While it is incredibly difficult to make generalisations about LGBTIQ advocacy efforts or debates over gay rights across Asia, many commentators have expressed optimism after a number of public expressions or political initiatives in support of gay unions and rights.
Most have hailed these events as important milestones for the affirmation of sexual freedoms, from gay couples publicly ‘tying the knot’ in Myanmar, to pride parades such as Pink Dot SG in Singapore, and government-appointed same-sex marriage committees in Nepal. Thailand, Vietnam and Taiwan, too, are reconsidering existing prohibitions on same-sex marriages. These show that both Asian citizens and political regimes alike have become thoroughly literate in the vocabulary of LGBTIQ advocacy (which covers the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer communities).
But not everyone agrees on the extent of social acceptance for gay rights, unions or marriages. Across Asia, governments are sensitive to impassioned debates over same-sex marriage legislation in the West. They are recognising that they can no longer ignore nor explicitly denounce this new wave of sexual self-determination, introduced through the forces of cultural globalisation and via increasingly cosmopolitan segments of their citizenry.
Yet — both citing and siding with anti-LGBTIQ conservatives — these very same regimes have also been quick to dampen speculation about the possibility of legalising gay marriage. In some cases, they continue to maintain draconian laws that criminalise same-sex behaviour, all in the name of protecting traditional public interests or values.
Many LGBTIQ activists boldly claim that social conservatism towards these issues is rapidly dissolving. They point to the growing public acceptance and support for their cause in the form of state-tolerated campaigns, online and live advocacy efforts and a general climate of political and sexual liberalisation.
But these liberal gestures — touted as a sign of changing times and the rise of a new Asia, one free from all kinds of bigotry and cultural discrimination — might not turn out to be the utopia its proponents had hoped for. If ‘everyone’s a little bit racist’, as the Broadway musical, Avenue Q, declares, then perhaps, one should not exclude the possibility that ‘everyone’s a little bit homophobic’ too. Indeed, could the vogue for liberal attitudes towards gay rights be sidestepping — or worse, obscuring — an underlying climate of traditionalism and sexual conservatism?
It is important to be cautious when celebrating the growing presence of grassroots social activism, non-governmental organisations and human rights watch-groups across Asia concerned with sexual rights and diversity. These organisations claim the right to advocate and speak for the gay person, but their liberal agenda does little to overturn traditional mindsets rooted in histories of religious belief, family values and kinship ties.
Many LGBTIQ-identifying individuals can little afford the costs of estrangement or isolation from intimate others, regardless of whether public discourses exhort them for bravery or endow them with the rights of sexual self-determination. More troubling is the tendency for the queer community to be portrayed as a deeply oppressed underclass. As such, they get conflated with other groups pressing for political liberalisation and social recognition, thus effectively diluting their specific sexual demands and struggles.
Most of all, it should be acknowledged that the struggle for gay rights and the legalisation of gay marriages continues to feed heterosexual liberal fantasies, instead of challenging the status quo. Public campaigns, articles and speeches beseeching sexual rights remain entrenched in the language of victimhood, struggle and triumphant overcoming when discussing LGBTIQ communities.
These melodramatic plots, evident in stories of forbidden love and the struggle for emancipated desire among queer individuals and couples, make sense when read against other equally important social currents in Asian societies today. The institution of marriage is paling in significance, and family oriented-ness is declining among younger generations. Given the conscious decisions of heterosexual individuals to remain single or marry later in life due to economic imperatives, Asian societies are fraught with collective anxieties over familial continuity and reproduction.
In other words, gay struggles for recognition and legitimacy serve the indirect purpose of reviving the intrinsic value of intimate partnership. They operate as exemplary models for heterosexual couples to learn from and emulate. Tales of queer couples’ valiantly fought battles to love and be loved in the face of adversity constitute a powerful — but mostly unconscious and unacknowledged —mechanism that prompts other citizens to revalue romantic couplehood and marriage.
Unfortunately, in the public circulation of these dramatised stories and romantic clichés, LGBTIQ narratives have become decontextualised, instead supporting a generic ‘freedom to love’ without a referent. This kind of advocacy neither challenges heterosexual ideals as the dominant social paradigm, nor addresses the unequivocally unique sexual orientations of LGBTIQ persons.
Queer advocacy in a liberal mode might be subordinated to other heterosexual or political agendas to the point of its unrecognisability or even disintegration. It is essential that LGBTIQ movements in Asia reclaim their own particularity and assert the validity of their cultural and sexual demands uncompromisingly. Instead of pandering to heterosexual publics in an effort to be included as a part of blanket liberalism, queer activists should emphasise their difference from and irreconcilability with existing traditions and conservatisms. Only by doing so can they champion the distinctive value of gay.
Sherman Tan is a PhD candidate in anthropology in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.