LGBT Rights in South Asia: What Next?

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Feb 20, 2019
by Heng Yeh Yee
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LGBT Rights in South Asia: What Next?

The upcoming Salzburg Global LGBT Forum program considers the impact of the LGBT rights movement across borders, and the efforts needed to ensure legal and social acceptance Unsplash/Peter Hershey

“We have to bid adieu to prejudices and empower all citizens,” said Dipak Misra, who was Chief Justice when India’s Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality in September 2018. The court’s decision to strike down Section 377, a colonial-era law banning gay sex, was a watershed victory in the fight for human rights.

Progress like this, naturally, does not happen in a vacuum. India’s verdict directly referenced Nepal’s landmark ruling in 2007, which resulted in legal protection for LGBT individuals, as well as official recognition of a third gender. In subsequent years, similar legislation acknowledging a third gender was enacted in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India; Pakistan celebrated its first Trans Pride Parade just last year. Moreover, Sri Lanka and Bhutan have allowed people to change their legal gender. 

However, discrimination and abuse against the LGBT community, including transgender and intersex people, are still prevalent in the region. Even in India and Nepal, the decriminalization of homosexuality is only the first step of many in the battle for civil rights and wider acceptance. 

Elsewhere in South Asia, similar colonial-era laws prohibiting same-sex relations are found in the penal codes of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Although few cases are actually prosecuted under these laws, such criminalization contributes to the stigmatization of LGBT individuals in the media, public, and the workplace. Attempts to push for regulations that safeguard the existence of LGBT individuals in Pakistan, Maldives, and Afghanistan have to grapple with the presence of Sharia law. 

These issues and more will be addressed at the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum at its sixth program to be held in Kathmandu, Nepal, February 24 to March 1. The program, Advancing Legal and Social Equality in South Asia, again held in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s Being LGBTI in Asia and the Pacific program, will consider recent legal and political developments in the region, along with how participants may engage in these shifts to mobilize societies towards legal and social acceptance of the LGBT community. 

The Forum is no stranger to highlighting region-specific challenges and solutions – a previous program in Thailand focused on the progress of the LGBT rights movement in South East Asia, giving space to voices often underrepresented in global discourse, and in 2014, the Forum met to provide advice to the German, Dutch and EU Foreign Offices on how their embassies around the world could better support LGBT human rights organizations. Nepal, the location for this year’s program, is a nation widely seen as a predecessor for progressive attitudes towards sexual orientation and gender identity within South Asia.

The six-day program shall include approximately 40 Fellows from various professional backgrounds, with a majority from South Asia. The assembly of this network will aid in forming connections between human rights defenders across nations, regions, and generations, who will then expand their collaboration in devising new projects and campaigns to help advance legal and social equality in countries across South Asia and around the world.

Launched in 2013, the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum has brought together over 150 Fellows from more than 70 countries who work for the advancement of LGBT and human rights. “Together with Salzburg Global, I conceived the Forum as a safe space to curate a truly global conversation on LGBT equality among diverse leaders from human rights, legal, artistic, and religious backgrounds,” wrote Founder and Chair of the Forum, Dr. Klaus Mueller. 

“Fundamental human rights concern us all. The Salzburg Global LGBT Forum brings together queer and straight, representing gender in many expressions, in short: people with overlapping, changing identities. Whether homo-, bi- or heterosexual, cis-, inter- or transgender, our diverse backgrounds and lives are connected by our shared interest to advance LGBT equality globally.”

The Forum aims to create an open platform for discussion that will result in the promotion of inclusive policymaking at a national level, which should benefit and protect gender and sexual minorities. 

In Nepal, there will also be a focus on how humanistic storytelling through multimedia productions may serve to destigmatize LGBT identities, sharing the narratives of these marginalized voices with wider society. Videos produced by and with Fellows of the Forum will be shared online in the coming months.

As in 2016 in Thailand, the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum is being held in partnership with the UNDP’s Being LGBTI in Asia and the Pacific program, and is this year also supported by long-time supporters of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, the German Federal Foreign Ministry and the Archangel Michael Foundation, with additional support from EQUAL GROUND, The Nippon Foundation, the Korea Foundation and the Ann M. Hoefle Memorial Fellowship.  

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. We use this term as it is widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world. We wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts that express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender-nonconforming identities.