TW: Violence, sexual assault, and mention of suicide
Currently, homosexuality is prohibited through various mechanisms in 69 countries across the world, with most of the rationale behind such anti-LGBTQ+ laws tracing back to the colonial era. The Southeast Asian nations of Singapore, Myanmar, and Brunei, which were all colonies of the British Empire, are just some examples of how pervasive colonial attitudes towards queerness remain. During the 19th century, the British Empire ruled over the Indian Subcontinent and expanded into nearby countries in Southeast Asia. Myanmar and the northern Borneo territories such as Brunei, Singapore, and Malaysia were conquered by the British and subject to its ruthless colonial rule which criminalized LGBTQ+ identities. However, this wasn’t always the case; gender and sexual diversity existed in pre-colonial times primarily in Malaya, which included Malaysia and Singapore, and also within Southeast Asia. Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments are mere imports of Western colonialism.
Within this time, British colonial authorities introduced and enforced anti-LGBTQ+ laws into their colonies’ penal codes, the most prominent one being Section 377. This law criminalizes homosexuality by prohibiting “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” with “carnal intercourse” being penetrative intercourse, and the “order of nature” being heterosexuality. While built on heteronormative, Christian ideals of sex, Section 377 also originated from the belief that the East was highly erotic, and that British soldiers in the colonies in Asia may be swayed by this eroticism. Nowadays, even in a socially-progressing world, Section 377 still exists in British colonies that have since then gained independence.
Conservatism and Stigma in Singaporean Society
Singapore was colonized by the British Empire in 1819 and remained a British colony for 144 years until 1963 when it became a Malaysian state, from which it gained complete independence in 1965. Section 377 exists in Singapore to this day, and recent attempts to overturn the anti-LGBTQ+ colonial law have unfortunately failed. For example, LGBTQ+ activists challenged Section 377A in 2020, which prohibits “acts of gross indecency” between men, but Singapore’s High Court denied this; in 2014, Singapore’s Court of Appeal also denied a similar challenge. The subject of LGBTQ+ identity in Singapore is highly controversial because while there is a liberal youth population emerging, Singaporean society continues to be largely politically conservative. Consequently, this becomes a problem during national elections where campaigning for gay rights becomes “political suicide,” harming the chance of real social change being made.
Members of Singapore’s LGBTQ+ community have voiced their fears of coming out, and many of them choose to stay closeted in an incredibly conservative and homophobic society. Anti-discrimination laws continue to be absent in Singapore, and the overall level of conservatism in Singapore society immediately classifies members of the LGBTQ+ community as “second-class citizens.” However, in contrast to Singapore’s previous prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, who stated that repealing Section 377 would lead to a breakdown in family norms, sex education, free speech, and religious freedom, Singapore’s current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, contends that LGBTQ+ individuals are “welcome” and “valued” in Singaporean society, and that change may happen over time. While this may not be big enough to provoke a shift in anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the immediate future, there is nevertheless some hope for positive change down the road.
Violence Against LGBTQ+ People in Myanmar
It is no surprise that LGBTQ+ people are highly discriminated against in Myanmar, a socially conservative country where acts of homosexuality are subject to persecution. Similar to Singapore, members of the LGBTQ+ community face several challenges in Burmese society both socially and legally, due to the lack of anti-discrimination laws and a conservative society. For example, individuals are often subjected to violence and abuse by law-enforcement officials and continue to suffer physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by family members. One instance included a transgender woman who was arrested, forced to remove her clothes, and thrown into a male jail cell where the other inmates raped her as police either ignored it or took pictures. In order to arrest someone under the basis of Section 377, there would have to be proof that they are engaging in “carnal intercourse;” however, the mere stigma around queer identities and the homophobic atmosphere that this law propels makes it permissible in Burmese society for police to violently assault and discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.
Yet, some positive changes have been seen. In May of 2019, the tragic story of a gay librarian who committed suicide from constant bullying was widely publicized and gained national recognition. This was a shocking moment for Myanmar as public support in favor of the librarian was overwhelming. In fact, a study conducted by Burmese LGBTQ+ activist organizations Colors Rainbow and &PROUD showed that 81% of the general public agrees that LGBTQ+ people deserve equal treatment and that 74% believe merely being LGBTQ+ should be legal, raising hope for the LGBTQ+ community in Myanmar.
Brunei’s Shariah Laws: Stoned to Death for Being Gay?
Brunei’s case of anti-LGBTQ+ laws is particularly unique. In addition to Section 377 still existing in the country’s penal code, Brunei introduced even more anti-LGBTQ+ sections into its Shariah Penal Code, which punishes both Muslims and non-Muslims who act against the government’s interpretation of Islam. Section 377 acts as the “mother law” under which laws such as Section 87, which criminalizes sexual intercourse between men with death by stoning, whipping, or by imprisonment, and Section 92, which criminalizes sexual intercourse between women with large fines, imprisonment, and whipping up to 40 strokes, exist. However, due to global outcry, the government of Brunei seems to have backed down on its stance, especially regarding its “stoning by death” law that was greatly criticized. The Sultan of Brunei stated that there are “misconceptions” about the law, which could just be an attempt to hide the government’s lack of action regarding queer rights. In addition, some LGBTQ+ Bruneians have said that the country’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws are not enforced widely, but there is still public fear, especially on dating apps such as Grindr, where policemen may be pretending to be gay in order to arrest queer people.
Religious Radicalization in Southeast Asia: A Possible Explanation
The lingering effects of British colonial rule are very clear when we consider why Section 377 and other anti-LGBTQ+ laws exist in former British colonies. However, there is another factor that plays a role in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments and legislation in these countries: religious radicalization, which refers to individuals expressing religious extremist attitudes and behaviors towards other individuals in order to justify violence. Brunei’s government can be described as religiously radicalized as it promotes a literalist, extreme interpretation of Islam. Its enforcement of anti-LGBTQ+ laws is supposed to be in line with hudud, the set of punishments for anti-Islamic offenses, which punishes zina, or homosexual intercourse, by stoning or lashing.
However, the concept of hudud itself is intricate; because the Quran does not explicitly define the offenses, these offenses and punishments are open to interpretation by individual Islamic scholars. This means that there are many Muslims who do not comply with this harsh interpretation and who instead promote inclusivity for LGBTQ+ individuals within their communities. Unfortunately, Brunei’s reigning government has opted to uphold a traditionalist reading of Islamic law, which has then created violent implications for LGBTQ+ Muslims and non-Muslims in Brunei.
In the case of Myanmar, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments are promoted by religiously radicalized monks. With a predominant 87.9% Buddhist population in Myanmar, Buddhist monks have a significant influence over Burmese society. Therefore, when certain monks promote ideologies that are harmful to minority groups, such as LGBTQ+ populations, their words hold power and have the potential to incite hate and violence. For example, a Burmese monk told his audience that he prays that Myanmar will never legalize same-sex marriage. Another Burmese monk publicly laughed at the Burmese librarian’s suicide, asserting that he hates gay people and believes they should be “beat to death.”
However, the disturbing opinions of these monks do not reflect Buddhism overall. Buddhists have differing opinions on homosexuality; while some say that homosexual relationships are perfectly acceptable as long as they are built on love, others may consider homosexual acts as “sexual misconduct.” Most Buddhist literature even suggests that one’s tolerance or lack thereof to homosexuality is a personal choice, not a religious one. However, when these Burmese monks and others alike, who are highly revered in Burmese society, promote their homophobic beliefs under the false basis of Buddhism, it engenders anti-LGBTQ+ ideologies in the public.
What the Future Holds
There is some hope for the future for LGBTQ+ people in these countries and other countries where queer identities are persecuted. As young people become more accepting of progressive ideologies, and of LGBTQ+ identities, in particular, there will hopefully be more public support on this issue over time. The international outcry over the suicide of the Burmese librarian and Brunei’s stoning laws are proof that change can be made when conservative governments are pressured on unjustified actions against minorities. To help even more, people should join efforts to advocate for the decriminalization of homosexuality and homosexual acts through more-inclusive education in schools, protests, and collaboration with LGBTQ+ activist organizations and human rights associations. Slowly but surely, marginalized LGBTQ+ communities in countries around the world can hopefully have their voices heard and publicly be their true selves.
Edited by Chelsea Bean