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23 Oct 2015

Southeast Asia's LGBT Revolution

By Rich Bellis 

Section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code, which criminalizes sex between men, is the vestige of a colonial law that no longer exists. In 2007, when the National Assembly voted to repeal an older, broader prohibition against “gross indecency,” it left intact, but unenforced, that 1938 statute. The country’s Court of Appeal agreed this month to hear together two challenges to the law that were dismissed individually earlier this year, which could lead to its repeal by 2014. Similar rights initiatives are progressing in Thailand and Vietnam, where both governments took steps this year toward recognizing same-sex relationships. The politics and public opinions surrounding these issues are changing rapidly in Southeast Asia. New and social media, meanwhile, are amplifying them.

Huynh Nguyen Dang Khoa was a 21-year-old student in Ho Chi Minh City last year when he began filming “My Best Gay Friends,” with no budget to speak of. The comedic web series, which Khoa wrote, directed, and stars in alongside many of his actual friends, follows the trials and antics of typical cash-strapped, urban twenty-somethings who, for the most part, are variously lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Khoa, who himself is gay, wanted to counter the stereotyping and scarcity of LGBT representations in mainstream media. But when he uploaded the first nine episodes to YouTube, he figured they would mainly interest a like-minded audience. Instead, the series went viral. Before long, he later recalled, he began “hearing that parents, grandparents, whole families” had become committed fans. Six more installments soon rounded out the series, most of them surpassing one million views apiece.

The success of “My Best Gay Friends” exemplifies how user-generated content is reaching unlikely audiences—sometimes producing unpredictable reactions. Anh-Minh Do, a Vietnamese blogger who covered the story and writes about technology in the region, says the rise of video-sharing platforms is drawing greater attention to LGBT people online. Of the wealth of original footage created and shared by individuals, Do says, “some get a lot of ridicule, others get a lot of support. It depends on how they carry themselves.” Last year, the journalist Nguyen Qui Duc cautioned that personal “videos or expressions of alternative lifestyles only happen with a small segment of the population. They are novelties, and they are noticed,” but their impact in Vietnam is limited.

That might be changing. In 2005, the country’s Internet users were estimated at 12.8% of the population. Last year, that figure jumped to 34%. And with nearly 44% of the country’s population younger than 25, it’s likely that new media platforms will fast become natural forms of communication for an emerging generation of users. Do points more broadly to the Internet’s latent normalizing power. The ways social media disseminates content can have a leveling effect over time, folding otherwise unfamiliar people and subjects into the general “fabric of groups of friends and families out there.”

Still, Khoa had reason to trust his first intuition. Vietnam, relative to Thailand or the Philippines, is not popularly regarded as possessing a history of cultural accommodation of same-sex behaviors, relationships, or non-normative gender identities, even though those have occurred in various forms and contexts at different periods in each society. Even some gay Vietnamese are surprised by their government’s recent embrace of an LGBT-rights agenda. One argued in an op-ed this year that since “the nation’s conservative base still recognizes homosexuality as a taboo act and not as a personal identity,” legalizing same-sex marriage could cause “more disparities” and lead to “further isolation of gay families” if there isn’t first a broader “foundation to properly support it.”

Because the effort has been spearheaded by two internationally-funded NGOs, iSEE (Institute for Studies of Society, Economy, and Environment) and ICS (Information Connecting and Sharing), and endorsed by government entities like the Ministries of Health and Justice, some see it as a case of pinkwashing, with Hanoi attempting to burnish a lackluster human rights record in order to strengthen its international standing. Domestically, same-sex marriage is a relatively neutral issue thanks to the Communist Party’s enforced monopoly on Vietnamese politics—a history that’s left the predominantly Buddhist country without major religious establishments to oppose the initiative on moral grounds.

That political climate coincides with ongoing transformations in the ways LGBT users and media have traversed the Web since the 1990s. “HIV really pushed gay liberation forward in many Asian countries” and “enabled gay men to form de facto organizations and network,” John Goss, founder of Utopia-Asia.com, a major English-language source for Asian-based LGBT news, travel, entertainment, and social networking, explains. “And the Internet opened up an anonymous means to do this at the same time.” Goss launched the website in 1994, one year after opening an “all-purpose LGBT center” in Bangkok, the region’s first. Before then, gay life online was limited mainly to personal pages, IRC chat rooms, and websites run by Western social and activist organizations. Utopia was meant to fill that void, as well as to counterbalance the commercialism Goss recalls dominating gay life at the time.

The latter trend has continued apace, though, in many ways determining what’s filled that void since. Southeast Asia’s sizable and growing tourist economy makes more lavish overtures to LGBT consumers each year. Gay-friendly resorts and hotels are cropping up in cities renowned for their vibrant gay life, as well as in some that aren’t. Commercial exigencies are reshaping familiar Internet hubs, too. Fridae.com, one of Asia’s most popular LGBT web portals, changed hands in 2011 after founder Stuart Koe’s exit amid clashes with the company’s board over its business strategy.

As traffic migrates to mobile platforms, social networking brands are the latest beneficiaries of LGBT online consumerism. In some quarters, that’s compounding corporate hegemony. Facebook, for example, has so far succeeded in edging out most of its regional competitors and is currently the social network where many activist groups prefer to organize. Meanwhile, dating services geared toward gay men are proliferating all across Asia. After moving to a new domain, the revamped Fridae.asia announced plans this summer to launch one of its own.

If social media appears to be increasing LGBT visibility in all of these areas, viewed differently, it could be promoting the reverse impulse, or others altogether. Mobile dating apps afford much the same anonymity chat rooms did decades ago, putting discreet sex within closer reach while mediating the social mechanics of physical encounters. For activists, social networks provide a different form of shelter. According to Chris Tan, an anthropologist at Shandong University, “offline organization is more easily subjected to state surveillance” than its online counterparts, where political vulnerabilities can be better contained. Those who take a cynical view of Vietnam’s same-sex marriage initiative tend to point to the country’s recent crackdowns on dissident bloggers. China’s Great Firewall is unmatched in Asia, driving other nations toward cruder methods of controlling online expression whenever it conflicts with broader geopolitical interests.

In Singapore, where “existing laws also forbid the positive portrayal of gay men and lesbians in mainstream media,” Tan notes, many “actually reject rights activism, even though the decriminalization of homosexuality will alleviate their social stigma greatly.” Moreover, it’s uncertain whether greater connectedness necessarily fosters identity politics similar to those of Western societies, where, for example, the practice and vocabulary of ‘coming out’ can have a greater bearing on personal and communal self-concepts. New and social media’s most significant bequest to LGBT Southeast Asians may be the improved freedom to determine which activities to perform where and how.

What’s clearer is that young users will continue to make those choices in more ways and in greater numbers than ever before. Anh-Minh Do, the tech blogger, says that’s already led to popular opinion becoming even “more public and much younger” on average than previously. “In a lot of ways,” he says, “Vietnamese youth society has been positive about LGBT [issues] for a long time,” and it’s only lately that technology has caught up sufficiently to broadcast it.

The court where the fate of S377A will be determined sits across the street from the only park in Singapore where demonstrators are permitted to assemble. This June, a record 21,000 people gathered there for the Pink Dot rally, a celebration the LGBT community has organized—largely via the Internet—since 2009. A few weeks later, organizers in Vietnam convened a Pride festival in Hanoi, the country’s second. On the third and final day of events, about 250 people rode through the middle of the city in a bike rally, passing the House of Parliament. Both events were declared successes. So much of life, as they say, is just about showing up. These days though, thanks to digital media, it isn’t everything, or everyone.

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