DPA: Tolerance on the rise for Asia's gays, but laws lag

Monday, October 8, 2007

Bangkok, Oct 8 (DPA) Thailand's tolerance towards gays and transgender people is legendary in Asia.

Entire streets in Bangkok are dedicated to gay bars, the hospitals have become international centres for sex-change surgeries, and Thailand's TV and film scenes abound with "katoey" or transvestite comic characters, and gay love stories to the point of tedium.

Thailand's Pattaya beach resort is famed for its annual Miss Transvestite Pageant, and the island of Phuket has been hosting a gay pride parade since 1999 with the full support of local authorities.

Yet when Thai gay-rights activists earlier this year pushed for a mention in the country's
just-drafted constitution, the 18th to date, legislators baulked at a clause guaranteeing equal rights for the "third sex" along with other downtrodden folk - women, children, the poor and disabled.

"It was the first time in Thai history for the topic to be discussed legislatively, which was great, but finally it was a big abortion" said Viroj Tangwanit, a known Thai gay activist."It never came to life."

"Thai society is the most open in the world" Viroj added, "but officially, it is closed and narrow."

That contradiction - more tolerant societies versus still conservative laws - broadly characterizes the gay-transgender scene throughout the region, though there are signs of slow progress even on the legal level.

Increasingly open economies have exposed Asian societies to global trends, such the HIV/AIDS pandemic and access to the Internet, which have pressured governments into new, liberal terrain.

In communist China, where homosexuality was once described as a"Western illness" the government stopped punishing gays under "hooligan" laws in 1997 and removed homosexuality from its list of mental diseases in 2001.

While it still bans gay-rights activities, China recently allowed the establishment of NGO to help fight HIV/AIDS and has turned a blind eye to gay websites like Chinesegay.net.

There are limits, however. Chinese state censors have denied distribution of several recent Western films with gay themes, including Ang Lee's award-winning "Brokeback Mountain".

Taiwan has surpassed the mainland in its tolerance toward homosexuality. Since the 1980s, more than 100 gay-rights groups have sprung up across the island, and Taipei's former mayor Ma Ying-jeou and President Chen Shui-bian have both voiced support for greater rights for gays.

In 2002, Taipei began subsidizing an annual Gay Carnival, which attracted 10,000 people last year. Taiwan has also taken a step toward legalizing gay marriage by expanding the definition of the domestic-violence bill to cover gay couples.

If it passes, a Human Rights Basic Law drafted in 2003 would allow for legalized gay marriages, which would make Taiwan the first place in Asia to legalize gay unions. Only a few countries in the world have so far have done the same thing: the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada and South Africa.

In Japan, the government agreed to allow transgender people to change their birth sex on their national identity cards in 2004, a bureaucratic breakthrough that thousands of transgender people in Thailand are now fighting for, partly to exclude themselves from conscription into the army.

Singapore sends mixed signals on homosexuality. While consensual sex between men is still outlawed and punishable by a jail term, the government allows movies with gay themes "as long as the gay life is not depicted as desirable".

Punishments of homosexual acts are practically unheard of unless a minor or rape is involved, but many gay public events are banned. A gay picnic and a five-kilometre dash were prohibited to prevent participants from "politicising their cause", authorities said.

In Asia's predominantly Islamic countries such as Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, gay relations are still taboo, at least for Muslims, as was highlighted by the much-politicised 2000 sentencing for sodomy of Malaysia's former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.

But for non-Muslims, who make up 40 percent of Malaysia's population, there are small glimmers of legal leniency.

In Feb 2005, for instance, a Malaysian court allowed a non-Muslim male transsexual to change the gender on his identity card after he showed medical proof of a sex change by surgery.

In spite of that small milestone, the Malaysian government still refuses to acknowledge marriages in which one of the partners has undergone a sex-change surgery, saying they are same-sex unions and, therefore, illegal.

Similar laws apply in Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim population, which is remarkably more tolerant toward the gay and transgender community than one might suspect.

"The only legal discrimination against gays is they can't legally get married, because Indonesian marriage law only recognizes a man and woman as able to get married," said Dede Utomo, a sociology lecturer from Airlangga University in Surabaya. Utomo, who is openly gay, is the founder of the gay support group GAYa Nusantara.

Indonesian gays were admittedly targeted by Islamic fundamentalists from 1997-2005 but Utomo looked back at the discrimination philosophically.

"These are the same groups who attacked nightclubs and bars, etcetera, such as in Yogyakarta, Solo and South Sulawesi, but funny enough, they would take bribes and cancel their attack if we gave them enough money" he said.