Dreaming Together

Public talk on gender politics in Asia

19. March 2018  by Lea Huber

In light of the International Women’s  Day, the Heinrich Boell Foundation Cambodia organized a talk titled “Doing Gender – Aspects of Gender and LGBTIQ Politics in Asia”. At the Meta House in Phnom Penh, we welcomed international guests from India, Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan, Myanmar and China, alongside Cambodian gender experts.

Our country director, Ali Al-Nasani, welcomed everyone by providing the introductory remarks. He underlined that each of us performs gender each and every day. Gender is a matter of active doing; it is a production and social construction. We risk being judged if we perform outside our gender roles. It already starts at dressing babies, baby boys get dressed in blue, and baby girls are dressed in pink. Interestingly enough in the 16th century, blue was regarded as a female color, while pink was reserved for the men who also wore make-up. This shows that gender norms are not natural but that they change in history. Gender stereotypes creates difference. They provide a ‘proper way of behavior’ and in response doing gender creates a social norm. We are always doing gender, whether it is online or offline. Gender is a socially required process, we cannot avoid it but we can adjust behavior thus changing stereotypes. A common argument is that discussing gender is a Western idea that is alien to Asian culture. However, this is far from true. Long before it was discussed in the West the concept of gender and gender change was already present in Asian culture and tradition.

His remarks were followed by Srijula Yongstar, Program Coordinator for Democracy & Participation at the HBF South-East Asia office in Bangkok, ringing in the discussion and introducing our panel guests. 

First was Shubha Chacko, executive director of the Solidarity Foundation, an HBF partner organization based in Bengaluru, India, fighting for the rights of sexual minorities in India. Miss Chacko offered the audience an insight into their situation. In India, communities of trans people have lived in the periphery of society for a long time. Society has recognized that they are there. However, a political movement of some form started only in the 1980s and really picked up in the 1990s. They declared that they were gay and wanted rights. What followed was HIV prevention work that funded a certain kind of coming together and forming groups. A challenge was and is that the social space needed for self-expression does not take structural problems into account. Social space does not change or challenge society as such. Furthermore, the HIV groups coming together were getting too narrow and became too project-driven, leaving no space and time to build a larger movement. Human Rights turned the situation of sexual minorities from a health issue into a political issue but they were tied to foreign money, which always has a flipside. Currently, a rising right-wing movement within India and serious curbs on NGOs and foreign money limit sexual minorities.

Next up was Nica Dumlao, EngageMedia's Digital Rights coordinator, from the Philippines. Miss Dumlao is a feminist activist who also serves on the Board of the Secretary of the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus. She introduced the creation of a feminist Internet to the audience. A feminist movement is entering the Internet. By joining ties with the digital rights movements, pushing for policies to reform information and communication technology laws, a movement was created, promoting appropriate Internet governance. The question is what do we want the Internet to be? The dream is an online space that is safe for everyone. Everyone wants a society that is equal, that is already happening to a certain degree offline but online one faces a lot of issues when speaking up against these injustices. The movement towards a safe online space has only started. We need to create spaces online where feminism and LGBTIQ rights can openly be discussed. 

Technology related gender-based violence is very common. When you speak out against patriarchy online, you are often threatened. Many people say because it is online, it is harmless, but it affects a person. The Internet allows easy psychological abuse; this needs to be addressed more seriously. Most of us use the Internet so we need to talk more about how we can make it safe.

Finally, the stage was given to Srorn Srun, an LGBTIQ activist and one of the founders of the NGO CamASEAN Youth’s Future. He works with marginalized communities, from LGBTIQ to people living with HIV and sex workers. 

He provided an insight into being and doing LGBTIQ in Cambodia. There is evidence that gay communities already existed during the Angkor regimes. In 1997, USAid and other foreign donors started HIV programs in Cambodia, hereby bringing attention to the gay community. However, the narrative became that the white people had brought homosexuality to Cambodia.  Another equally false narrative was that the gay community in Cambodia was eating chemical food from Thailand, which made them gay. Moreover, the gay community has been painted as an HIV community, responsible for bringing HIV to Cambodia according to some social media. In 2009, the movement began to talk not only about gay men, but also about LGBTIQ as a whole. CamASEAN was founded to make it acceptable for these minorities to be a part of society. In 2012, they took it one step further and are now bringing all marginalized communities together. CamASEAN together with the Ministry of Education provides official trainings for teachers on SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression) so the students can be taught about it in public schools.

To conclude their statements, our three participants were asked which lessons their experience had taught them on how to bring people together to work on gender? 

Miss Chacko emphasized that to start, people need to share their stories. LGBTIQ communities have always existed in India but people did not dare to speak up. Moreover, just because you are marginalized does not mean that you automatically understand or accept other marginalized people. If you have a conversation, do a small no-funding needed project together on an issue that involves everyone, that is how you can come together. E.g. the Solidarity Foundation organized a project regarding the potential loss of a park and hereby managed to bring all the groups together because it was an issue they all cared about. Allowing people to have conversations and come together is how one can make people understand.

Miss Dumlao underlined that there are many movements, especially in the digital sphere. However, one should never think hierarchically in terms of struggles and believe that their struggle is more important than other people’s struggle. Many people asked her, why do we fight for digital rights if we do not even have electricity? Instead of asking such questions, we should come together, think of something that is doable for all of us in this moment. It starts with dreaming together.

Mr. Srun stated one must use innovative and mobilizing resources to attract people to the topic. Facebook is one very simple way. People can use their own mobile phone and do Facebook Live, hereby attracting thousands of people every day. Another way is organizing an exhibition; transgender people can use their own home and tell their story to the neighbor. His organization helped organizing three such exhibitions in the provinces and even the governors came to listen.

When the discussion was opened up, the audience raised the question in how far the legal situation in Asia protects LGBTIQ rights. Miss Dumlao explained that in the Philippines, no anti-discrimination law exists on the national level but the local municipalities do have anti-discrimination ordinances.

In India, the legal situation is even more difficult; Section 377 of the Indian Penal code criminalizes homosexuality. It is a British legacy, forbidding ‘sexual intercourse against the order of nature’. One court in 2009 managed to put the law down but the Indian Supreme Court later reinstated it again. However, many people had already come out of the closet and continued to push for public spaces even after the law was reinstated. Moreover, the Indian Supreme Court has given a good verdict on transgender; you can now choose your identity, whether that is male, female or third gender. This watered down Section 377, hence things are moving in a positive direction.

In 1989, Cambodia prohibited homosexuality. However, in 2011 a new penal code was adopted, removing the old law and even stating that homosexuals are allowed to adopt while not legalizing same-sex marriage. The situation remains difficult, especially for the transgender people since the gender stated in your ID card is solely based on your birth certificate. The community faces a lot of bullying even though the Ministry of Information officially forbade the media to publish discriminative articles. 

The discussion was concluded by the question what chances our panel participants see for regional cooperation on these issues? Miss Dumlao and Mr. Srun pointed to the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, a body formed by LGBTIQ activists from eight ASEAN countries (Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam). They promote SOGIE on a regional level by helping each other and sharing best practices. The Caucus website is currently available in 11 languages and it provides funds for grassroots organizations in all the countries. 

There is still a lot to be done but we can and must all be part of the movement because democracy is not a real democracy as long as the LGBTIQ community faces difficulties.