culture. This is reflected in greater acceptance of transgender family members in the ethnically Malay community, where challenging the gender binary is frequently affirmed. It’s through sodomy laws imposed by colonial powers that homosexuality was criminalised.

To present the rising homophobia and transphobia in South East Asia through the prism of queer LGBTIQ activism as a Western import is equally simplistic and dangerous. Explaining it as the direct byproduct of Muslim religion fuels the generalised Islamophobia of the far right in countries like Australia. Followers of Islam are as politically divided as believers of any other religion. Muslims, too, are across the ideological spectrum — from socialists and feminists to open reactionaries and fascists. And amongst the Muslim community, including believers, are advocates for LGBTIQ rights. Australia’s first gay Imam, Nur Warsame, urges queer Muslims to have no shame about their sexuality. In Yogyakarta, there is a mosque that serves the transgender community. 

When the going gets tough! Far from being intimidated by the rise of bigotry, there’s exciting organising happening throughout the region. LGBTIQ groups took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur in March to join an International Women’s Day protest. And when government ministers accused organisers of “misusing democratic space,” the international solidarity was instant, including an action called by Malaysian Progressives outside the Consulate in Melbourne. 

Timor-Leste held it first Pride Parade in 2017. Last year there was a Pride Festival in Myanmar, and in January this year 600 participated in the country’s first Pride boat parade. The Phuket Pride parade is coming up for its 20th anniversary, and the Thai government is considering introducing same-sex civil partnerships. In Singapore, the challenging environment, which includes a ban on foreigners participating, has not stopped the annual Pink Dot pride rally that first took place in 2009. 

Last year, queer activists from across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ran a cross-border Hugs Not Hate campaign to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. The Jakarta-based activist organisation, Arus Pelangi, which means “Rainbow Flow,” was formed in 2006. It organises the lesbian, gay, bi, transgender and intersex communities and has adopted important principles, including the rejection of any government funding so it can “remain independent and unfettered to criticise discriminatory policies towards LGBT that are currently employed by the government.” 

The Freedom Socialist Party has backed fundraising efforts for Arus Pelangi and advocates international solidarity with LGBTIQ organising in the region. 

When homophobia becomes murderous. With homosexuality now a capital offence, the repression in Brunei is so extreme and the situation so dire that there is really no space for LGBTIQ people to organise. Sex and gender diverse people in Brunei seeking to flee must be given asylum in safe countries, including Australia. Zain, a trans woman, left Brunei last year and is now seeking asylum in Canada. All like Zain who wish to leave must be supported to do so. 

A global campaign is putting pressure on the wealthy Sultan of Brunei. The University of Aberdeen revoked an honorary degree it had awarded to the absolute monarch. A key focus of the campaign is the nine luxury hotels he owns, one in Brisbane. A lively rally outside the Royal on the Park attracted widespread media coverage. Rally speakers emphasised their solidarity with the queer Muslim citizens of Brunei, who bear the brunt of the barbaric laws. 

The other campaign target is Royal Brunei Airlines. In response to community demands, STA Travel has stopped selling tickets. The Queensland government has suspended plans for the airline to fly into that state, and London Transport has removed all advertising for the airline. Importantly, unions, including the Transport Workers Union, are discussing how to support the LGBTIQ community of the Sultanate.

When the bigots and hatemongers in other parts of the region started commenting favourably on the Brunei measures, the LGBTI community stepped in. Activists protested outside the Brunei Embassy in Bangkok and presented a statement signed by 130 organisations from Thailand, Singapore, The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Sex and gender diverse people have a long history of living and loving right across South East Asia. Politics in this region is becoming just as polarised as in other parts of the world. The battle lines are drawn and local LGBTIQ leaders are firing up. Stand with them!

Alison Thorne represents the Freedom Socialist Party in PUSH: Organising and Educating for a United Front Against Fascism. Her speech at a Rainbow Atheist forum is published in Bent Street 2: Australian LGBTIQA+ Arts, Writing and Ideas.

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