Governments in Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, routinely ignore—and in some cases actively promote—the systematic exclusion of lesbians, bisexual women, and trans persons from legal protections and social services, said the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) in a report released Tuesday.
The 236-page report, “Violence Through the Lens of Lesbians, Bisexual Women and Trans (LBT) Individuals in Asia,” documents the violence and exclusion suffered by lesbians, bisexual women, and trans persons in five countries in Asia (Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka), and shows how government inaction contributes to the abuse. The report is based on interviews with affected women and trans individuals, as well as with government officials, civil society actors, and other key stakeholders.
“We are used to thinking of ourselves as victims of direct state violence carried out by police officers, health care workers, and other public officials. And that happens too, of course” said Grace Poore, IGLHRC’s regional program coordinator for Asia and the main coordinator of the research project. “But it surprised us that governments are turning a blind eye to community and family violence, and that intolerance at the state level filters through to the family and home level, promoting stereotypes about lesbians or trans people as deviant, sick, perverse or all of the above.”
Government responses in all five countries were severely insufficient. Researchers found that women in same-sex relationships or trans persons were explicitly excluded from protections against domestic violence or sexual assault. Governments apply criminal sanctions to those who do not adhere to social norms related to the role of women in society and lawmakers ignore the needs of lesbians, bisexual women, and trans persons in policy development.
While laws criminalizing consensual adult same-sex relationships in some cases form the backdrop for this exclusion, lesbian and bisexual women and trans persons across the continent face violence and harassment even where their relationships or status are not considered a crime.
“At a time where any fairly educated or concerned person would know about the laws criminalizing sodomy in India, Nigeria, and Uganda, this research highlights the many other ways in which governments punish us for who we are,” said Poore. “These findings teach us all types of state-sponsored exclusion have devastating results.”
IGLHRC worked with local groups of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans activists to carry out interviews with individuals who, out of fear of exclusion and discrimination, up to now have remained largely invisible.
The testimonies highlight the link between community and family violence, and education dropout rates, employment discrimination, and lack of housing. This finding takes on particular relevance as the world’s governments gather over the next 12 months to discuss universal development goals for the next several decades, a process known as the Post-2015 Agenda.
“This research is grounded in the communities we work with,” said Poore. “And for these communities it is overwhelmingly clear that exclusion affects development, and that states needs to deal with that reality now.”
While country contexts differed on the basis of culture, religion, legal systems and inherited colonial legacies, there were undergirding realities that LBT people faced in the five Asian countries in some or all of the following ways:
- Homosexuality and gender non-conformity were criminalized directly or indirectly through penal code provisions that specifically targeted lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people or through laws concerning public order, vagrancy or impersonation that were implemented disproportionately to punish LGBT people.
- Homosexuality (same-sex relations between women) and gender non-conformity were penalized and condemned under religious laws.
- High-level government officials endorsed intolerance and even actively participated in promoting harmful messages that encouraged abuse or discrimination against LBT individuals. Government-controlled media and state-supported religious leaders perpetuated cultural messaging that preached intolerance against individuals with non-conforming sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
- LBT victims of violence were disadvantaged even before they could seek redress for violence – due to the risk of being criminalized by the state, stigmatized by society, vilified by religious groups, and rejected by family when their identities or explanations of the violence were revealed.
- There was a close correlation between general gender inequality and the additional oppression of LBT individuals. Where women are expected to conform to stringent norms on sexual orientation and gender expression, those who do not conform are violently punished.
The five-country study confirmed the existence of complex layers of intersecting discrimination where violence against LBT individuals was not only motivated by rejection of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression but, in many instances, also other identity markers (e.g., race, ethnicity, class, economic status, religion, economic status). In this way, LBT individuals were punished by their families and communities for “betraying” their heritage, religion and culture. Those without financial advantage to “get out of” violent situations or who were targeted for violence because they were poor were even more vulnerable because of increased opportunities for violence.
While findings of the studies may not be representative of the experiences of all LBT people in Sri Lanka, Philippines, Pakistan, Malaysia and Japan, they represent experiences that show patterns of violence that require serious attention and redress. At the same time, the focus of the research itself is important because violence against LBT people is under-reported in many Asian countries. As this research shows, one reason for the under-reporting is precisely the “private nature of the violence.” It occurs in the private sphere (of family, home, intimate relationships) while being encouraged by the stigmatization – and in some instances, demonization – of LBT people in the public sphere (by state institutions, government leaders, media, employers, non-governmental organizations, police and people on the streets).