Sunday, November 7, 2010

Asia Tip-Toes Toward LGBT Rights

The words "Asia" and "LGBT rights" rarely appear in the same sentence.  Asia is a region that's not as rigidly conservative as Africa, but neither is it as open-minded and progressive as the West.  It is seemingly teetering in between; trying to find its footing on the landscape between personal liberties and age-old traditions.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that gay rights are nothing more than a dream in Asia, but over the last couple of years there have been some gradual moves.  They may not be as dramatic and sweeping as in Europe, but it looks as though Asia may finally be slowly tip-toeing closer to rights for its LGBTs.

Nepal is, surprisingly, the brightest star on the Asian map these days.  This beautiful little Himalayan kingdom-turned-republic is in the process of writing a brand new constitution, and in it will be protections for Nepalese LGBTs against discrimination.  What's more, it will also contain the right to same-sex marriage.  When the new constitution is completed and ratified (by April or May of 2011 they say), Nepal will become the very first country in Asia to have marriage equality.  Now that's a milestone and something to be proud of.

Taiwan is well known as one of Asia's most gay-friendly countries, if not the most gay-friendly.  It is also known as Asia's most liberal land.  Taiwan has two national anti-discrimination laws (one protecting against workplace discrimination and one protecting against discrimination in education), and while they are not as stringent as European anti-discrimination laws, they are progressive pieces of legislation nonetheless.  Taiwan was the first country in Asia to enact such nationwide laws.  Furthermore, the Taiwanese Education Ministry has announced that starting in 2011 school textbooks will include topics on LGBT human rights and non-discrimination.

In 2003 the then-ruling Democratic Progressive Party proposed legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in the country, but it has yet to be taken up due to political party wranglings.  It is still stalled and likely will continue to be because the current ruling party, the centre-right KMT, are less likely to bring it up for debate.  The large and active LGBT community in Taiwan continues to lobby for it, however, and polls show that many Taiwanese are favorable toward the idea.  A 2006 poll showed that 75% of Taiwanese feel that same-sex relations are acceptable.  This was, however, a general question regarding "relations," not same-sex marriages specifically.

Japan is an enigma to me.  I've been to Japan and I think it's an awesome place with very friendly and cutting edge people.  But like other Asian countries, Japan approaches the issue of LGBT rights timidly, cautiously.  It's a country that doesn't mind if its citizens marry video game avatars, but at the same time "isn't ready" to allow same-sex human couples the right to wed.  I mean no disrespect to my Japanese friends, but that's just weird.  Come on, Japanese government... What's going on in the Land of the Rising Sun?  Robots and video game characters can tie the knot before human beings??  Japan is unique, I'll give them that much.

Japan is a curiosity to me because it's wealthy, prosperous and economically liberal, but fairly socially conservative.  This has to do with ancient traditions more than anything, but over the past decade the ice has started to crack.  The country has taken two significant legal steps toward equality recently, including a law passed unanimously by the Diet which allows Japanese transsexuals who have undergone GCS, or gender confirming surgery, to change their gender on all documents.  

Additionally, in 2009 the Justice Ministry announced it would begin honoring the marriage certificates of Japanese citizens who have married a foreign same-sex spouse if the marriage took place in a country where same-sex marriage is legal.  If the couple choose to reside in Japan, the Japanese government will recognize their marriage and bestow the same rights and benefits as in opposite-sex marriage.  This is seen as a huge move toward equality, and most see it as a step towards eventual marriage equality in Japan.  Furthermore, it seems to me that the people of Japan are far more receptive to the notion of same-sex marriage than their government officials are.  This isn't particularly unique -- such is the case in many nations.  Public opinion often evolves faster than governments are willing to change.  The vast majority of Japanese people that you talk to about marriage equality are entirely supportive of the idea.

Japan and Nepal were the only Asian countries to sign the UN Declaration on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, which condemns violence, harassment, discrimination, exclusion, stigmatization, and prejudice based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  It also condemns the deprivation of social and cultural rights based on those grounds.  The other Asian nations did not sign because they feared it was "an attempt to legitimize same-sex civil partnerships or marriage."

Singapore isn't known for being a friend of LGBT rights.  This is another country that makes me scratch my head.  I often wonder how a country so advanced and seemingly sophisticated can remain stuck in the Victorian era when it comes to marriage and sexuality.  Male homosexuality is actually illegal in the city-state, though the law hasn't been enforced for years.

That Singapore society typically frowns on homosexuality shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, however, when one considers its three dominant faiths:  conservative Confucianism (among the Chinese-Singaporeans), conservative Hinduism (among the Indian-Singaporeans), and conservative Islam (among the Malay-Singaporeans).

Not all hope is lost, however.  Recently the laws were amended to allow transsexual Singaporeans the right to legally change their gender on official documents.  Those who have undergone full GCS are also allowed to enter into marriage.  This one even surprised me, and it's a sign that Singapore, like other Asian countries, is perhaps starting to see some value in fairness.  It's anyone's guess as to how long it will take for the anti-homosexuality law to be repealed, let alone for same-sex relationships to be legally recognized.  When I've asked Singaporeans about this they simply roll their eyes and say "Maybe by the year 2200."  As such the government of Singapore remains extremely homophobic.

South Korea, like Japan, is also fairly socially conservative.  Baby steps for equality have been made in recent years, however, and Article 31 of the Korean Human Rights Committee Law states that "no individual is to be discriminated against on the basis of his or her sexual orientation."  In the military, though, servicemen and women are expected not to reveal their sexual orientation or carry out relationships with someone of the same sex.  In 2009 this code was found to be discriminatory by a military court.  It was appealed to the Supreme Constitutional Court.  On October 27, 2010, the Human Rights Committee weighed in, finding the code unconsitutional.  Now we await the ruling from the Supreme Court.

Transsexual South Koreans are able to undergo GCS in their country, and since 2006, to change their gender on all legal documents.

The Democratic Labour Party is actively involved in fighting for LGBT rights in Korea, including marriage equality as part of their party platform.  They are the country's third largest party.  South Korea's current president, however, Lee Myung-bak of the right-wing Grand National Party, is opposed to marriage equality.  But there is no doubt that education and awareness on LGBT issues is growing among South Koreans, and things can only get better from here!

South Korea has yet to sign the UN Declaration on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, reportedly due to opposition posed by right-wing Christian groups in the country.  South Korean delegates have, however, voted in favor of gay rights in the UN General Assembly.  Nepalese and Japanese delegates are the only other Asian delegates who have also voted in favor of gay rights.  (Though Taiwan is also supportive it is not part of the UN due to its official standing as still being part of China.)

Straight soldiers for civil rights

Though LGBT discrimination still exists in most parts of Asia, there is certainly reason to be optimistic.   Even in communist China more and more are showing support for LGBT rights, especially among the younger generation.   A 2000 survey showed that over 48% of mainland Chinese view homosexuals favorably, and a same-sex marriage bill was even proposed (though dismissed) in 2007.  In 2010 there was also a picture campaign featuring straight Chinese holding signs of support for LGBT rights, and the willing participants numbered in the thousands -- including many Buddhist monks.

Asia is rising and progressing, and hopefully the rights and dignity of all Asians will rise and progress at an equally impressive rate.  It may take time, but the momentum will continue to build by changing hearts and minds, one at a time if needs be.


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