BBC World Service: Coming Out: Gay and Lesbian Life in East Asia

Wednesday, November 22, 2000

Coming Out: Gay and Lesbian Life in East Asia

Standing out from the crowd is hard in any country. But what if your sexuality was outlawed and practising it could land you a lengthy jail term? And what if there was no word in your language to describe the very essence of your being?

The breadth of gay and lesbian experience in East Asia is incredibly varied. It ranges from Chinese lesbians who call themselves 'female comrades' for want of a better word, to 'Muk nar' or transvestites in Islamic Malaysia. East Asia Today's special series: Out In Asia explores the experience of gay men and women in Asia.

Homsexuality and the law
The breadth of experience varies but there is one unifying theme: prejudice. In some cases this is state-sanctioned, as in Malaysia where an accusation of sodomy landed the former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in jail. Across East Asia, laws criminalizing homosexuality exist in Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

Even when there are no specific laws prohibiting homosexuality, discrimination occurs through other more obscure laws, such as in Vietnam where men are forbidden from wearing 'weird or sorcerous garments' or in Taiwan where a law against 'overt lewdness in public places' can give police the power to intimidate the gay community.

Societal pressure
In countries where nothing is specifically enshrined in law, societal pressure can still lead to a fall from grace: recently in South Korea a popular children's television presenter had to resign when he felt he could no longer deny his sexuality.

Even in countries that have traditionally had more lenient views towards homosexuality, like the Philippines, gay people are only accepted into wider society if they fit certain stereotypes. A Filipina sex therapist, Margarita Holmes, describes how gay men are acceptable in the Philippines if they are effeminate, theatrical and perhaps work in a beauty parlour. If they are serious doctors or teachers they are not.

Across Asia the family occupies a paramount position in society. This can lead to incredible pressure on those who do not conform to the so-called norm. In Singapore, Sheila Rajamanikam describes the experiences of lesbians there:

Most of them are forced into marriage and end up having children… there's a huge amount of depression and a few suicides

Sheila Rajamanikam, a lesbian from Singapore

As a result, many gay and lesbian people are driven underground, too afraid to talk about their sexuality or 'come out' to their families and friends. Xiao Pei, a Chinese lesbian said:

"I am too afraid to come out to any Chinese friends. If I tell them and they don't understand I am afraid I will lose them and I'm quite afraid of losing my family."

Even when brave enough to come out to their families, ignorance about what it means to be gay can prove astounding. When Zhun Li, a Chinese gay man, told his mother that he was gay she begged him to get a doctor to check if there was something wrong with his body.

Glad to be gay
But despite these adversities, there is a growing feeling among the gay and lesbian communities that things are changing for the better. In Taiwan and Indonesia that is being assisted by more open societies following political change and the gay scenes are flourishing.

Even in Malaysia, despite the spread of Islamic conservatism, there is growing recognition of the existence of gay and lesbian Malaysians who have been previously been ignored. As one young gay Malaysian said of the prosecution of Anwar for sodomy:

It's exposed what was once a taboo in our country…we are still being discriminated against, we are still looked on as freaks. But … it has brought awareness to the community that we do exist and that our existence can no longer be denied.

A gay man, Malaysia

When asked if Asia was a good place to be gay, Dede Oetomo, a gay man from Indonesia said:

"It can be once you get beyond the problems with your family, your school, your workplace, but if you can get beyond that then it could be a good place. People are actually quite accepting of people who are useful to the community. They may find gay people, lesbians and transgenders (sic) rather unusual at first but if you can prove yourself to be useful to the community, they can accept you".