Rethinking the Mobility (and Immobility) of Queer Rights in Southeast Asia: A Provocation

Seventy years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the UN General Assembly, what we have witnessed is that its claim of universality has been consistently challenged. While all human beings are deemed born automatically free with equal rights, the very definition of human itself in practice is not always neutral.

Introduction: The Complex (and Complexities) of Rights

Seventy years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly, what we have witnessed is that its claim of universality has been consistently challenged. While all human beings are deemed born naturally free endowed with equal rights, the very definition of human itself in practice is not always neutral and hence, dynamic. Feminist politics courageously uncovered the male-centric definition of “human rights”, which had relegated women’s specific needs and experience into inferior status within the mainstream human rights movements. This critique significantly contributed to the passing of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979, as well as the increased use of the term “gender” and women’s representations in the international human rights discourses.[1] Scholar Kara Ellerby calls the year 1975-1985 as the Decade of Women, highlighting the growth of focus on women’s rights in international development issues.

In an almost similar vein, Western queer movements (for example, in the U.S.) have also followed suit. Beginning from radical gay liberation and HIV/AIDS-based activisms during the heightened AIDS epidemic, the movements have also increasingly mobilized human rights discourses, reifying sexual desires as an identity that in turn serves as a basis of citizenship-rights claiming. Again, with this proliferation of identities and its subsequent claims to citizenship rights, the very definition and category of “human” has also been pluralized and expanded. Not all human beings are heterosexuals, and the ones who do not fall under heterosexuality demands the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts are entitled with. From women’s rights to queer rights, the category of “human” has been broken down into aspects of gender and sexuality—each aspect has been made legitimate for rights-claiming.

The enactment of the Yogyakarta Principles in 2006 is a vivid example of international attempts to institutionalize sexuality and gender as the core of citizenship requiring recognition and protection of state. Ten years later, the appointment of an independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity by the United Nations (UN) is yet another, signaling the institutional “modification” and human rights norms diffusions in international level in order to guarantee the protection and recognition of queer rights. What follows is the widespread use and adoption of the term “LGBT”, driving sexualities out of their private confinement to political realm. International humanitarian or development organizations increasingly include LGBT rights as part and parcel of their advocacy programs. Within this new trajectory, states, international organizations, and domestic LGBT activisms in various parts of the world have entered new terrains of political collaborations, as well as contestations.

In the 2012 UN’s Born Free and Equal Report, the High Commissioner Navi Pillay deployed the phrase “extending the same rights to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons, while in the same paragraph citing the UDHR’s emphasis of “born free and equality in dignity and rights.”[2] A moment’s reflection on the word “extending” reveals something intriguing—it refers to a temporal transition or enlargement from one (narrow) phase to another (larger) phase.

Fundamentally, such “extension” signals that “human rights” are political processes and products. It is not an a priori or naturally given entitlement, and subsequently, reveals the interplay between the human rights claims of universality and the particularity of identities. First, there is a paradoxical nature in the identity-based rights itself. Those “universal” rights also hinge on the particularity of individuals’ characteristics.[3] For example, the popular term “LGBT rights” needs a solid “LGBT” subject, upon which these rights are endowed. The subjects, to be the rights-bearing subject, must also see themselves in the light of those constructed identities. In other words, a person should belong to a specific identity or group, so that they can have “the right to have those rights.” [4]

Second, the international attention on LGBT rights generates new socio-cultural dynamics and political contestations, which are specific to each different country. And this is the primary focus of this essay: an attempt to examine the local socio-cultural and political trajectories that enables the mobility (or immobility) of queer rights in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, The Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore.

Central to my argument is the ways in which both inclusion and exclusion of LGBT individuals is driven by specific political considerations and contestations between political actors, lurking underneath the banner of “state”. Those battles subsequently push and shape the states’ actions and responses in either excluding or recognizing LGBT rights, which are increasingly marked by the legalization of same-sex marriage or unions. The other central argument in this essay coalesces around the discourse of “LGBT rights” itself. Not only such discourse demands a solid subject embracing and seeing those identities as a meaningful platform for citizenship rights claiming in public realm, the “LGBT rights” are also about setting up priorities. Too often, same-sex marriage (or gay marriage) has nowadays become the main priority which glossing over other priorities of LGBT people that may not always see same-sex marriage as the ultimate answer and prefer other issues, including social and family acceptance, access to health services, anti-violence, and so on.

Mapping the Heterogeneity of LGBT Identities

The discourse of LGBT rights needs a solid subject who identify as part of LGBT identities/communities to legitimate them as a rights-bearing subject. Globalization of LGBT identities, advancement of communication technologies, and broadening understanding of human rights, dissemination of and influence from popular cultures, to name a few, have driven individuals to increasingly identify with and embrace LGBT identities.

However, the ways the individuals live up and give meanings to such identities are distinctly dynamic and diverse, demonstrating the vital roles of culture in shaping their sexual subjectivities. This echoes what C. Wright Mills calls “sociological imagination”—our understanding of self is always shaped within a specific historical and geopolitical settings.[5]

In places where sexuality remains barely spoken out, individuality is understood irreconcilable with local cultures, family values are prioritized, and reproductive-heterosexuality have been a default norm, how do LGBT individuals inhabit their identities? Following this, how do the arrival of LGBT identities and rights discourses operate and shape the individuals experience?

Although rights are powerful tool to demand public recognition, what if they are conflicted with the individuals themselves who understand their sexuality as private matters instead of public identities? What if the LGBT individuals’ concerns cannot always be always addressed by human rights discourses?

Attending local contexts is indeed helpful to unpack these dynamics, to explore the alternative ways of being queer. By listening to these voices, I wish to raise multiple voices and concerns of LGBT individuals, which do not always privilege “coming out” narrative as the only way of being queer.


I begin with an example of Singapore. Based on Shawna Tang’s examination, Singaporean lesbian identities, despite the influence of Western queer discourses and movements, are also strongly influenced by the “state-ideology linking family values to national piety.”[6] Reproductive-heteronormative family model has been valorised by the state as the basis of national development, and even survival.  Singapore needs strong families to sustain the nation-state.[7] Indeed, it is not too difficult to link the family principles with the nation continuation. Predominantly populated by Chinese, the Confucian values, alongside its filial piety and family oriented cultural norms, also permeate into many Singaporeans’ consciousness.

With these cultural dynamics in place, lesbian and gay identities are entangled within these local cultural dynamics. The result, they de-privilege the Western notion of “coming-out”. Lesbians in Tang studies locally “translate” their homosexual identities, through distancing themselves away from liberal Western queer discourses. For instance, “coming-out” is not the primary logic of their identities, as their sexualities are understood as “very personal and very private.”[8] For those who managed to come-out, this process was accomplished gradually, step-by-step—“first to oneself, then to family, friends, colleagues, and so on.”[9]

In Global Gay, Frédéric Martel’s conversations with the Singaporean queer activist and scholar, Russell Heng Hiang also illuminates almost similar experience. Although the notion of coming-out runs against the Confucianism, it is not impossible for gay Asians to be accepted, particularly in their families. It just need a different strategy. Heng eloquently describes what he labels as ‘the Asian way’: “…they bring their partners home, into their family, once they are a stable couple, and things are therefore known without being spoken.”[10]

Similar experience also reverberates across gay and lesbian Indonesians during the New Order era. In The Gay Archipelago, Tom Boellstorff demonstrates how gay and lesbi[11] Indonesians “dubbed” and embodied homosexual identities and desires in a significantly different way from gay and lesbian Westerners. They thought of themselves “in terms of the Indonesian words gay and lesbi”.[12] Drawing on the heteronormative nuclear family concepts promulgated by the New Order regime (1966-1998), gay and lesbi Indonesians saw themselves first and foremost as “Indonesians”, entered heterosexual marriage, and hence did not seek to defend their sexual identity rights. Many of them even saw their same-sex attractions as illness and/or abnormality. Reproductive-heterosexuality, signaled by an individual’s entry to marriage, was deemed as an indicator of ideal citizenship and adulthood. However, this situation becomes more complex over times. 

In the early 2000s, there was a growing number of portrayals of gay, lesbian, and transgender Indonesians represented in the local popular culture, resisting dominant heterosexual norms. They eventually embraced their sexual identities with self-confidence.[13] This indeed signaled a tremendous change in the representation of homosexuality in Indonesian cultural and social norms. Gay Indonesians were no longer being seen to enter heterosexual marriage, but instead were being portrayed as actively avoiding it. This is not to say that all Indonesians with same-sex desire had by this time changed their concept of national belonging. It is an indication that homosexual identity was increasingly being seen as a proper subject with distinct sexual desires and practices that could not be accommodated within heterosexual marital institution.

While homosexual has increasingly become a distinct subject, many homosexual Indonesians are still navigating their identities, differently from the Western queer subjects. In the West itself, identity and the narrative of coming out has also been criticized. In some cases, the U.S. based queer theorists have cogently asserted that the Western “coming-out” narratives do not automatically mean a “full freedom.” Rather, it also comes with a cost: our private matters are made transparent to public, subject to control by the state. [14] In other words, the inclusion of LGBT people really depends on the power of the state, which in turn further legitimates state’s power in establishing criteria for such inclusion. LGBT rights are recognized and protected as long as they follow normative rules of being citizens.

Nevertheless, without dismissing the potential of coming-out as a political means to show diverse genders and sexualities beyond heterosexuality, I have also been increasingly aware of its limitation in Indonesian contexts, where sexual practices are not always understood meaningfully as a part of identity. Said differently, they commit same-sex practices without identifying as gay or lesbian. Or, they do not see their identities really matter for citizenship rights, as they may have got those rights from their other identities, such as from being Indonesian citizens. If they see their sexualities as an “identity”, they navigate it carefully in both private and public spaces. Some might hide from their families, while some others might be “out” to their families, or apply “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” practices in their family settings. Often, acceptance can come without being spoken, as Hiang illustrated above. Many urban upper-middle class gay men I met have expressed and understood family and social acceptance as their ultimate goals, which are not best captured through liberal LGBT rights discourses.

However, navigating the identities differently from their Western counterparts do not mean that they are oppressed and disempowered. Rather, their lived experience demonstrates alternative and culturally specific way of being queer that do not always fall neatly into liberal understanding of sexual identity and rights. In this regard, their voices remind us of the internal differences among the abstracted notion of “LGBT community”, demanding contextual analysis to uncover different needs and priorities in different cultural domains.

Although the 2012 UN Born Equal and Free Report largely proposes the legal reforms and protections, the stories of queer Indonesians and Singaporeans might suggest that formal equality and identity-based rights may be less important than (often, unspoken) cultural acceptance and tolerance. In this purview, as Dennis Altman and Jonathan Symons eloquently suggest, there is an urgent need to imagine different models of tolerance, in which sexual diversity are protected without “homosexuality forming a basis for a master identity.”[15] Formal equality may be still needed. But, the nuanced cultural differences of LGBT identities and experience in Southeast Asia should effectively provoke us to think more creative in imagining tolerance and acceptance without necessarily going through liberal human rights discourses.

The Politics of the Politicization of LGBT Rights

After examining the cultural dynamisms, let me turn to explore the political sides. This section aims to unpack the political contestations between state and non-state actors, that enable or disable the mobility of LGBT rights in some Southeast Asian countries.

Singapore may be very much illustrative for its tactical ambivalence toward LGBT issues. While convictions of Section 377A criminalizing homosexual practices between men have declined over years, its presence still deeply affects the lives of queer people through creating social stigma and lending justifications to withhold public protections and benefits—from housing subsidies to tax rebates—for LGBT individuals.[16] However, at the same time, Singapore has also been aspired to be a global cosmopolitan city-state, leading the government to be more attuned to global markets, transnational capital flows, and equally importantly, creative and economically productive talents to support such aspirations.

In practice, these have unexpectedly made their political stance on LGBT rights more ambiguous. While the opening of global markets has resulted in the increased vibrant queer cultures, local pride events, and the increased support of multinational companies in Singapore to LGBT individuals, the state still sees the necessity to secure the political supports from the religious conservatives. As Shawna Tang has eloquently acknowledged, a passive “wait-and-see” position has become the “official position” in responding to the rising battle between the pro and anti-LGBT groups in the country. This battle has manifested in the increased queer activism (e.g. the Pink Dot event and Indignation), vis-à-vis the conservative responses from the religious groups (e.g.  the White Rally). Perceived as a form of “culture war”, the government perceives that this conflict would somehow be automatically reconciled as societal attitudes toward homosexuality changes. Following this logic, the state has been “playing safely”, acting as if they are far removed from and are not “contributing” to these grass-root contestations. Unpredictable it may seem, the coming-out of Li HuanWu, the grandson of Lee Kuan Yew, might soon be a significant influence to the LGBT contestations in this city-state.

Thailand offers an active “pinkwashing” strategy, in which LGBT rights are deployed to gloss over other negative aspects of the current political regime.[17] A scholar famously known for her incisive analysis on this hotly debated topic is the U.S. based queer theorist, Jasbir K. Puar. In her 2017 book, The Right to Maim, Puar argues that pinkwashing is a discourse about “civilizational superiority”, which positions LGBT rights discourse reverberating in North American and Europe as a primary standard of progress and modernity.[18] Nevertheless, the Thailand case might reveal a more complex picture; it appears that its pinkwashing narratives is rather entangled within its authoritarianism and tourism industries.

In Thailand, the patterns of pinkwashing by the military governments, in the very beginning, have been strongly linked to their commercial interests. In his 2011 piece, Bangkok’s Early Twenty-First Century Queer Boom, Jackson demonstrates that the rise of gay business in 2007 might be a direct outcome of the military coup in September 2006. Seemingly, the military governments did not see homosexuality and transgenderism as a direct threat to their power and understood them as market potentials. Through semi-legal and technically illegal commercial entertainment activities, the military governments enriched themselves and milked queer cultures for profits.[19]

the army generals who launched the various coups would aware of queer issues, but maybe their bureaucrats and administrators have been more conscious of the international PR potential of being seen to support LGBTQI rights and issues. Their bureaucrats and administrators have been more conscious of the international PR potential of being seen to support LGBTQI rights and issues.

The 2014 Military Coup overthrowing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has resulted in repressive and authoritarian outcomes, such as the ban of public meetings of more than five, arrests of several hundred activists, also strict controls of the media and press. Equally seriously, following the lifting of the Martial Law, the institutionalization of a New Security Order reportedly would not remove curbs on basic political rights. Activists opposing the regime were even sent the special facility for re-education. Nevertheless, despite such absence of political rights, sexual and gender-identity based rights have surprisingly been still or even more alive, at least from the formal-legal perspectives.

In 2015, the Thai Gender Equality Act was deliberately enacted. Jackson observes that this law was drafted before the coup, reflecting several years of prior-consultation. Applying the universal human rights principles, this law aims to address discrimination based on individual’s genders and sexes. Moreover, as Jackson has documented, there have also been openly flourishing queer cultures and events since then—for some instances, Mr. Gay World Thailand Competition and Thailand First LGBT Expo in 2018. Indeed, this is an unusual transition; the prosecution of political rights does not seem directly affect issues related to LGBT rights. LGBT does not seem to be perceived as a direct threat to the regime. Important to note that, instead of the army generals who launched the coup, perhaps the government bureaucrats have been more aware of the international public relations potential of being seen as supportive to LGBT rights.

Jackson thus proposes “pinkwashing” as one possible explanation to encapsulate this intriguing development. The regime is presenting Thailand as a queer-friendly state, while simultaneously glossing over other forms of human rights violation. Additionally, the privileging of LGBT rights and protection may also coincide with the commercial interests and tourism industries as I highlight above. This snapshot on pinkwashing, to some extent, draws our attention to see how state’s recognition of LGBT existence and rights is contingent upon particular political interests and motives of the regime in power. There is always a “cost”, whether easily discernible or not, that we need to consider.[20] In the recent development, the introduction of the draft bill of same-sex unions by Thai government might be a politically-driven attempt to secure supports for the upcoming election.[21]

The third surprising signal comes from the President Rodrigo Duterte’s quizzical moves on same-sex marriage. Firstly, in his 2016 campaign he explicitly declared his support for same-sex union. But such positive vibe did not stay too long. Such seemingly pro-LGBT position ambivalently shifted, as he also reportedly often used homophobic slurs to attack Western countries criticizing his harsh treatments and wars on drugs. On the other hand, the challenges from the Catholic Church remain—growing pro-LGBT attitudes are met by resistance from the Roman Catholic Church.

Intriguingly, Duterte has recently returned to public with his pro-gay attitudes, marked by his nod to same-sex marriage or union. This is indeed confusing. But one possible explanation of Duterte’s flip-flopping moves could be roughly identified through the deteriorating relationship between him and the Church.  The Church has long been exercised its wide-ranging political influence in the country. As the Church’s protests on Duterte’s wars on drugs were mounting, the President responded by calling the Church as hypocritical for condemning his mass killings, which is “intended” to cleanse the nation from crime. Such deteriorating relationship between Duterte and The Church might exert its influence over Duterte’s position on LGBT rights.


The relationship between the state and the religious groups also animates LGBT issues in Indonesia. The Indonesia’s moves from authoritarian regime (1966-1998) to democracy (1998- present) have inadvertently led the religious conservatives (or popularly known as Political Islam) to acquire more political power and public support.  The rise of political Islam at this time was driven by the nostalgic ambitions of Islamic groups to establish Indonesia as an Islamic state, a goal, which was supressed by the New Order to curb any oppositional power to its regime. Merging religious discourse with nationalist sentiments, Islamic vigilante groups, for some instances, disrupt queer events to allegedly protect young generation and the nation from corrupting Western influence.

The internationalization of LGBT identities and rights—particularly same-sex marriage—further provides a “political capital” for the political Islam’s attempts to institutionalize and penalize homosexuality. In 2016, the Islamic Pro-Family Group, AILA (Aliansi Cinta Keluarga/ Family Love Alliance) proposed to amend the Criminal Code to outlaw consented same-sex relations between adults. Citing dubious data from the U.S., they argued that same-sex marriage has led to the spike of HIV, Kaposi Sarcoma, and other STDs in America. It is indeed intriguing to see the discourse same-sex marriage is frequently deployed to justify the moral panics against LGBT, as if marriage is the only indicator of the recognition of LGBT rights.

Equally intriguingly, these conservative attitudes were also reflected in political Islam’s strategic attempts to institute sharia-based law through back door advocacy.[22] They were made possible by the policy of decentralisation, which was part of the new government’s democratic agenda. Under this policy, the central government devolved greater power and flexibility to provincial governments to enact, regulate, and implement their own administrations. The conservative Islamic-nuanced regulations enacted under this policy were at first mainly enforced by male vigilante groups. For this reasons, I introduce the term “homophobia from below” to refer to the ways in which members of the public have become the active actors in persecution against LGBT Indonesians, and even demand for state intervention into sexuality matters. This move creates impressions as if they are representative of the larger public. Recently, some activists also suggested that LGBT issues may be exploited by political parties or other interest groups to garner public support. The upcoming national election in April this year has been marked by the intensification of the Islamisation in public realm and the consolidation of Islamic conservatives behind Prabowo, who is running again for the Indonesian president in this election. As such, there is a possibility that LGBT issues will be exploited again by this group.

At the time of writing, the city government of Pariaman of the West Sumatra has just introduced its local regulation on LGBT that will subject LGBT individuals to sanctions and fines if they disrupt public order. While there is no such criminalization at the national level policy, the sporadic attacks toward LGBT individuals are rather coming from the local or city levels.

The Social and Legal “Messiness”: Rights for What and To Whom?

What are and how do we define LGBT rights, anyway? First, for actor Harry Cook, same-sex marriage is understood as LGBTQI+ basic rights.[23] But, do all LGBT people agree upon this priority? Second, too often the popular term “LGBT” assumes that those different identities share similar goals and concerns. Third, LGBT rights have increasingly been defined through formal equality discourse.

Some critics of the Western LGBT movements, for example, in the U.S, highlighted the ways mainstream LGBT movements have too much emphasis on reaching “formal equality” and occluded reform alternatives that are oriented to resource distribution for the most marginalized members of LGBT community.[24] In institutionalizing formal equality, the activism has invested its resources and energy in law reforms for legalizing same-sex marriage, enacting hate-crime laws and anti-discrimination laws.[25] The results are quiet intriguing. Without dismissing the importance of formal equality in removing legal barriers, the outcomes are very much still imbued with socio-economic class bias. Who eventually reap the benefits are often LGBT individuals with privilege and from well-nourish class, which are not disproportionately affected by economic constraints. Economically vulnerable, homeless, black, and Latino/a LGBT’s lives may remain unchanged.[26]

Another criticism demonstrates the limit of legal changes. Transformation in state regulation and policy, to some degree, indicates the changing of social attitudes, but not always necessarily “a total and cultural transformation.”[27] For instance, while constitutional rights for sexual minorities do exist in South Africa, “corrective rape” of lesbians remains.[28] The legal and social reforms do not always go hand-in-hand. One cannot be done without another. Both are necessary.

In terms of state regulation, some countries in Southeast Asia still criminalize homosexual conducts (largely between men). The colonial relic Section 377A penalizing gross indecency between men in public or private in Singapore is one of the examples. While prosecutions has declined over the years and government do not actively enforce it, the presence of this legislation still perpetuates social stigma toward LGBT, and also, “allows discriminatory practices by government and private agencies to go unaddressed because standing up is tantamount to admitting to crime.”[29] Similarly, Malaysia still retains such homophobic legislation from the colonial era, while being gay in Brunei Darussalam is punishable to death, as Shari’a Law has been institutionalized to penalize homosexuality. In Indonesia, with its special autonomy status granted by the national government, the province of Aceh also penalizes same-sex conducts up to 100 lashes, a fine of 1,000 grams of gold, or 100 months in prison. As of this writing, a gay couple was just caned more than 80 times for allegedly having sex. These are vivid examples of how discrimination and criminalization are institutionalized through legal modality, which in turn perpetuates social stigma and singled out (too often, male) homosexuality to regulate individual’s life.


Different from Aceh, homosexuality and transgenderism generally remain neither legal nor illegal in Indonesia from the national law perspectives. Nevertheless, some members of Indonesian LGBT community are still disproportionately affected by policies that do not specifically target LGBT individuals.

This offers us a critical lens to see that “LGBT” is not a homogenous, monolithic group. An individual does not only have a singular identity; it overlaps with other identities, particularly socio-economic class. To illustrate this point, I will explore the Indonesia case of gay men and waria.

Mostly coming from economically disadvantaged background, waria (inadequately translated into transgender women) still face barriers in accessing education and formal employment. This is largely caused by the visibility of their non-normative gender expressions. Early drop out from schools due to stigma and violence, and the disinheritance from their own families since young age further exacerbate their vulnerability and curb opportunities in their later life. No wonder if then many of them must survive on streets by becoming street musicians, hairdressers, and sex workers.

Although they are not penalized for being a waria, a particular regulation (which does not specifically target their gender non-conformity) are used to discipline them. In Yogyakarta, its vagrancy law allows local public order officers to arrest waria, alongside the homeless, street children, and female sex workers for “public nuisance”. Following such arrests, the waria were further sent to assessment camps and reportedly experienced violence. The point here is the oppression of waria and/or LGBT people cannot be abstracted from poverty and socio-economic class difference.[30]

In 2016, the Bireuen regency of Aceh even issued a decree for beauty parlors, prompting them to stop employing waria. This policy was deliberately tailored to curb the allegedly growing LGBT community in the province. As waria have experienced limited access to jobs because of their non-conforming gender, this move only further imposed barriers on their access to livelihood.

Transitioning to change one’s gender presentation to accord with one’s internal gender identity is also one of the main concerns of waria or transgender groups. Considered as “important events” in the Indonesian law, it is possible to change their sex in the legal documents, particularly ID card.[31] Nevertheless, some practices reveal different treatments and ambiguity in the practice. In one case, sex reassignment surgery might be the prerequisite, while in another case, expert testimonies (largely from medical authority) are the main requirement. Here, my concern is that the overreliance on medical authority could further reify “transgender” as a form of disorder that needs to be ‘corrected’. In other words, feeling “trapped in the wrong body” becomes a justification to obtain this access. After all, although seeming to provide access for changing one’s self presentation, it still relies on the logic of “disorder” without even dismantling the male-female binary construction that restricts gender identities only into two categories. This is exactly how the assumption in laws/policies, although it might enable the changing of sex/gender identity, is not devoid of existing cultural constructions of gender/sexuality.

Gay Indonesians are also arrested for reasons often unrelated with their sexual orientation. For some instance, the arrest and criminalization of gay men in Jakarta and Surabaya in 2016 were deployed through the anti-pornography law and the information and electronic transaction law. It is not through their homosexuality per se that the outlawing process occurs, but through other practices: the possession of pornographic materials and the transactions occurring before the participants joined those gay sex parties. In this regard, the absence of the explicit law on criminalizing homosexuality leads to the using of different legal modalities in penalizing homosexuality.

The key take-away from this section, is that there is an uneven distribution of precariousness within LGBT community, for example, poor transgenders working and living on streets. With this understanding in mind, “LGBT” should not be understood as a category abstracted from socio-economic class. The notion of “rights” therefore needs to be supplanted with structural changes targeting cultural shifts on the current understanding of gender and sexuality, as well as the economic inequalities. Last but not least, although there is no explicit law criminalizing homosexuality/transgenderism, we still need to keep an eye on other regulations potentially used to criminalize non-normative genders and sexualities.

Reflection: Thinking Through Messiness

It is, indeed, messy, confusing, and unpredictable. However, messiness is not always bad. It calls us to stop for a while and reflect for a more careful rethink before making our moves. The discourse of formal equality, through the banner of LGBT rights, is a powerful tool to recognize that “human beings” are not only heterosexual and normatively cis-gendered. Nevertheless, simultaneously, it is also necessary to see how the arrival of LGBT identities and rights in Southeast Asia are not simple and unidirectional. Rather, they are entangled within local political contestations and interests, too. Paying a careful attention to local dynamics helps us to uncover the ironic sides of LGBT rights. This is not because LGBT rights are wrong. But this is rather about how the “LGBT rights” are exploited or dragged into “political calculations” by particular actors. The Thai and Philippines case here might be a good point of departure to consider this messiness.

Individuals see and experience their LGBT identities differently. Both Singapore and Indonesia cases offer a call to imagine alternative ways of being queer. Treating sexualities as a private matter, and strategically focusing on unspoken acceptance in the families do not always mean oppressions. These individuals have their own ways of mitigating their sexualities in private lives, while at the same time maintaining their relationships with their families. It reveals tactical strategies in playing with identities. These queers are still good son or daughter, deriving a sense of empowerment through acceptance from their families, and at the same time, still pursuing and maintaining their homosexual relations in private life. Yes, they kill two birds with one stone.

LGBT rights are increasingly viewed through the legalization of same-sex marriage and other forms of formal equality. Here, we need to ask ourselves: who would derive benefits from this development? Individuals from well-nourished socio-economic background might not find any difficulties in getting into formal employment. But, the ones at the bottom with limited resources will be again left behind. Those people need not only legal recognition, but also structural reforms that enable them to access education, health, and social welfare. Precarity and vulnerability are distributed evenly among LGBT bodies, since “LGBT” is not the only identity. There are rich, well educated, and beautiful (according to mainstream gay media) LGBT, and on the other hand, poor and homeless LGBT. Such differential precariousness must make us see the extent of the problems—to rather see the interconnectivity between social class and other aspects of identities. We have more than only one identity.

Writing is not only about thinking. It is also about simultaneously being disrupted and swept away by powerful emotions. I could not run away from them. I paused many times during the writing process. But, through such thinking-feeling-writing, a new realization came across my mind—I do not fully comprehend what “LGBT rights” really mean. And therefore, a careful, situated, and critical examination is immediately needed.


[1] Ellerby, No Shortcut to Change, 55. Elerby (2017) calls the year 1975-1985 as the Decade of Women. As the United Nations declared 1975 as the International Women’s Rights, global focus on women’s inclusion and rights also started to become central to states and their development issues. What follows in the next following decades are the enactment of the legally-binding international treaty, CEDAW, and also the increased use of the term “gender” in international human rights communities. Indeed, this is a significant shift, as women’s oppressions were understood as an outcome of social constructs, rather than biological. However, as Elerby eloquently observes, the deployments of the term gender in the following years has inadvertently made the term “gender” synonymous with “women”.

[2] See UN Human Rights Office of The High Commissioner. Born Free and Equal, 7.

[3] Liu, Queer Marxism in Two Chinas, 138.

[4] For a comprehensive discussion of the rights to have rights, see DeGooyer, Hunt, Maxwell, and Moyn, The Right to Have Rights. In brief, by discussing the Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the right to have rights”, those authors, particularly Hunt, demonstrate that being a human does not automatically mean that individuals automatically become bearers of rights. The idea, recognition, and endowment of human rights are still strongly bound to the recognition and guarantee by others, particularly state. Moreover, in the case of LGBT rights, an individual has to be a member of the LGBT community to obtain their rights.

[5] Travers, The Trans Generation, 1.

[6] Tang, “Transnational Lesbian Identities: Lessons from Singapore?”, 92.

[7] Ibid. As Tang suggests, in one case, a government minister argued that embracing homosexuality openly would challenge the foundation of the strong family, which serves as the core building block of Singapore. And this, in turn, would weaken the nation-state.

[8] Ibid., 93.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Martel, Global Gay.

[11] ‘Lesbi’ was an Indonesian term for lesbian. However, nowadays, lesbian activists understand it as derogatory.

[12] Boellstorff, The Gay Archipelago, 5.

[13] See Munir, Non-Normative Gender and Sexuality in Indonesian Cinema. Based on her study on Indonesian cinema in the early 2000s, Munir demonstrates the proliferation of queer identities in cinema, particularly the ways in which queer individuals increasingly embraced their identities and rejected heteronormative norms.

[14] In Saint Foucault, Halperin argues that coming-out is a form of resistance, instead of a total freedom from heteronormative repression. Another important critique of the coming-out narratives highlights the way “coming out” has privileged (white and Western) queer subjects and do not count cultural differences among non-Western queers. See Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, 2.

[15] Altman and Symons, Queer Wars, 134.

[16] Yulius, Tang, and Offord, “The Globalization of LGBT Identity and Same Sex Marriage as a Catalyst of Neo-Institutional Values: Singapore and Indonesia in Focus.”, 184.

[17] In the Pride at Place – the Mardi Gras 40th Anniversary Conference at University of Sydney (June 25, 2018), Peter A. Jackson introduced his analysis on Thai’s pinkwashing, which has significantly informed the Thai part in this essay.

[18] See Puar, The Right to Maim, 96-97.

[19] Jackson, “Bangkok’s Early Twenty-First Century Queer Boom.”, 24; See also, Sanders, “The Rainbow Lobby.”, 229-250.

[20] I am inspired by Puar’s analysis in The Right to Maim. See Puar, Introduction: The Cost of Getting Better in The Right to Maim.

[21] The author would like to thank Prof. Peter A. Jackson for the Thailand part in this essay.

[22] See Robinson, “Masculinity, Sexuality, and Islam”, 51-68.

[23] Cook, Pink Ink, 245.

[24] Adler, Gay Priori, 5.

[25] Ibid., 2.

[26] Ibid., 2-7.

[27] Jackson, “Why ‘Heteronormativity’ is Not Enough.”, 137.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Yulius, et al., “The Globalization of LGBT Identity and Same-Sex Marriage.”, 184.

[30] See Travers, The Trans Generation, 184.

[31] For a discussion of issues related to ID card, See UNDP, USAID, Being LGBT in Asia Indonesia Country Report, 11.

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