Progress comes in spurts, they say, but whoever came up with that observation probably did not have in mind the challenges men and women of different sexual persuasions face in conservative Asia. Taiwan Constitutional Court’s May 2017 ruling that same-sex couples should have the right to marry was a balm to rights activists around the region. Yet, a week after the Taiwan ruling, two Indonesian men were caned in Aceh and a South Korean soldier received a suspended jail sentence—in both cases for committing the ‘crime’ of same-sex relations. Progress in Taiwan, it turns out, does not necessarily follow in other societies.
If anything, as awareness of LGBT (lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender) rights and issues widens, modern societies across Southeast Asia must be waking up to the fact that such people exist in their midst, whether they like it or not. The challenges for LGBT Asians have always been many, from the sheer prejudice against homosexuality to the imperative to propagate the family name. In fact, politicians often cite conservative social mores current in their societies as a reason for inaction in the face of social stigma against sexual minorities or, worse, justification for turning against them.
In Indonesia, in particular, a campaign to criminalize LGBT citizens is underway as the nation debates a bill that would revise the country’s civil code. Conservatives and legislators seeking social approval (and votes in the upcoming elections in 2019) say they only seek to safeguard morality by supporting the draft legislation. The stench of hypocrisy is unavoidable: legislators are the largest group in the country’s list of people convicted of corruption. UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who was in Jakarta recently, is right to slam “the hateful rhetoric against the LGBT community … cultivated seemingly for cynical political purposes.”
If the conservative campaign to outlaw gay and extramarital sex succeeds, Indonesia will join Brunei, Malaysia and Myanmar as countries in Southeast Asia that make same-sex relationships a crime. In those countries, the discriminatory law is a holdover from colonial times. A similar situation prevails in Singapore, even if its government has promised to turn a blind eye. However, the discriminatory impulse against LGBT Singaporeans remains strong in society, as this week’s first Spotlight article by Chirag Agarwal documents. The article, which first appeared in the South China Morning Post, pleads for more open-mindedness, given that sexual minorities are also fellow citizens deserving of respect.
First published in the Jakarta Post, our second Spotlight article by Hendri Yulius briefly sketches the history of how Indonesia, a country for its easy-going ways, is turning on its own LGBT people. It all started with a Constitutional Court refusal and a campus poster. Hendri also traces how technology and prejudice are changing the nature of privacy and sexuality in contemporary Indonesia. The rainbow in Indonesia, always faint in the past, is today giving way to menacing dark clouds on the horizon. No question. A campaign to better understand the true meaning of equality and human rights is critically needed.