December 6, 2018 at 6:00 am EST | by Victor Maung
LGBT equality remains a distant dream in Asia

A referendum on whether to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Taiwan failed on Nov. 24, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association)

The most LGBT-friendly country in Asia has rejected marriage equality. Amnesty International says the Nov. 24 referendum results are a bitter blow to the Taiwanese LGBT community that wishes their island nation would be the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. What’s more, for the rest of the dreamers in Asia it’s a painful reminder that realizing genuine marriage equality at home could take another generation.

Even though Taiwan is deemed the most progressive country in Asia and a haven for LGBT activism, two initiatives to add same-sex marriage in the Civil Code and gender equality education in schools were both rejected. A pre-election survey that suggested as many as 77 percent of Taiwanese opposed legalizing same-sex marriage is a clear indication that acceptance on LGBT rights is not nationwide, even in Taiwan.  
As I grew up in one of the most conservative countries in Asia, I am not surprised to see these results because I know acceptance on LGBT rights in Asian countries is always limited to certain niches. Often, media-distorted views of seemingly widespread acceptance are giving false hopes.  

Asian countries present a broad spectrum of LGBT rights conditions, from harsh punishments to discrimination to growing acceptances. As of today, same-sex relationships are illegal in at least 20 Asian countries and are punishable to death penalty in seven of them. For the rest of Asia, LGBT individuals find themselves lucky to struggle with relatively mild miseries, such as family acceptance or workplace discrimination.  

As I have traveled as a reporter across Asia, I found a common unspoken consensus among the non-LGBT populace in Asia. Since we are “abnormal” or “deviant” of norms, we shall be allowed to grow only within certain niches. In other words, either as an individual or as a community, if we have grown to the point that the majority feels intimidated, it has the right to say, “too much.” More or less, this reflects the attitudes of the majority in Asian countries. You won’t see them in the media but people act on it when they cast their votes.

On the other hand, the irony is same-sex marriage has become the ultimate symbol of accepting secularism and diversity, so support for LGBT rights has been politicized. From the late-Cambodian King Sihanouk to the Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte, it’s not hard to see why these Asian leaders showed support for LGBT rights but never actually acted to risk public support. Support of gay rights is a symbolic gesture to show their Western counterparts how secular and liberal they have become. In Taiwan, the motives to show the world how it is different from the authoritarian mainland in the era of the regime’s rising global power is behind the push for becoming a paragon of freedom and tolerance in Asia. This kind of “acceptance with an agenda” might fool the international media, but the message of acceptance is never passed down to the grassroots level.

When I attended the ILGA Asia conference in 2013, I came to the conclusion shared by many other activists: Marriage equality is too far-fetched for us, at least in our lifetime.

Demands for LGBT rights are not just fighting the repressive laws and homophobic groups. We are fighting the beliefs, traditions and systems backed by patriarchy, collectivism and fundamentalism, which have been institutionalized and cherished by the society. If you are from one of the bottom Asian countries, you have additional fights against corruption, ignorance and misconceptions against the minorities. This is the reality of being an LGBT person in Asia.

Victor Maung is a journalist and LGBT rights activist who was born in Myanmar. He lives and works in D.C.

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