Understanding queer Asia

In 2022, when Nancy Pelosi visited Singapore, she advocated for businesses to provide more support to the LGBT community, particularly as an increasing number of American companies establish their presence in the country. This would lead to a Singapore government statement reminding foreign businesses and governments to stay clear of  domestic issues.

Notwithstanding the topic of foreign interference, this incident is the latest in a line of discourse which implies that LGBT people, or queerness, is a Western phenomena.

This supposed global divide in acceptance of LGBT people is highlighted in an annual International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) report, with a map showing sexual orientation and gender identity laws worldwide. The map categorises countries into ‘progressive’ (bright blue) or ‘conservative’ (bright red). In this categorisation, most of Asia and Africa appear bright red.

Although many examples from Asian or ‘conservative’ countries depict queerness as a Western idea, this notion is equally propagated by the Global North. 

In 2021, Joe Biden signed an order noting: “Around the globe, including here at home, brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) activists are fighting for equal protection… The United States belongs at the forefront of this struggle.”

To most people this might seem straightforward enough. However, such simplistic representations of the world and its diverse cultures can do more harm than good. This exceptionalism not only overlooks the challenges faced by LGBT people in Global North countries and implies that all the other countries are somehow backwards, but it also reinforces the notion that western countries hold moral judgement and are responsible for rescuing the rest of the world, saving everyone from their cultures. 

“White queers saving brown queers from brown straights

Sara Ahmed

This narrative perpetuates harmful stereotypes and fails to recognize the complexities and nuances within each region.

In order to challenge and dispel these misconceptions, I’d like to share examples of diverse genders and sexualities that have existed in the Global South long before the emergence of LGBT rights in the Global North.

Bugis

In Singapore, Bugis is commonly known as a downtown area that encompasses landmarks such as the National Library alongside a range of shopping malls and art galleries. However, long before the area existed, the Bugis people formed one of the prominent communities in South East Asia. Embedded within the rich Bugis culture was the profound belief that gender extends along a spectrum. As a result, Bugis society recognised and embraced five distinct gender identities: Makkunrai, Oroané, Bissu, Calabai, and Calalai (Graham Davies 2006).

While there are parallels between Western conceptions of gender identity, sex, and sexuality, the five genders recognised by the Bugis people extend far beyond attraction to others or physical characteristics of the body. 

For example, the Bissu served as intermediaries between the Bugis people and the gods. Furthermore, the Bissu are closely linked to a female and androgynous moon goddess. They also played a central role in preserving palace rites, and played significant roles in weddings ceremonies and childbirth events (Andaya 2001).

Bakla

The Baklâ (also known as Bayor or Agî) are a distinct group of people present in the Philippines (Aggleton 1999). Assigned male at birth, they embrace a feminine gender expression. While some identify as women, others exhibit exclusive attraction to men (Ceperiano et al. 2016).

Before Western colonisation, the Baklâ held high positions and served as spiritual leaders. They enjoy social integration in various parts of Filipino society and thrive in various sectors (Benedicto 2008).

Kothi

The term ‘Kothi’  is used to describe various types of people, but generally refers to biologically male individuals who express varying degrees of femininity. They may also choose to take on a feminine role in relationships with other men. While some Hijras, another sexually diverse group from the Indian subcontinent, might fall under the category of Kothi, not all Kothi identify as Hijras (Wong et al 2016).

By highlighting these examples of diverse populations in Asia that existed before Western influence and colonisation, our aim is to foster a deeper understanding of queerness, and to dispel the notion that it is a western concept, value, or phenomenon. Queerness is an integral part of the existing social fabric across cultures.