Roots Run Deep: How history and culture impact LGBT+ acceptance in Asia

In Hong Kong, the LGBT+ community is steadily gaining acceptance, but true equality is still a long way away.

WORDS by Sieh Pui Wong

When Hong Kong became a British colony in 1842, the city adopted many British laws, including a ban on homosexuality. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, debates raged between the city’s Christian communities, government and residents until the government finally decriminalised homosexuality in 1991.

In more recent history, nearly 80 per cent of Hongkongers support equal rights for sexual and gender minorities, according to a 2017 study by the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Comparative and Public Law, although LGBT+ individuals still do not enjoy equality or discrimination protections in the city.

Without legislating equal rights, the government effectively enables harassment, discrimination and suppression with impunity, according to 27-year-old Cynthia Cheung, an LGBT+ rights activist and the deputy spokesperson for the Hong Kong Pride Parade.

“The act of ‘coming home’ involves introducing a partner to family members at intimate gatherings.”

One only has to look at the city’s history and moral underpinnings to understand why society has reached an impasse. A former British colony, Hong Kong’s laws are greatly influenced by Christian values. Today, the Catholic religion counts more than 379,000 worshippers, while the Protestant church sees 480,000 members in Hong Kong.   

Hong Kong’s education system has long positioned heterosexuality as “normal,” and LGBT+ as “unnatural” and even “sinful” in alignment with teachings from the pulpit. After the government introduced compulsory education in the 1960s, there was a boom in church-run education.

Soon enough, roughly 50 per cent of the city’s primary and secondary schools were run by churches, according to Hong Kong Baptist University Religion and Philosophy professor Chan Shun-hing. These schools cultivate and teach dominant Christian moralism concerning same-sex marriage and homosexuality: essentially, God does not approve. 

But Christianity isn’t solely to blame. Rooted in family values, Confucianism also has a large following among Hong Kong residents. While teachings do not explicitly condemn homosexuality, they don’t cultivate an accepting environment, either.

Confucianism emphasises harmony, virtue, tradition and filial piety, which encourages deep respect for one’s elders and ancestors. Within the confines of filial piety, a man’s role is to continue the family bloodline, while women care for the family. 

Under such moral codes, some Hongkongers can feel an overwhelming need to conform in order to be accepted and respected by their loved ones and by society at large.

For example, it is generally assumed that a gay person cannot get married and have children, and thus is unable to procreate, which may greatly disappoint their elders. For some LGBT+ individuals, this makes coming out to their family challenging, so they choose a more passive method known as “coming home.”

The act of coming home involves introducing a partner to family members at intimate family gatherings, such as Chinese New Year or an elder’s birthday celebration without any formal announcements or “confrontations”, since elders typically find frank conversations taboo, embarrassing, and sometimes even shameful. 

Jeannette*, a Hongkonger in her 40s, shares her ‘coming home’ story: “For a while, my parents never acknowledged my partner during visits or Sunday dinners. They just treated her as my friend. But through my actions, I hoped to show my family who she was to me.

After two years, my mom invited my partner to our Winter Solstice family dinner [an annual event usually reserved for the immediate family]. I knew at that moment that they had finally accepted her as my partner.”

Between family expectations, social taboos and religious codes, LGBT+ individuals face many hurdles in Hong Kong. And while surveys document a growing will to establish a more inclusive and equal system, these religious and spiritual foundations continue to undermine progress.   

It is worth noting that Buddhism and Taoism round out the other major religions in Hong Kong. Together, they count 2 million followers, which is roughly 27 per cent of the city’s 7.4 million residents, according to a 2016 report.

However, these two religions allow for a broader acceptance of LGBT+ individuals. Taoism makes no moral judgments on sexuality, while Chinese Buddhism is generally tolerant, though it varies depending on the teacher. 

Hsing Yun, a venerated Chinese Buddhist monk, wrote in his 2001 book Buddhism: Pure and Simple: “People often ask me what I think about homosexuality.

They wonder, is it right, is it wrong? The answer is, it is neither right nor wrong. It is just something that people do. If people are not harming each other, their private lives are their own business; we should be tolerant of them and not reject them.”

The Hong Kong Buddhist Association takes a similar position, writing “…from the perspective of ‘kindness’ and ‘equality view,’ Buddhism does not condemn nor exclude and discriminate against homosexuality.” If tolerance and acceptance become the norm, LGBT+ will have a permanent home here in Hong Kong.

Sexuality In Ancient China

In pre-modern dynastic China, royals and nobles generally accepted homosexuality and bisexuality. According to academic platform JStor Daily, many emperors during the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-8 CE) had male lovers and companions, as well as wives. 

What’s more, in his book Passions of the Cut Sleeve, historian Bret Hinsch argues that 10 of the emperors who ruled during the Han dynasty were “openly bisexual.” Overall, ancient Chinese society was more tolerant of diverse sexualities  until the nation’s cultural revolution in 1966, at which point homosexual acts such as sodomy became criminalised. 

In 1997, China decriminalised homosexual activity; however, the topic remains a social taboo. Today, where many LGBT+ identifying individuals remain part of a closeted minority in China.

What Happened To Thailand’s Third Gender?

Thailand has made progress when it comes to recognising queer communities, but some LGBT+ individuals still struggle for acceptance.

WORDS by Alin Chen

Thailand is one of the more progressive countries in Asia when it comes to LGBT+ rights and discourse. The country is home to a thriving LGBT+ tourism industry, fueled by the Go Thai, Be Free campaign which celebrates diversity and encourages LGBT+ travelers to “feel free when traveling in Thailand on vacation or holiday.”

There are also many gay bars, drag shows, and the world’s largest transgender beauty pageant, Miss International Queen. What’s more, Thailand has taken a few important legal steps to protect LGBT+ rights. Most notably, in 2015, the government passed the Gender Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

But the country could do more to achieve true equality. Since Thailand’s gay rights movement began in the 1980s, the local LGBT+ community has endured everything from employment discrimination to the suppression of activism with little, if any, legal recourse.

In 2009, for example, angry protesters swarmed a pride parade in Chiang Mai. They threw cups, fruit and rocks at parade participants, trapping them inside the Chiang Mai Religion Practice Center for hours. 

“People said our activity was a disgrace and a shame to the beautiful culture and tradition of the North.

Some locals also believed that having gays and katoeys [a term previously referring to intersex people but now connoting effeminate men and transgender women] parading down the streets would bring about the downfall of this holy city,” Sirisak Chaited, an independent activist, told the Bangkok Post about that day. According to LGBT+ nonprofit OutRight Action International, the 150 police officers present did not intervene. 

Change has been slow in the 10 years since. In 2019, the United Nations Development Programme conducted the most comprehensive study to date on sexual and gender minorities in Thailand. The “Tolerance but not Inclusion” survey interviewed 1,349 LGBT+ and 861 non-LGBT+ participants across the nation. 

The survey found that 69 per cent of non-LGBT+ Thai residents had generally positive attitudes towards the LGBT+ community. However, 42 per cent of LGBT+ respondents said that they had to pretend to be straight to be accepted at schools, workplaces and even at home. Alarmingly, 49 per cent of LGBT+ interviewees admitted to having contemplated suicide.  

This may come as a surprise, considering Thailand’s international platform as an LGBT+ friendly destination and its long history of gender and sexually diverse communities. For example, awareness of a phet thee sam, or a “third gender” and homosexuality has been around for hundreds of years, as reflected in Buddhist tomes, literature, plays, and murals. 

Around the 15th century, when shamanism was prominent in certain regions, some katoey acted as spiritual mediums, which actually elevated their social standing and wealth.

However, the rise of Buddhism and an influx of Western culture gradually shifted local attitudes about sexuality according to Kangwan Fongkaew, a communication arts lecturer at Burapha University in eastern Thailand’s Chonburi province.

“These spiritual and cultural shifts pushed Thai society to be more binary, which eventually impacted the level of acceptance here,” says Kangwan.

Buddhism gained prominence during the 19th century and today, over 90 per cent of the population follow Buddhism. The religion prohibits pandaka (a phrase that includes eunuchs and intersex individuals) from being ordained and its teachings may classify homosexuality as sexual misconduct. Some Buddhists also believe that people are born LGBT+ because they committed sinful acts in their previous lives.

Beginning in the early 1900s, Thai royalty and diplomats, who regularly travelled to Europe, borrowed Christian beliefs that emphasised distinct gender roles.

Local perceptions of gender and sexuality began taking a more dichotomous shape, leaving less room for diversity. What’s more, Thai society has developed a sense of conditional acceptance based on wealth and physical appearance. 

“There are many transgender women and gay men in the media [such as beauty queen and actress Poyd Treechada and TV host Woody Milintachinda], so there’s a certain level of visibility to the group,” says Kangwan.

“However, they adhere to stereotypes of being good-looking, having white skin and being rich. These factors may make it easier for them to be accepted, thus making it easier to come out. On the other hand, those who don’t fit the stereotypes may feel less welcomed.”

“Transgender men also feel violated by people’s invasiveness.”

Kangwan Fongkaew

While transgender women and gay men are generally accepted by society, intersex people and transgender men face more challenges. Some people view them as “peculiar” because they are less visible in everyday life, says Kangwan. In general, these groups of sexual and gender minorities don’t feel comfortable coming out in Thai society. 

“For intersex people, coming out means revealing their [physical anatomy], which some feel embarrassed about. Transgender men also feel violated by people’s invasiveness regarding their bodies and private lives,” Kangwan adds.

“They don’t want to be perceived as ‘strange,’ but rather as another human being. Overall, many chose not to come out at all to avoid these troubles, which leads to an even lower awareness within society.”

In July 2020, the country’s cabinet approved a draft of the Civil Partnership Bill which could potentially legalise same-sex unions if it passes a vote later this year or next. Over the past few years, the government has also taken steps to spread a message of acceptance through its international tourism campaigns.

Even so, Thailand does not recognise key LGBT+ issues, such as the right to change one’s gender on government documents, even if one undergoes sexual reassignment surgery. In addition, only married heterosexual couples may adopt or use commercial surrogacy services, and conversion therapy remains legal. 

In the future, movements and advocacy to create a more inclusive society will have to go much further, adds Kangwan. “As we try to find solutions to these problems, we should focus on basic human rights,” says Kangwan. “We, as humans, are equal and thus everyone deserves to be treated equally.”

Tolerated But Not Accepted

In modern Filipino society, the LGBT+ community encounters significant discrimination, but that hasn’t always been the case.

WORDS by Rafelle Allego

While few written records exist prior to 1521, when the Spanish colonial era began in the Philippines, both archaeological evidence and oral history prove the existence of local social structures, language, trade and customs well before the Spanish arrived. Among these many customs was shamanism, a religious practice where a shaman acts as a conduit for the spiritual world.

During the pre-colonial era, male cross-dressers, called asog, worked alongside women as shamans. Known locally as babaylans, these shaman served as healers, mediators and spiritual leaders. Society greatly respected babaylans and asogs, treating them with  deference as if they were nobility.

Asogs lived as women, from mannerisms to fashion to relationships with men. “They were comparable to women in every way except that they could not bear children,” asserts J Neil C Garcia, author of Philippine Gay Culture, first published in 1996.

With Spanish colonialists, however, came Christianity. Under colonial rule, asogs gradually lost their prestigious positions; Spanish Catholic clergy persecuted the shaman practitioners, driving them into hiding.

The Catholic church eclipsed even the most prestigious and revered asogs, guided by a belief that homosexuality violates God’s “natural law.” Essentially, the clergy regarded anyone who deviated from heteronormative standards as “sinful” and in need of “correction.” 

Over time, the Spanish effectively erased the babaylans existence, along with much of the nation’s pre-colonial history in an effort to mould Filipino identity and convert indigenous residents to Catholicism. And with more than 300 years of Spanish rule, religious teachings laid the groundwork for LGBT+ discrimination in modern Filipino culture. 

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the LGBT+ movement started gaining support in the Philippines, spurred by an activist group called the Lesbian Collective and the subsequent release of LGBT+ literature.

As the country’s first official lesbian organisation, the Lesbian Collective joined the 1992 International Women’s Day march in the Philippines, marking a ‘coming out’ for gay Filipina women. At its home base in Manila, the now-disbanded collective also offered a safe, open place for bi and lesbian individuals to discuss challenges in their lives.  

As the conversation evolved, a wellspring of organisations – from sexual health groups to emotional support platforms to political lobbyists – emerged in regions like Metro Manila and Baguio City, where most thought leaders assemble.

Among them, the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines, became the first trans women support and rights advocacy group, launching in 2002.

Social acceptance has been shifting, too. According to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, which surveyed roughly 38,000 respondents from 39 countries, 73 per cent of respondents from the Philippines said they accept homosexuality, second in the Asia-Pacific region only to Australia at 79 per cent.

However, activists fear this progress may be superficial. For example, gay men are commonly featured in media, but mostly in stereotypical roles and as “sources of entertainment,” as found in a study by the De La Salle University of the Philippines. 

For example, evening variety show Banana Split features gay characters as comic relief. Meanwhile, 2013 Filipino soap opera My Husband’s Lover explores LGBT+ issues in a more nuanced way, yet still depicts gay men as lustful, dishonest and unfaithful. 

Graphic designer and makeup artist Czar Dabon, a resident of the Cebu province who identifies as gay, says it is a double-edged sword. Though media perpetuates stereotypes of gay men being “flamboyant” or “effeminate,” it also increases awareness and acceptance.

“Growing up gay wasn’t hard for me. Somehow I had the privilege to be born with loving and understanding parents,” Dabon says. “I think more and more people in the Philippines are becoming tolerant to the LGBT+ community. However, tolerance does not mean acceptance.”

Life is significantly harder for lesbians, transgender, intersex and nonbinary individuals, he says, because these sexual orientations and gender identities tend to be less understood.

For example, 71.3 per cent of transgender individuals in the Philippines said they have been bullied or insulted while 35.7 per cent had been sexually harassed or attacked at school, according to a 2015 study by Transgender Europe.  

For Magdalena Robinson, a transgender Filipina beauty queen-turned-activist, growing up as a transgender woman was a daily struggle. She questioned why she was different, “hiding [her] identity” and “trying to be masculine.”

While Robinson’s immediate family accepts her as a transgender woman, some relatives have told her to “go to hell.” Over the years, Robinson has learned to distance herself. “They can practice their belief but they don’t need to impose it on us,” she says.

Robinson believes that younger people tend to be more accepting. “There’s also more appreciation of [the country’s] pre-colonial history of inclusion,” says Robinson. “We [LGBT+ individuals] have existed even before the Qur’an and the Bible came [to the Philippines] and we want to emulate that culture and society of inclusion.” 

“It may be a long and difficult struggle to equality but it is a worthwhile cause,” says Robinson. “Until we can solve issues of gender inequality, the cycle of oppression continues.”

LGBT+ Wins in the Philippines

The Psychological Association of the Philippines introduced the LGBT Non-discrimination Policy Resolution to “eliminate stigma, prejudice, discrimination and violence” and promote equal rights.

Geraldine Roman became the first transgender woman elected to the Congress of the Philippines.

The Senate of the Philippines and House of Representatives passed the Safe Spaces Act or RA 11313 to protect the LGBT+ community from “misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic and sexist slurs.”

The SOGIE Equality Bill, also known as the Anti-Discrimination Bill, was filed for review in congress in August 2016. If passed during the current 18th Congress, it will prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.