Manny Pacquaio, the welterweight boxer who is by far the Philippines’ most famous export since Imelda’s bouffant, kicked off an enormous storm last week by branding lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders – LGBTs – as “worse than animals” in an interview that cost him a multimillion dollar Nike endorsement contract.
That, however, is just part of a growing controversy in Asia over sexual diversity that extends both ways, with some countries making dramatic strides towards liberalization and others headed the other way. Laws have been passed protecting LGBT rights and surgeons in Bangkok and Singapore have been performing gender swaps for decades.
Pacquiao, humbled by a media storm, was forced to apologize for his remarks but hasn’t got his contract back. However, Indonesia’s defense minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu, topped him in controversy by several leagues by labeling the emergence of the LGBT movement as a form of proxy war – more dangerous than nuclear war, he said – to undermine state sovereignty and weaken the sinews of government. In addition, members of Indonesia's House of Representatives are considering drafting an anti-homosexual bill. Ant-gay sentiment has been rising, especially after the country's science minister warned of pro-homosexual activity on campuses last month.
"In a proxy war - another state might have occupied the minds of the nation without anyone realizing it," Ryamizard said in a speech. "In a nuclear war, if a bomb is dropped over Jakarta, Semarang will not be affected - but in a proxy war, everything we know could disappear in an instant - it's dangerous."
Anti-gay rhetoric triggered by the emergence of a campus LGBT group a few weeks ago has risen steadily. "We are a nation that holds dear to religious and social values and activities that promote such deviant lifestyles should not be taken lightly,” said Deding Ishak, deputy chairman of the parliament's commission on religion.
Asked about the LGBT backlash during the Economist Magazine's "Indonesia Summit" on Thursday, Vice President Jusuf Kalla said it was a "personal matter." He said that Indonesia has no laws to discriminate against gays or anyone else but he drew the line at what he called "community rights."
"Besides law, you have our religious and moral values," he said. He then added that Indonesia has had gay cabinet ministers and "everybody knows that," noting that it is best if people mind their own business.
Taiwan hosted Asia’s biggest gay pride festival and parade on Halloween last year – the 13th such annual parade – drawing tens of thousands of participants. On Feb. 23, the Cabinet Referendum Review board rejected a referendum proposal to “protect the family” by the anti-gay marriage Faith and Hope League and the newly elected government has said it intends to legalize gay marriage. .
Gay pride in Taiwan
Across Asia, according to the Washington, DC-based think tank Pew Research, attitudes vary markedly. If there were any doubt about the silliness of uniform “Asian values,” the attitudes of different countries make it a mockery.
In the Philippines, despite Manny’s missed punch, 73 percent of people accept homosexuality in all of its forms. Thailand is one of the most tolerant countries in Asia, with legality for same-sex couples and households headed by same-sex couples since 1956, and with katoeys, as they are known, or ladyboys, appearing as some of the most breathtaking “women” in Asia. However, they are not afforded conventional legal protections and the social safety net.
There are equally attractive transvestites on Singapore’s Norris Road, but transgender is listed as a disease in the Singapore Armed Forces Directory of Diseases and recruits who out themselves to the examining doctors at the country’s central manpower base have their “deployability” denied in sensitive positions and are assigned only non-combat roles at military bases.
Vietnam is one of the LGBT leaders in Southeast Asia, having abolished the ban on same-sex marriage in January of 2015. The country’s new marriage law abolished regulations that “prohibit marriage between people of the same sex” although, as with many of the other countries, the government doesn’t recognize them or provide legal protections in cases of disputes. The government abolished fines that were imposed on homosexual weddings in 2013.
In Pakistan, a minuscule 2 percent accept the LGBT community, just behind Indonesia, where only 3 percent accept homosexuals and 93 percent of them don’t – although despite the defense minister’s rant, there are transvestites and gay bars in Jakarta.
In Malaysia, despite a vibrant back-street community of pondans, or cross-dressers, in Penang, Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur, officially only 9 percent of respondents to the Pew investigation accept homosexuality while 86 percent reject it. The country’s most prominent opposition politician, Anwar Ibrahim, was railroaded into prison twice, most recently at the start of 2015, on trumped up charges of homosexual activity, although that may be the only time in recent memory that the law has been used against anyone presumed gay in the country.
Manny misses the mark
Pacquiao’s since-withdrawn statement drew vehement reactions from gay personalities in the showbiz industry, while netizens in Manila, which has been described as the social media capital of the world, castigated Pacquiao for being a “bigot.”
The aspirations of LGBT Filipinos, however, are way more rudimentary than same-sex marriage as they cover basic human rights. For transgender Filipinos, it involves something as simple as being allowed to use public restrooms and entering some establishments. In 2014, fashion designer Veejay Floresca was not allowed into Valkyrie, a high-end club, because he allegedly violated rules against cross-dressing.
LGBTs also face the risk of getting rejected outright in job applications for their mere appearance – an issue across Asia, but also in the west. Galang (Respect) Philippines, a nongovernment organization working on empowering lesbians, bisexual women and transmen, has recorded cases where companies have asked butch or masculine-looking lesbians to wear dresses and be open to growing their hair to be considered for a job. The same goes for transgender Filipinos, who at times have also been asked to change the way they look if they want to get hired.
An anti-discrimination bill has been languishing in Congress for more than 10 years. Various versions of the bill have been filed since it was first introduced in 2000 in consultation with the Lesbian and Gay Legislative Advocacy Network. It has passed the committee level but stalled. But even if the passage of the bill is stalled, some cities have passed their own. Quezon City, the country’s largest city and a part of the sprawling Manila conurbation, passed its own ordinance in 2014. The ordinance penalizes individuals and entities for refusing to provide employment and services to members of the LGBT community, it also upholds the principle of affirmative action and mandates government offices and establishment to hold gender-sensitivity training and install unisex lavatories.
But this is again more of an exception than the rule in the predominantly-Catholic country. It will take political will for the national government to change its longstanding refusal to grant Filipino LGBTs same recognition of rights through a national anti-discrimination bill, which LGBT and human rights advocates said is still necessary to stop and punish hate crimes.
The most basic human rights, after all, is the right to live. The case of transgender Jennifer Laude, who was killed in 2015, shows the danger that LGBTs can be targeted and killed for being who they are. The Philippine LGBT Hate Crime Watch has reported 164 hate crimes cases since 1996, 16 of which were reportedly committed in 2012 alone.
Contributors include Purple S. Romero (Philippines) Jerome F. Keating (Taiwan). Miriam Mokhtar (Malaysia and Singapore), Dewi Kurniawati (Indonesia) and others