Gay rights march ahead in South-East Asia

2013-08-02 15:02

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Hanoi - This weekend hundreds of people will pedal through Hanoi on bicycles to mark the country's second gay pride parade.

The scale of events across the country, from dance performances, film screenings and a book launch, reflects wider acceptance of debate on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues over the last year in several South-East Asian countries.

In Vietnam, just a few years ago the only representation of gay people in the media was of petty criminals and prostitutes.

Now, training workshops for local journalists and grassroots campaigns such as flash mobs are challenging those negative stereotypes.

Despite some speculation that Vietnam could become the first country in South-East Asia to legalise same-sex marriage, it was not included in a recently approved proposal on revisions to the Marriage and Family Law.

However, the draft does remove the article banning such unions in the current law and includes provisions for same-sex couples who live together.

Le Quang Binh from the Institute for the Studies of Society, Economics and Environment (iSEE) says this is an important step.

"We recognise that same-sex couples [are] living together as a family," he said. "So if the same-sex couples have kids, property, anything related to their lives, if they have a problem they can go to the court and the court will help them to resolve that."

Proposal to be discussed

The National Assembly is to discuss the proposal in October and it is due to be passed in April 2014.

National Assembly member Duong Trung Quoc says supporting gay marriage is "the common tendency" in society and decisions made by lawmakers will reflect that.

"There will be different opinions on it, but we should respect the rights of LGBT because they are human and as humans they should have the same rights as others."

Vietnam is not the only country considering advancing LGBT rights to marry.

In Thailand, a draft law is being prepared for parliament which would give LGBT and intersex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.

A draft same-sex legislation "will create a new category, called civil partnership, which in every aspect will have the same rights as married partners under the law”, said Wiratana Kalayasin, a member of the Democrat opposition party and head of the drafting commission.

The only restrictions will be that at least one of the partners must be a Thai national, and both must be at least 20 years old.

Wiratana needs to gather 10 000 signatures on the draft bill to present it to parliament for a vote. When that is achieved, he estimates the bill would take a year to pass.

‘Gross indecency’

Attitudes to homosexuality appear to be changing in conservative, tightly controlled Singapore, too. Section 377 of the Penal Code - a hangover from the colonial era - still criminalises homosexual acts between men, who can be imprisoned for up to two years for "gross indecency”.

However, the law is rarely enforced and the courts are currently considering two challenges to its constitutionality.

The city-state has a surprisingly lively gay scene. This year's Pink Dot event, which celebrates the "Freedom to Love”, attracted a record crowd of around 21 000 people in June.

And on the eve of the event, opposition politician Vincent Wijeysingha became the country's first politician to come out.

"Yes, I am going to Pink Dot tomorrow. And yes, I am gay," he wrote on Facebook.

"The personal reaction to me was mainly positive," Wijeysingha told dpa, but added that the news also attracted a lot of homophobic comments online.

"In terms of the prospects for legal change, I believe the government is in a bind. On the one hand, it by and large does not take a moral view on the issue, although there could be those from a religious background who might. On the other hand, it doesn't want to offend the religious or conservative voter."

But the trend does not cover all South-East Asian countries, in many of which an event like Viet Pride or Pink Dot would not be acceptable.

In 2011, a court ruling in Malaysia banned an annual sexual rights festival, Seksualiti Merdeka, on the grounds that it would cause public disorder.

Such restrictions are targeted by the message of this weekend's Viet Pride, which has a deliberately international angle, with video clips from supporters in Sweden, Russia and the US at the opening ceremony.

Read more on:    vietnam  |  gay rights

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