Growing up in Hong Kong, I am used to living in a fairly conservative culture. Many people, particularly teenagers, avoid alcohol. The thinking goes: if you drink alcohol, you are a bad guy. And they avoid clubbing altogether, thinking there is no point to jumping up and down to music. But what really struck me about the city is its attitude towards LGBTQ+. Many people have not heard of the term in the first place, despite Hong Kong’s relative proficiency of English. We are used to openly joking about our friends “acting gay”, without being politically incorrect. Some of my friends have openly expressed their disapproval towards LGBTQ+; one told me, “It’s not the social norm, so why should we accept it?”
Then, I came to England to study A-levels. The headmaster warned in our first school assembly that anyone targeting the LGBTQ+ community could face serious consequences. A poster outside of our canteen criticised the use of the phrase ‘It is so gay!’ A prominent student leader was openly homosexual. And one of my dorm-mates was rumoured to be gay. When my Hong Kong friends in the school found this out, they made a big buzz about it – knowing someone who is gay is always a big discovery in Hong Kong.
It turns out that Brighton, the city that I spent my two years of A-levels in, is nicknamed the ‘gay capital of the UK,’ with an estimated 11-15% of the 16+ population being either gay, lesbian or bisexual in 2014. But, even ignoring this statistic, there is indeed a divergence in the attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community between the UK and Hong Kong and, more broadly, between the Western and Eastern world. According to a recent global survey, 66% of people in the Americas agree that ‘equal rights and protections should be applied to everyone, including people who are romantically or sexually attracted to people of the same sex,’ compared to 60% of Europeans and only 48% of Asians. In the same survey, 69% of those in the Americas believe that ‘Equal rights and protections should be applied to everyone, including people who dress, act or identify as one sex although they were born as another,’ compared to 60% of Europeans and only 52% of Asians. Around the world, 25 countries allow same-sex marriage, but none of them are in Asia (excluding Australia and New Zealand).
Hong Kong Pride Parade 2017. Credits: Hong Kong Pride Parade Facebook page
Recently, there have been developments in LGBTQ+ rights in several Asian countries. This September, India legalised gay sex. Last year, Taiwan’s high court ruled that banning same-sex marriages violated the right to be treated equally and asked the government to write same-sex marriage into law by 2019.
Yet, homophobia is still strong overall. On 30 October, Malaysian opposition leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the recent earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, which killed over 2000 people, was a result of God’s punishment for LGBTQ+ activities there. Back in August, the government raided a popular LGBTQ+ nightclub in Kuala Lumpur, stating, “hopefully this initiative can mitigate the LGBTQ+ culture from spreading into our society.” Gay sex is still punishable by death in Islamic Asian countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and UAE under sharia law, and less heavily so in other countries in Asia and Africa (see map below). If one identifies as LGBTQ+ and lives in Bangladesh, they may receive threatening text messages from radical Islamist groups and stand a chance of being murdered.
Homosexuality: legal status around the world. Extracted from Pamela Duncan, Gay relationships are still criminalised in 72 countries, report finds, published on The Guardian at 27 July 2017.
In Mainland China and Hong Kong, where most of the population are irreligious, traditional filial values remain strong – children are seen as a way to pass on the bloodline and reputation of family names; hence, marriages should facilitate this – instead of bringing two people of the same sex together. Consider the following case in China reported last year. A 37-year-old male teacher happily married a 34-year-old female barista in 2010, holding an exquisite wedding ceremony in the eastern province of Shandong. Behind all the glamour, though, the man is actually gay and has been living with his real-life partner, a designer in his 40s, for more than a decade. What is more, the barista is in fact a lesbian, and the married couple has been living separately in different provinces, with the barista in Hubei province in central China. Why didn’t the man come out as gay? “I am a teacher,” he told a newspaper. “If I tell other teachers and my pupils that I am gay, my pupils will tell their parents. Their parents will then demand to have their children leave my class and join other classes instead.”
Meanwhile, things are not good in India either. Despite recently legalising same-sex marriage, attitudes in rural India remain very conservative, as per a BBC report this September. The report mentioned a 30-year-old girl named Kiran Yadav living in the eastern state of Bihar. As transgender, since her childhood, she has never liked clothes perceived as ‘girly’ and, instead, would choose to wear trousers and a shirt – the outfit worn by boys in her village. (Her parents had no objection because, being the only child in the family, they can then ‘perceive’ her as their son.) She would eventually ‘dial random numbers and tell strangers [her] story – anyone at all who cared to listen.’ When she was 24, she tried to commit suicide. This is just one example that shows legalising homosexuality is not enough – changing people’s attitudes matters, too.
Artist’s impression of Kiran Yadav. Extracted from the BBC report mentioned above.
All these have contributed to LGBTQ+ individuals in Asia being reluctant to discuss their sexuality, perpetuating their low visibility. A poll conducted last year by WorkForLGBT, a non-profit organisation, concluded only 1 out of 5 of over 2,000 Chinese respondents personally knew at least 1 LGBTQ+ person, which is low compared to other countries where same-sex marriage is legal. Needless to say, life satisfaction for them would be lower than non-LGBTQ+ individuals.
Hopefully, this will gradually change. Asia has seen a rise in LGBTQ+ pressure groups: this October, a grassroots advocacy group called Justice for Sisters was founded in Malaysia by Thi Laga, who is gender non-conforming, amid a time when two lesbians who had sex in a car were caned six times in the court. In this Guardian podcast, she talked about how, among other things, she collaborated with prominent NGO Human Rights Watch to produce reports and organise public education campaigns. Japan, the only G7 country to not provide marriage equality or same-sex partnerships, also saw an opportunity to reform itself ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly recently banned discrimination based on sexual harassment and regulates hate speech. Six foreign chambers of commerce called on the Japanese government in September to legalise same-sex marriage, arguing it is ‘economically good for business’ and elevates Japan’s status on the world stage.
But there just might be one more factor that can contribute massively towards social tolerance of LGBTQ+ individuals. A survey by Pew Research Center 5 years ago noted that, globally, younger people tended to believe that homosexuality should be accepted compared to older ones. This might mean that, in a few decades, Asia’s attitude towards LGBTQ+ can start to catch up with the Western world, improving the welfare of a community that has been stigmatised and targeted against for centuries.