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LGBTQ rights: Asia has a long way to go

In most Asian countries same-sex relations are illegal with varying degrees of tolerance, and we take a look at some.

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Updated: September 10, 2018

Last week, India’s top court decriminalised homosexuality with a prayer to the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community to forgive history for their “brutal” suppression.

The LGBTQ community was outraged when the Supreme Court had reversed a landmark ruling that had decriminalised homosexual acts under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a 153-year-old colonial-era law.

Around 2.5 million Indians identify as LGBTQ. This data is not inclusive as it takes into account only those who have declared their sexuality to the health ministry. According to National Crime Records Bureau data, 1,347 cases were lodged against the community in 2015 alone – an “offence” that was, till last week, punishable by up to a 10-year jail term. Often this law was misused to intimidate, blackmail and extort money from the community.

While India’s LGBTQ community has erupted in joy, here’s a look at the status of such communities across Asia – which clearly have a long way to go.

Taiwan became the first country in Asia to rule in favour of same-sex marriages, but homosexual acts are largely illegal in the subcontinent. Over the weekend, a Queer Parade in South Korea met with obstacles. In Malaysia, two lesbian women were caned last week – an act that was later disapproved of by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Last year, four gay men were lashed 83 lashes in full public view in Aceh in Indonesia. Pakistan and Bangladesh are against same-sex relations and are sailing in the same boat as other largely Islamic countries. A survey published in the Straits Times today says more than half of Singaporeans still support Section 377A of the Penal Code.


Last year, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriages.

Taiwan’s highest court, the council of grand justices, said barring gay couples from marrying violated “the people’s freedom of marriage” and “the people’s right to equality”, China Post reported.

The island’s parliament has to amend and enact laws addressing same-sex unions within two years, otherwise gay couples will automatically be allowed to register under the current framework. Two of the 14 justices hearing the case dissented and one recused himself.

The New York Times listed this ruling among 17 critical moments of 2017 from across the world.


Having been found guilty in a Shariah court, two Acehnese men convicted of gay sex were publicly caned in this Shariah-compliant provincial capital of Banda Aceh last year, each receiving 83 lashes, the Jakarta Post reported.

The men, identified only as MT, 23, and MH, 21 – were both university students. Thousands of people witnessed the caning. The caning was the first imposed on a gay couple since Shariah law was implemented in the province in 1999.

LGBT activists in the world’s largest Muslim democracy condemned the caning, which they said exacerbated Indonesia’s poor human rights record.

Aceh’s position is extreme – it is the only province in Indonesia that has implemented Shariah (Islamic law) and the 2014 local criminal code which includes punishments for adult consensual same-sex conduct.

Media reports say the crackdown on the community since 2015 is fuelling a public health crisis and contributing to the spread of HIV. Some lawmakers have proposed complete criminalisation of sex outside of marriage, with extra penalties if it is between two people of the same gender – an anti-adultery law, with an anti-gay provision.


Two Malaysian Muslim women convicted of attempting to have sex in a car were caned last week in a rare public whipping that was denounced by some politicians and rights groups, the Star reported.

The women, aged 22 and 32, were seated on stools facing the judges and given six strokes from a light rattan cane on their backs by female prison officers. More than 100 people witnessed the caning in an Islamic court in the conservative northeast state of Terengganu.

On August 12, the Syariah (Shariah) High Court fined the women RM3,300 and ordered that they be caned six times each after they pleaded guilty.

The punishment drew criticism from human rights groups, NGOs and a few politicians. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said the caning gave a bad impression of Islam.

Mahathir said it was important to demonstrate that Islam was not a cruel religion or one that loved to mete out heavy punishments that humiliate others. He added that this was not the way of Islam.

Homosexual acts are illegal in Malaysia under section 377 – a colonial era law. Under the law, sodomy is punishable with a jail term of up to 20 years and whipping. Politician Anwar Ibrahim was convicted and imprisoned for sodomy twice under the law.


Even though Pakistan made history last year by becoming one of only a few countries in the world to pass progressive legislation guaranteeing the fundamental rights of its transgender citizens — including rights of employment, property, inheritance, to vote and to hold public office – its LGBTQ community has not had it easy.

Pakistan’s first anonymous gay blogger gave up writing out of fear after this reporter wrote an article on his blogposts that articulated the stigma attached to being a homosexual in a largely conservative country. The penalty for same-sex relations is a fine, imprisonment for two years to life, or both.

Even in large cities, gays and lesbians have to be highly discreet about their sexual orientation. The colonial era Pakistan Penal Code of 1860 punishes sodomy with a possible prison sentence. Acts of homosexuality are illegal in the Islamic nation.

In a piece for Dawn, Em, a student of anthropology argues that the British erased the pre-colonial queer narratives and criminalised the gender minorities.

“The section 377 of Pakistan Penal Code that criminalises homosexual conduct is a remnant of colonial times. Never was seen such a massive project of destruction of queer cultures in the name of ‘civilising’,” the student wrote.

“The purpose is not to glorify the pre-colonial past – which, after all, was patriarchal and heteronormative – but to highlight how the indigenous culture recognised and coexisted with queer communities for a long time.”


Nepal is one of the most progressive countries in the world with regard to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights, and its current LGBTI laws are some of the most open in the world.

Nepal’s new constitution, approved by the Constituent Assembly on September 16, 2015, includes several provisions pertaining to the rights of LGBTI people, some of which include the right to have their preferred gender displayed on their identity card and a prohibition on discrimination on any ground, including sex or sexual orientation.

The new constitution has recognised LGBTI rights as fundamental rights; but sadly, they have yet to be practically implemented in society, Kathmandu Post reported.

Despite official recognition on paper and some political advances, it is family pressure and social expectations that force most LGBT people to stay firmly in the closet.


A US government employee, who was editor of an LGBT magazine in Bangladesh, was hacked to death in Dhaka in 2016.

Mannan – a senior editor of Roopbaan, the first gay rights magazine in the country – was stabbed to death along with a friend, according to Daily Star.

Homosexual acts are illegal in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. The country’s legal code prohibits “unnatural offences,” which it says includes voluntary “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal.” The offense is punishable with life in prison.

The law is rarely enforced, but LGBT groups have reported that police use the law as a pretext to bully gay or simply effeminate individuals to prevent the formation of LGBT organizations

In 2009 and 2013 there were two recommendations to decriminalise same-sex relationships but Bangladesh rejected them.

According to a report in Daily Star, 25 LGBTQ activists left the country following the murders of Mannan and another activist.

“The community had to cancel the third annual Rainbow Rally in the face of opposition from the government in April 2016 [while] four gay men were illegally detained by the police suspecting them to be attendees of Rainbow Rally,” the report stated, portraying the movement’s inability to exercise the right to assembly.


With its famous “ladyboy” performances in Pattaya and elsewhere, Thailand is perceived as a very gay-friendly land, and can hardly be described as an anti-gay or anti-LGBT society.

However, a report in the Nation points out that “there is an illusion of rights where they don’t actually exist in law”.

“For example, there are few formal complaints of job discrimination made by LGBT people, but this does not mean that there is no job discrimination against LGBT people in Thailand. Indeed there are instances of discrimination, but they are not normally considered violations of the rights of LGBT people.”

Activists also want Thailand to push ahead with the Life and Partnership Registration bill to promote the rights of people with same-sex partners.

The Justice Ministry’s Rights and Liberties Protection Department (RLPD) began work on the bill in 2013 after a gay couple petitioned for legal recognition of their right to establish families as enjoyed by heterosexual couples, but it was interrupted after a political setback in 2014.

“We want the bill to pass and take effect soon. I want to see it in this life,” Kittinun “Danny” Daramadhaj, president of the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand, who helped draft the life partnership bill, told the Nation.

Many in Thailand believe that Buddhism regards homosexuality as a sign of sins from past lives – a fact that activists want changed.


Slightly more than half – or 55 per cent – of Singaporeans still support Section 377A of the Penal Code, even as one in three Singaporeans is more accepting of same-sex relationships than he or she was five years ago, a new survey has found.

The survey was reported by the Straits Times and aims to understand the current social attitudes towards same-sex relationships.

A total of 750 Singaporean citizens and permanent residents aged 15 to 65 took part in the study.

When asked the extent to which they supported or opposed Section 377A, which is the law that criminalises consensual sex between adult men, more than half (55 per cent) indicated that they supported it, while 12 per cent said they opposed it.


Japanese companies are increasingly integrating gender diversity policies into their central business strategies, to keep up with the global trend of harnessing the skills and purchasing power of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals.

Mizuho Financial Group Inc last year became Japan’s first banking group to treat loan customers’ same-sex partners as a spouse at Mizuho Bank. The bank also held a life planning seminar exclusively for same-sex couples in May, Japan News reported.

Through such efforts, Mizuho aims to boost a variety of financial products for LGBT customers, the group’s managing executive officer Hidenobu Mukai said at an event in Tokyo to promote corporate awareness of gender diversity.

One in 13 people in Japan is estimated to be a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, according to a survey conducted in 2015 by the Japanese advertising giant Dentsu Inc.

In March 2009, Japan began allowing Japanese nationals to marry same-sex partners in countries where same-sex marriage is legal.

As of 2018, sexual orientation is not protected by national civil rights laws, which means that LGBT Japanese have no legal recourse when they face discrimination in such areas as employment, education, housing, healthcare and banking. Efforts are on to bridge that divide by 2020 when Japan will host the Olympics.


China has an estimated 70 million LGBT people, according to China Daily.

Same-sex sexual activity has been legal in China since 1997. However, China has no laws to protect LGBT people from discrimination. Same-sex couples are unable to marry or adopt, and households headed by such couples are ineligible for the same legal protections available to opposite-sex couples.

A growing number of gay men and lesbians on the Chinese mainland plan to come out within five years, according to a survey released by WorkForLGBT, a non-profit business network that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, China Daily reported.

Only 22 percent of gay men and 12 percent of lesbians don’t intend to reveal their sexual orientation in the next five years, compared with 30 percent of gay men and 16 percent of lesbians last year, according to a survey.

“I believe that we’re still far from a situation where many LGBT people can come out publicly, which requires a change in the mainstream mindset and legal protection in the country,” a 31-year-old, who wanted to be identified only as Hank, told China Daily.

In both Chinese history and literature, homosexuality was open and tolerated.

Chinese sociologist Li Yinhe calls social tolerance China’s “cultural advantage”. An article in China Daily quotes Li – “China had been ahead in the acceptance of homosexuality but had fallen behind again”.

Li notes that China had, in the past, treated homosexuals with more tolerance than some Western societies which persecuted them, sometimes to death. She feels that the culturally confident Chinese were not afraid of accepting an alternative lifestyle, but that they would rather ignore it than oppose it. But, Li adds, tolerance does not mean full acceptance.

Sri Lanka

Article 365A criminalises homosexual sex as an act of gross indecency between persons in Sri Lanka. However police harassment is rare and there has not yet been a conviction under the act.

A report in the Island states that the LGBT community has been discriminated against for 134 years.

There are three specific discriminatory laws against the LGBTQ community in Sri Lanka – Section 365 (against the order of nature) criminalizes same-sex activity with up to 10 years of imprisonment, Section 365A (gross indecency) can put people convicted of same-sex acts behind bars for two to 20 years, and Section 399 is used by police to harass transgender and gender non-conforming people on grounds of impersonation.

While these laws are applied infrequently, they nevertheless undermine the fundamental human rights and dignity of LGBTQ Sri Lankans and give carte blanche to authorities to violate the rights of LGBTQ individuals with impunity.

Activists in Sri Lanka have faced other challenges in recent years. The 12th Colombo Pride event in 2016 received online threats from radical groups.

The European Union has stepped up its controversial campaign to pressure Sri Lanka to do away with Penal Code Sections 365 and 365A, which provide for prosecuting LGBT persons.

At an EU-sponsored business roundtable on the “challenges and benefits of the diversity in the workplace”, leading local LGBT organization Equal Ground pointed out the absurdity of continuing with laws introduced by the British even as the same laws had been abolished in the UK. Equal Ground has launched an online petition called 134 Campaign to garner support for its project.

South Korea

It’s not easy being LGBTQ in South Korea. Recent figures show a majority of the population does not support homosexuality, in addition to the general indifference toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights and issues.

Homosexuality is not illegal in South Korea, but there is currently no regulation outlawing discrimination. Same-sex marriage remains illegal, while a number of sexual minorities have been subject to hate crimes in the past.


The first queer festival held in the South Korean port city of Incheon was severely delayed, as some 1,000 Christians staged an anti-gay protests on the scene, which led to physical attacks and verbal abuse against LGBT individuals, the Korea Herald reported.

In spite of the violent clashes and subsequent delays, and many planned events being cancelled, the LGBT community persisted with and completed the queer parade.

Tens of thousands of people descended on Seoul Plaza in July to celebrate this year’s Seoul Queer Culture Festival.

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Lamat R Hasan
About the Author: Lamat is an Associate Editor at Asia News Network.

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