By Ging Cristobal
As a representative of the Asia and Pacific Program of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission’s I had the opportunity to engage with activists participating in the 7th ASEAN Peoples’ Forum. The ASEAN Civil Society Conference / ASEAN Peoples’ Forum is an annual event held parallel with the ASEAN summit. This civil society conference is organized to provide a venue to discuss topics that are important to people in the ASEAN countries and is also a space for civil society groups to interact and network to promote mutual understanding about diverse cultures, histories, political systems, social and economic structures among the peoples of ASEAN countries. The People’s Forum has become an important way to communicate with the region’s leaders – the recommendations and the final statement from the forum are communicated to the ASEAN government leaders in forms of face-to-face meetings and public statements.
For LGBT activists the People’s Forum seemed a great opportunity and the 1st LGBTIQ ASEAN Regional Meeting was organized in Jakarta, Indonesia – consisting of:
- The LGBT Regional Caucus on May 2, 2011 hosted by the organization Arus Pelangi; and
- attendance at the 7th ASEAN Civil Society Conference from May 3 – 5, 2011, including hosting a LGBTIQ Workshop on May 4th – entitled, “Promotion and Protection of Human Rights of LGBTIQ in ASEAN.”
This 7th Civil Society Conference became the first ASEAN Peoples’ Forum that included LGBTIQs as a specific focus area (along with Minorities/Indigenous Peoples) and also the first with a specific workshop addressing LGBTIQ concerns.
The LGBT Regional Caucus
Forty ASEAN LGBTIQ activists from 8 of the 10 ASEAN member countries participated in the meeting. Activists from Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam gathered for the first time as a group in Jakarta to discuss, brainstorm and present the concerns and issues faced by ASEAN LGBTIQ people from their countries. The group came up with draft recommendations to be presented during the workshop at the People’s Forum. The outcomes of the meeting included creating a network of ASEAN LGBTIQ activists and strengthening and maintaining visibility in the region. A mailing list will be created to continue communication & network since LGBTIQ groups have committed to use the ASEAN People’s Forum as a regional platform for LGBT rights advocacy.
Workshop for the “Promotion and Protection of Human Rights of LGBTIQ in ASEAN”
The workshop had three speakers. Anne Lim from GALANG, an LGBT group from the Philippines presented a paper titled, “Going Grassroots: The Role of Local Organizing in Philippines LGBT Rights Advocacy”. She presented the urban-poor community-organizing her group has been doing with lesbians in two of the barangays (the smallest political unit in the Philippines). Brian Choong from the Singapore group Oogachaga – a counseling and personal development group aimed at individuals and communities of all sexual orientations and genders – presented the highlights of the LGBT Regional Caucus meeting and its three draft recommendations for discussion among workshop participants.
As one of the three speakers in the workshop, I discussed the challenges faced by LGBTIQ in the region and regional mechanisms LGBT groups can engage with – such as the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR); the ASEAN Commission for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC); and the Asia Pacific Forum. I focused in particular on the recommendation on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) recently made by the Advisory Council of Jurists (ACJ) and also looked at how the Yogyakarta Principles [http://yogyakartaprinciples.org/] can be promoted in ASEAN countries. I was also there to promote and launch the Courage Unfolds video documentary that was screened during the Solidarity night and as an event during the People’s Forum.
Advocating for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) Rights During the ASEAN Civil Society Conference
Aside from the discussion of these issues at the workshop the three recommendations that came out of the LGBTIQ caucus and were affirmed in the workshop, there was another important strategy that I surfaced during the caucus meeting. This was for LGBTIQ activists to attend the different non-SOGI specific workshops at the Civil Society conference and to use those as a platform to discuss SOGI issues and recommend their inclusion in the three recommendations that each conference workshop had to submit at the end of the session. The recommendations from all thirty-three workshops together formed the basis for the final statement of the 7th Peoples’ Forum. On the final day of the People’s Forum during the drafting of the final statement, I was able to work with Yuli Rustinawati from Arus Pelangi and Thilaga Sulathireh of Justice For Sisters from Malaysia to make sure that SOGI issues were incorporated in the final statement of the Forum. In the end we added LGBTIQ issues under the clusters of Child Rights and Youth, Gender and Women’s Rights, and Right to Health: Universal Access to Health Care (under the Transformative Social Protection cluster).
The three recommendations from the LGBTIQ workshop that were included in the final statement were demands to ASEAN member States to:
- Repeal laws that directly and indirectly criminalize SOGI, recognize LGBTIQ rights as human rights, and harmonize national laws, policies and practices with the Yogyakarta Principles.
- Establish national level mechanisms and review existing regional human rights instruments (AIHRC, ACWC) to include the promotion and protection of the equal rights of all people regardless of SOGI with the active engagement of the LGBTIQ community.
- Depathologize SOGI and promote psychosocial well-being of people of diverse SOGI in accordance with the World Health Organization (WHO) standards, and ensure equal access to health and social services.
Reaction from the LGBTIQ Activists
The success of having a legitimate space for LGBTIQ groups in the People’s Forum was a first step and a big achievement by itself. Most, if not all, LGBTIQ groups in the region have not had the opportunity to engage with more mainstream civil society organizations and much less with the government even in their own country.
It’s hard to predict the effectiveness of engagement of LGBTIQ groups with ASEAN governments through the People’s Forum. Since the civil society space’s conception in 2005 very few developments have been achieved by mainstream civil society organizations in engaging and influencing ASEAN states to take account of the recommendations from the Peoples’ Forum.
But as evidenced from the fact that no one raised an issue with there being an LGBTIQ workshop and nobody questioned the incorporation of LGBTIQ issues in the final statement, the conference provided a real venue for partnership with mainstream groups from activists’ own countries and even those from across the region. This has presented a big opportunity to mainstream SOGI issues and it is now up to LGBTIQ groups in Asia to take advantage of this position and to engage with mainstream civil society organizations in their countries.
“This is the right time for the ASEAN to follow the recommendation from the civil society groups because people with diverse SOGI have been suppressed and discriminated across Asia by means of religion, culture and by means of law and so this is the right time since ASEAN have been claiming that ASEAN should be people-centered. They must never forget that LGBT are part of the society. We are not the problem of society.
I was pleased to see the big crowd that attended the LGBT workshop because as before the LGBT issue is always a taboo issue, like nobody wants to talk about it because of culture & religion. It was good to see non-LGBT people in the room as well as seeing LGBT people because we can engage in discussion and a good build up of solidarity and our movement with non-LGBT people. This is a good sign and I am very happy about this.”
–Ang Myo Min, HREIB, Burma
“It’s a good strategy that we are trying to include LGBT and SOGI issue in the different workshop on labor, women and children because there are LGBT people in those groups and they are not discussing LGBT issues. It’s good that when we go in the workshop e discuss about this & make them include SOGI issues in their work. Next year Cambodia will be the host of the ASCS/APF and for sure SOGI issues will be included in the workshops.”
–Srorn Srun, Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK), Cambodia
“It’s my first time to attend a regional workshop and I feel it’s very important to share my voice specially they do not know about LGBT issues particularly about transgender men in Asia. Being the person to read the recommendations and doing it spontaneously, I did not feel any fear and being proud of myself. I am happy & relieved that LGBT issues are included in the statement of the APF. Now, everyone in the region will now know about it. To my surprise, some if not most, are interested and are concern about our issues. Now is the best time to engage with other groups and work with them.”
–Rio, Transman from Indonesia
“This is very interesting for me since this is my first time to join a regional event and meet friends from ASEAN countries. I just started the Galaya group last year. It’s great to learn about what other groups are doing & I think I need a lot more to learn and I think it is important to bring other Thai activists so that they will also learn what we are doing in the region.
–Sumon Unsathit, Galaya Club, Thailand
“This is the first time Vietnam participated in a regional event on LGBT rights and the feeling is very nice. As a young Vietnamese lesbian it is important for us to learn about the LGBT issues from other countries, see the difficulties they face and the achievements they have gained so that when we go back to Vietnam we can share with others what we learned and also do the activities in our country. I was so happy when I saw the room packed with people. I see it as many people care about LGBT issues in Asia. The workshop was done very well specially the Yogyakarta Principles.”
–NGUYỄN HẢI YẾN | Project Manager, ICS – Information Connecting and Sharing, Vietnam
“As the organizers of the event, we only had 2 months to prepare for the event and since this is the first time LGBTIQ will be included in the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum we were not expecting too much but are more curious how other civil society organization see us face-to-face. I was so surprised in the attendance, we were expecting forty people but there were more than 80 people who attended the event, we can’t even close the door and even have to ask for more chairs to accommodate people. It’s also surprising to hear non-LGBT people not criticizing us but more on helping us. It’s really amazing! It’s very good we are moving forward!”
–Yuli Rustinawati, Arus Pelangi, Indonesia
The space to address LGBTIQ in the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples’ Forum is now ours and this can only be maintained and strengthened with the active participation and advocacy work of LGBTIQ groups in ASEAN member states. As the final call from the LGBTIQ Caucus statement said, “for a people-centered ASEAN, LGBTIQ rights now!”