HANOI, VIETNAM — Growing up as a transgender woman in Singapore, Sheila says she lived in fear of her parents “finding out who she is.” “As a result of me trying to express my liking…
HANOI, VIETNAM — Growing up as a transgender woman in Singapore, Sheila says she lived in fear of her parents “finding out who she is.”
“As a result of me trying to express my liking of feminine toys, my father finally paid attention and grew suspicious of me,” says Sheila, who spoke on condition of not providing her real name. “My father thought I was too soft, and not manly enough. He would beat me up at every opportunity.”
Sheila says that when her father was beating her, he would sometimes justify his actions by saying “that the law already says we are criminals,” adding that her father didn’t care that laws he was referring to didn’t apply to the transgender community.
Sheila’s story was one of several testimonies read by actors at an event earlier this fall in Singapore. That event, #Ready4Repeal, was part of a growing movement in the city-state to revoke Section 377A of its penal code, which criminalizes sex between mutually consenting men and dates to when the country was under British colonial rule. The law carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison.
Section 377A refers to the section of the penal codes in former British colonies that criminalizes gay sex. The movement in Singapore to repeal that law was in part inspired by the decision by the Indian Supreme Court in September to overturn its law banning gay sex. That law labeled gay sex as “against the nature of order” and carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
India’s landmark decision has provided inspiration for movements in other parts of Asia to repeal anti-LGBT laws, especially in countries where colonial-era anti-LGBT laws remain on the books, including in Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar. The movements in the region are notable; same-sex sexual activity is illegal in half of the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Socially conservative Myanmar carries some of the region’s least progressive laws that address LGBT communities. There are no discrimination protections, gender change is not recognized, and same-sex sexual activity is banned — infractions that carry a maximum penalty of life in prison.
India’s Supreme Court ruling has inspired the LGBT community in Myanmar to seek the removal of that country’s Section 377, says Aung Myo Min, director of advocacy group Equality Myanmar. However, he admits that conservative attitudes would make such a move challenging.
“Unfortunately, the mindset of those tasked with changing the law is not so positive,” he says. “They don’t see this issue from a human rights perspective; there is a deep-rooted tradition of looking down on (LGBT) people.”
Aung Myo Min says when he discusses revoking the law with politicians, they often dismiss such a move, saying that the law is not enforced.
“What’s the point of keeping the law if you’re not going to use it? Instead, it is often used by police to take money from LGBT people,” he says, referring to the practice of police officers bribing, or sometimes sexually abusing, people they believe to be homosexual.
Conditions for LGBT people in Myanmar have somewhat improved in recent years, says Aung Myo Min, with many able to speak about their issues in public — something not possible when the country was under military rule.
Many people in Myanmar still view the LGBT community negatively, Aung Myo Min says. “They often look at LGBT people as being pitiful. But we are not pitiful; we deserve rights just like everyone else.”
Myanmar’s Section 377 and its equivalents across the region are a “nasty British colonial legal remnant of Victorian-era morality,” says Phil Robertson, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization that focuses on human rights. He says the law denigrates LGBT people by violating their right to privacy and has called on governments across Southeast Asia to follow India’s example and abolish the law.
“Even when a law like this is not strictly enforced, as we see in countries like Myanmar and Singapore, there is a pernicious, corrosive effect on people’s rights and their confidence,” Robertson says. “LGBT people recognize that a change of government, or a new hard-line (government) minister, could seriously impact their lives.”
Socially conservative government officials in the region have argued that such laws are necessary to prevent what they call the “spread” of homosexuality throughout their respective countries: in Indonesia, for example, anti-LGBT lobbyists have blamed the rise in LGBT visibility on gay dating apps such as Grindr, as well as a Jewish conspiracy. Views of the LGBT draw mixed views across Indonesia, according to one survey that showed a majority of respondents felt “threatened” by the community but also supported that community’s right to exist and be protected by the government.
But in other countries in the region there are signs that the situation is gradually changing. In Vietnam, the government in 2014 amended a law to allow same-sex couples to live together and have wedding ceremonies. In November 2015, it amended a civil code that legalizes sex reassignment surgery, as well as allow anyone who has had sex change surgery to legally register under a new name and gender.
Vuong Kha Phong, the LGBT rights program manager for the Hanoi-based Institute for Studies of Society, Economics and Environment, says the legal changes were a “huge achievement” for the country’s LGBT rights movement.
“When you change a law, it’s never just the law,” he says. “It is about public awareness and public acceptance; it is a signal that the government is open to LGBT people existing as they wish. A change in the law signifies a change in society.”
Despite the positive changes, Phong says that LGBT people still face stigma in the country.
“LGBT people in Vietnam still face discrimination and stigma in many similar ways in other Asian countries. The main place they are discriminated, or abused, is within the family. But also in schools and in work.”
Phong urges patience for LGBT rights advocates in other countries seeking to change laws.
“Not everyone agrees with me, of course,” he says. “But changes in society, especially a law, are a long process. As long as we have an entry point in improving the law, then I see that as a good thing.”