Asian LGBT Communities: Creating Safe and Tolerant Space
By Mengxi Zhao
Recently the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) held a discussion panel themed “Creating Safe and Tolerant Space for Asian LGBT Communities” in the UN Church Center. Four panelists: Robert Kaku Gunn, Lu Jun, Rashima Kwatra, and Omair Paul engaged in a dynamic discussion that was a synthesis of their diverse cultural backgrounds, and professional expertise. Craftfully moderated by UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts, the panelists and audiences shared their knowledge and understanding of the state of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues in a few Asian countries: China, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan.
LGBT populations face more challenges and difficulties than other people today whether in communities, schools or hospitals. In some Asian countries like China, Korea, and Japan, the LGBT communities live under the scrutiny of intense social stigma and pressure. In these countries where Confucianism prevails, family, an important unit in the society, has long been patriarchal. A family system is viewed as orthodox, and family members are required to respect and follow the ideas of their seniors, to perform their obligations and to do nothing that might disgrace their family. In this light, the members of the LGBT community cannot express their feelings, and worse, they can’t live as they wish. For example, many a gay man leads a closeted life to the extent that he marries a woman and starts a family only to protect his family’s honor and satisfy the wishes of his parents. Therefore, societal arrangements and, responsibility put on children as defenders of their family’s honor puts enormous uncomfortable pressure on children who identify as LGBT. They are taught to dislike themselves, and to conform.
Our panelist Rashima Kwatra, a fierce international LGBT advocate, and communication director at OutRight Action International, noted that school bullying is prevalent and very frequently directed at LGBT children and youth. In fact textbooks used in schools in Thailand, China, Japan and Korea (both north and south) and elsewhere in Asia describe those of non-hetero-sexual orientation as “freaks and diseased.” The blatant transphobia propagated in classrooms teaches students hate, it empowers children to victimize and bully students whom they perceive to be LGBT; including those perceived as Trans youth. Children who are taught bigotry unconsciously reject LGBT communities, and even treat them violently. The hostility at school fuels the high dropout rate amongst LGBT youth, consequently affecting their brain development, ability to find good jobs, and lead a satisfying life. All too often such bullying results in suicide of youth at the beginnings of what should be long, productive lives.
Another challenge the Queer community faces is obtaining medical services. Restrained by traditional culture, religion, and politics, the LGBT community, for the most part, is unable to obtain medical services provided by government and religious organizations. Beyond medical services, the lack of awareness of health is reflected by the disproportionate HIV affection found in the Asian LGBTQ community. In 2015, there were an estimated 300,000 new infections in the region; the epidemic is largely concentrated among key affected populations, including men who have sex with men (sometimes referred to as MSM) and transgender populations. Needless to say, the Asian LGBT community is extremely vulnerable to HIV. They must not be left behind in efforts to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (aka the 2030 Global Goals) that aim in Goal 3 to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for everyone of all ages.
Beyond the enormous stigma against persons affected with HIV, carrying the virus and being gay has serious consequences on one’s livelihood. According to panelist Mr. Lu Jun, Founder of Beijing Yirenping Center organization and human rights advocate in China stated, “In China, having HIV can disqualify an applicant from the physical standard set for attaining a civil service job.” In addition, states and societies prohibit gay marriages and unions: no marriage license is granted. As a result, no child rearing and adopting can be made official. On top of that, governments and communities forbid LGBT marriages, and LGBT families are not allowed to adopt children. Social activism groups for inclusion and equality or support group circles are constantly raided and systemically barred from gaining advocacy status within the state government.
Facing all these societal obstacles, where do LGBT people reach out for help, or attain inner peace? The Soto Zen Buddhist Robert Kaku Gunn revealed the possibility of LGBT people finding a safe place in religion through his analysis of Zen Buddhism. Although in South Asian Buddhism values, it is widely believed that people become LGBT due to Karma (i.e. due to something they did in past lives), Mr. Gunn explained how Zen Buddhism sets itself apart as being tolerant to the LGBT community. This is because Zen Buddhism has a theology and practice that encourages being in the present, true to your experience, and trust that life is sufficient to sustain the living. In the practice of the religion, the Buddhist is challenged to dismiss prejudices, and form understanding of others solely on their experiences. For that, Zen Buddhism is open to LGBT people practicing or taking refuge in Zen Buddhism. While this has been the observations of Robert Gunn and Bruce Knotts, Rashima Kwatra related that in her experience in Thailand, Buddhist monks were hostile and unwelcoming to LGBT people. While Buddhism seems less hostile to sexual minorities than are many Christians and Muslims, the welcome experienced by many LGBT people in Buddhism isn’t universal.
Panelist Omair Paul, the UN Representative at Muslims for Progressive Values, made the point that religions are diverse in their views on many subjects including sexual orientation and gender identity. Speaking from his expertise, Mr. Paul stated that Islamic texts forbid homosexuality, however, understanding of these texts vary based on the sect of Islam. Wahhabism, for example, is an extremely conservative sect that believes that deviation from orthodox norms regarding sexual orientation and gender identity is unethical and filthy, and should be severely punished. Saudi Arabia has long been an advocate of Wahhabism, and the penalty of being homosexual can be as severe as public execution. But in other Muslim countries like Bahrain and Qatar, homosexuality only incurs detention or a fine. Ms. Kwatra added that the rise of conservative Islam, due to strategic evangelism of the Wahhabi sect, in Malaysia, Indonesia, as well as Pakistan correlates to the rise of homophobic rules and practices. Omair indicated “The Wahhabi countries such as Saudi Arabia are utilizing their economic strength to lure communities into adopting conservative values of Islam by setting up social services like schools and clinics in communities that attract people to adopting the conservative rules which involve violating LGBT human rights.”
In the western hemisphere, especially in North America, Unitarian Universalists work with other liberal religions to welcome and include LGBTQ persons as an integral part of their community. Furthermore, UUs organize themselves and others in support of civil rights and social acceptance as their first principle to promote the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
Here at the UU-UNO, we are committed to bringing the cause of LGBT human rights to the forefront of the UN agenda. We work in collaboration with other faith-based and human rights focused missions, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to preserve the inherent worth and dignity of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The next step will be to revitalize the NGO Subcommittee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Human Rights at the UN, please stay tuned for more information.
Mengxi Zhao is a Program Intern at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, working on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Human Rights.