Out in The City

 |  May 27, 2011

That great swathe of South East Asia, tropically sandwiched ‘twixt India and China holds an endless fascination for western gay men. Legends of the epicurean delights, exclusive to the region, spread to Europe via returning French and Dutch pioneers and despite the modern global village, the exotic draw is stronger than ever. Contemporary explorers would be hard pushed to find a better base than Chiang Mai to venture out into Indochina.

Malaysia retains its colonial era penal code and there is zero recognition of gay rights as fundamentalist Islamic ideas have a heavy influence on the nation’s laws, politics and social attitudes. Despite this, the gay scene in Kualar Lumpar is thriving. The juxtaposition of reality and draconian laws is startling. Gays are banned from appearing on state controlled media – imagine the cultural desert this would create in the west!

There are no anti gay laws in Cambodia but the official line is that society does not accept homosexuality and many Cambodians think the country does not have any gays. Regardless of this ‘non-existence’, discrimination against homosexuals is common in the workplace, family and community and there is enormous pressure to marry. In another contradiction, the Cambodian authorities officially approved a marriage between two women in 1995.

Homosexuality is legal in Laos but it is difficult to assess the state of acceptance and violence that gays face as the government does not allow NGOs to conduct human rights polls. Laos is one of the most tolerant communist states with a growing acceptance of homosexuality. However, gay men are far likelier to be tolerated than lesbians. Despite such progress, discrimination still exists and the word gay is replaced by the delightful acronym; PLUS- people like us.

In Vietnam, same-sex sexual activity is lawful but couples are not eligible for the same legal protections available to opposite-sex relationships. This socially conservative morality is probably a result of the Confucian emphasis on family and tradition where homosexuality is comparable to prostitution, gambling and illegal drug use. There are signs that opinions that are more liberal may exist. Indeed, it is now possible for foreign gays to marry here.

Along with fines, the punishment for being gay in Burma is ten years to life. Gay marriage is unrecognised even if it was performed in another nation. The current political climate is such that no organised gay life can exist. Aung Myo Min is an openly gay man. In 2005 he talked about coming out and the homophobia that is all pervasive. Today he is involved with exile Burma human rights organisations. No wonder Chiang Mai is home to so many gay Burmese. Singapore suffers similar strictures but at least the gay scene there is organised, albeit very discreetly. Having digested all that, you may wish to stay in Thailand, the heart of Indochina, where although legal gay equality remains a seemingly distant goal, social tolerance is matchless.

James Barnes is editor-in-chief of OUT in Thailand Magazine.