Monday, Aug. 24, 2009
Why Asia's Gays are Starting to Win Acceptance
By Jyoti Thottam / Kathmandu
Sunil Babu Pant is a schoolteacher's son who grew up in the rough green mountains of central Nepal. The youngest of six children, indulged by his family, Pant remembers feeling attracted to other boys. But he wore that knowledge lightly, with the innocence of a sheltered child. Boys and girls played separately; Pant thought that his friends must feel just as he did. "It didn't appear as a problem to me growing up in the countryside," he says. "Even though I knew about myself, I couldn't define it."
By 28, Pant had a word for what he felt, and in 2000 he moved to Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, to find other gay people and some sense of belonging. What he discovered horrified him. After dark, a small underground subculture of gay men and women would meet each other in a few of the city's parks and ancient courtyards, gatherings that took place under a constant threat of violence by the police. A law against "unnatural sexual conduct" was often used as a pretext for harassment, he says. "It was such an unseen, unspoken tragedy that was going on every day." (See pictures of the gay rights movement.)
Pant could have chosen to live as other gays do in Asia's conservative societies, hiding his sexuality behind a sham marriage while leading a dangerous double life. Instead, he decided to come out and to work against discrimination. "There was a choice to make," he says, "whether you feel threatened and live your life with misery, or you live with courage." In 2001, Pant and a few friends organized the Blue Diamond Society — named after the Diamond Sutra, a well-known translation of Buddhist teachings emphasizing compassion — to distribute information about HIV. The group later began documenting human-rights abuses against gay people, and its members sued to overturn Nepal's law criminalizing homosexuality. In December 2007, Nepal's Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Four months later, Pant, who was the main petitioner in the case, became South Asia's first openly gay member of parliament. By the end of 2008, the Supreme Court issued its full judgment, which not only nullified the old law but also established a "third gender" category for government documents. A newly formed government advisory committee is studying the possibility of legalizing gay marriage. In less than a decade, Nepal, a poor and devout Hindu kingdom, had become what the Indian writer and gay activist C.K. Meena calls "a gaytopia."
Rights and Recognition Nepal's transformation could only have happened in the first decade of the 21st century — and similar changes are taking place elsewhere in Asia as sweeping economic and social forces erode long-held prejudices. In India, the Delhi High Court recently struck down as unconstitutional a 149-year-old law criminalizing homosexuality, in a judgment so eloquent in its support of gay people's right to dignity that some wept in the courtroom as the last pages were read. In China this summer, Beijing and Shanghai hosted gay and lesbian festivals with little official interference — an achievement in a country where mass gatherings of any kind are tightly controlled. Tolerance isn't measured by any official statistic, but it's there in many forms — gay characters on television and in films, openly gay celebrities and gay public gatherings. Manila held Asia's first gay-pride parade in 1994; this year there were similar festivals in a dozen other Asian cities. "If nothing else, people aren't denying the existence of homosexuality anymore," says Jeffrey O'Malley, the director of the HIV group for the United Nations Development Program in New York City. "That's a huge difference from 20 years ago."
The rising visibility of gay people in the region is just one of many social changes that have been accelerated by travel, urbanization, education, democratization and, most of all, the explosion of information across every imaginable medium. This isn't simply Westernization — the old argument that homosexuality is yet another crass cultural import from the West has been all but discarded. But the Asian social institutions and beliefs that often stood in the way of tolerance — religious conservatism, intense emphasis on marriage and having children, cultural taboos against openly discussing sexuality — are weakening. In some parts of Asia, space is opening up for homosexuals in society. "The debate about sexuality is in the realm of the constitution, of democracy, equality and human rights," says Gautam Bhan, a gay activist in New Delhi. "The terrain of the debate has shifted."
The Road Less Traveled Pant's journey from rural Nepal to Kathmandu's parliament — with detours through a college campus in Belarus and the nightclubs of Tokyo — reveals how one gay man and his community came to terms. By leaving Nepal as a young college graduate, he experienced for the first time both homophobia and acceptance. In 1992, he went to Belarusian State Polytechnic Academy in Minsk to get his master's degree in computer science. The newly independent country, which had been part of the Soviet Union, welcomed students from the developing world, but he arrived at a time of growing hostility toward homosexuals — a banner at the college's medical clinic warned "Beware of Gays." He spent five years hiding who he was. "I understood that my sexuality could be a problem to the authorities and I could be deported," he says.
After completing his degree, Pant decided to take a trip to Japan as a volunteer for an environmental group. In Tokyo, what was originally scheduled to be a two-week sojourn stretched to three months as he immersed himself in one of Asia's most established gay subcultures. Homosexuality has a long history in Japan, with allusions to it documented as far back as the 11th century Tale of Genji. Attitudes changed with the growing influence of Christianity in the 1800s, but since the 1880s Japan has not had laws punishing homosexuality like those passed throughout the British colonies during the same period.
This quiet tolerance doesn't include legal rights or full social acceptance, but it does allow Japanese gays and lesbians a limited freedom. Tokyo has long had its own Chelsea in Shinjuku 2-chome, a neighborhood full of shops, nightclubs and bookstores catering to gay people. That's where Pant read about the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City's Greenwich Village, an uprising against police harassment that many consider the beginning of the gay-rights movement. In Tokyo, Pant also discovered ancient Hindu texts celebrating same-sex love. When he returned to Nepal, he used this knowledge to explain to his parents that homosexuality was part of Hinduism's old traditions. This made coming out to them easier. "They had some questions," he says. "But when you talk about culture, about religion, it's not something foreign, somebody telling you something from outside."
His mother's worst fear, Pant says, was that he would be a victim of violence. "She was terrified," he recalls. After the Supreme Court ruling in 2007, such incidents are rare, although his parents still get upset when his political opponents make derogatory comments. Those are among the few intrusions into his otherwise ascetic life. His longtime partner recently moved to Bangkok, so he lives with his parents and grandmother in Kathmandu, spends time with his nieces and nephews, and visits his village regularly.
In Nepal, as in the rest of the world, the fight for gay rights is closely linked to the fight against HIV and AIDS. The deadly virus was initially tagged as a "gay disease" in the West, and its early victims struggled against a blatant and sometimes violent backlash. In Asia, homophobia took a different form: denial. For years, authorities asserted that HIV couldn't be a problem because homosexuality simply didn't exist. But by the late 1990s, it was obvious that HIV/AIDS posed a serious public-health threat that would only get worse if ignorance remained official policy. It's no coincidence that Pant's Blue Diamond Society initially worked on AIDS issues. Because of a global effort by public-health authorities and governments to raise HIV/AIDS awareness, "it was where we could get funding," Pant says. (Read "Closet Case: How Intolerance Fuels Africa's AIDS Crisis.")
This support gave him a platform to organize the local gay community — as it did for pioneers in the gay-rights movement in other countries. Anjali Gopalan, an activist in New Delhi, was there at the beginning of HIV/AIDS-awareness efforts. Trained in political science and international development, she moved to New York City in 1985 at the height of the AIDS epidemic and was involved in some of the first attempts to bring information about the disease to immigrants and the poor.
The experience proved to be a personal awakening. "It makes you learn a lot about your own culture," she says from a brightly painted office in south New Delhi, "to understand discrimination, to understand equality, to learn how to respect differences." After Gopalan returned to India in 1994 to be closer to her aging parents, she started the Naz Foundation (India) Trust, one of the country's first HIV/AIDS groups. Well before India's economic boom or the push to decriminalize gay sex, the movement helped to introduce issues concerning sexual orientation and sexuality into India's public discourse. "The government itself was funding programs for men who have sex with men," she says.
Despite this tacit backing, activists worked in a legal gray area. Section 377 of the Indian penal code, a law passed by the British colonial administration in 1860, criminalized sodomy and was still in effect, leaving gays vulnerable to the whims of local law enforcement. Police in Lucknow, a city in north India, arrested four HIV outreach workers in 2001 under Section 377 on charges including "conspiring to commit sodomy." The incident was alarming — but ultimately it served as the catalyst for a historic gay-rights ruling. The Naz Foundation filed a public-interest lawsuit on the arrested activists' behalf and after eight years of litigation, the Delhi High Court ruled on July 2 that Section 377 violated India's constitutional principles of equality and inclusivity. It was an emotional moment, particularly for those who grew up in more conservative times. "In those days, you just kept quiet about your sexuality," says Gautam Bhan, a New Delhi urban planner and activist. He lived in the U.S. for years, watching from abroad as India slowly changed, and went back in 2004 once he decided he could live in India as an openly gay man. "I still can't believe that 377 no longer holds," he says. "My landlord sent me a note, people in my office clapped when I entered the next day. There was this sense all around that it was obvious, it was good, it was right, it was a symbol of change."
Blending In Even in authoritarian and deeply religious countries, gay people are finding ways to gather and meet each other, the first step in mobilizing for their rights. In Pakistan, where homosexuality is considered a crime by both the state and Islam, an underground social scene thrives among the élite, particularly in Karachi and Lahore. Inspired by activism in India, two women in Lahore earlier this year founded Pakistan's first gay-rights organization, whose members meet privately in affluent homes. China's authorities decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, but it is only in the last few years that gay culture has started to flourish. "The speed of change in China has been amazing," says a 37-year-old employee of a Beijing Internet company. It remains difficult to be openly gay in the workplace, says the man, who requested anonymity. But in social settings, the environment has improved dramatically, especially for young people, he says. "Some of them don't even think it's an issue." Still, there are limits. The Beijing Queer Film Festival has been held four times since 2001, and this year marked the first time that the event went off without any official interference. But Cui Zi'en, one of the organizers, said they "kept a deliberately low profile" this year by moving the festival to an outlying neighborhood. (Watch TIME's video "Gay Marriage in the Heartland.")
To further their cause, gay activists in Asia have had to adapt, as Cui did. They can't just borrow strategies honed during the U.S. civil rights movement as others have done — in countries where democracy is still a work in progress, they have to invent new ones. Instead of confrontational tactics, they work hand in hand with other activists. Pradeep Khadka, human-rights coordinator for the Blue Diamond Society, says that rather than challenging Nepalese society, his group has built alliances within the democracy movement and tried to change attitudes and policies through political persuasion. Even the language of the movement is different. Instead of gay liberation or gay pride, Khadka promotes "sexual diversity" and the protection of "sexual minorities" along with the poor, women and lower castes. "We are not very aggressive," Khadka says. "It's a very soft way of approach." He admires the pioneers of the U.S. and Europe, but doesn't consider them models. "The generation has changed from the Stonewall movement."
This might be a soft revolution, but it is a revolution all the same. Some 200 openly gay, lesbian and transgender Nepalis gathered recently in a hotel conference room to draft sample legislation protecting their rights. Pant was there, hovering in the background, but the crowd was more interested in getting answers from the two straight politicians who were attending to hear their complaints about support for gay students and delays in getting passports marked "third gender." Nepal's example is powerful enough that donors from Norway and Sweden want to help them replicate it elsewhere. That effort will begin on Aug. 18 with a meeting in Kathmandu of gay activists from all over South Asia. It's hard to say what the gay world in Asia will look like a decade from now, but in a valley in the shadow of the Himalayas, it is finding its next incarnation.
— with reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing, Coco Masters / Tokyo, Madhur Singh / New Delhi and Omar Waraich / Lahore
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