On the occasion of the Salzburg Global Forum for LGBTI rights in Asia which is currently going on in Chiang Rai, Thailand, in this blog I worry that the many LGBTI activists convening there are influenced by a Western ideology for gay liberation. I discuss how confrontational communication- and advocacy approaches espoused by LGBTI rights activists could end up making life worse for a large number of non-gay-identified men who have sex with men (MSM) Asian countries, including their exclusion from essential HIV services. Finally, I plead for the reflection of localised cultures and practices when designing strategies and interventions to improve human rights and HIV outcomes.
Men who have sex with men (MSM) come in many different classes, ages, generations, religions, and genders. In Asia, only a small (usually urban and richer) minority of MSM consider themselves 'gay' and feel part of the 'LGBTI community'. A large majority of MSM in Asian countries do not have, cannot have or do not want to have an openly gay identity. They are, for socioeconomic, religious or other reasons, dependent on their family and community, and often feel part of mainstream society, and not of any kind of LGBTI community. This is the case in all Asian countries where I have worked: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Indonesia, Mongolia, Cambodia, Lao PDR, the Philippines, and probably even in 'free and open' Thailand.
One could say that non-gay identified MSM see their sexual preference for other men as a pleasurable but socially inconvenient hobby. From the outside, their strategy is to follow and adhere to mainstream society's norms and values. In private, meanwhile, they can do whatever they want, with whomever they prefer. Many Asian men I have spoken to find the Western gay rite-de-passage of 'coming out' unthinkable, and some have even described it as stupid. "Why on earth would one want to make one's parents upset and risk important relationships with friends, neighbours, religious leaders and colleagues? What would one gain by doing that?"
Local LGBTI activism and the problem of representation
Western LGBTI rights organisations and local Asian LGBT activists advocate and work to 'liberate' ostensibly repressed and oppressed men who have sex with men, and help them fulfil their right to openly love whomever they want. This is also the case for the lucky few who are currently meeting at the Salzburg Forum on LGBTI Rights in Asia in a posh five-star resort in Chiang Rai, supported by UNDP, the Swedish Government and other Western donor organisations. The local LGBTI activists from many Asian countries who are present there are often from a higher class or caste, enabling them to establish a level of independence from their families and have an at least part-time 'openly' gay life.
These local Asian LGBTI activists have been invited partly because they claim that they are able to speak on behalf of the oppressed and repressed brothers and sisters in their countries. However, this claim is very doubtful. These activists are often better connected internationally, with foreigners and fellow LGBTI activists from other countries, than to the local MSM they purport to represent. But these activists know exactly what Western LGBTI activists and donor agencies want to hear, and cater to their need to have 'local counterparts who represent the community'.
However, quite a few of these local LGBTI activists I have met understand quite little about their so-called constituents beyond a small circle of like-minded 'gay' friends. Some openly show disdain for 'hidden MSM', whom they call 'closeted', as if it is just a matter of time until they are brave enough to 'come out'. But local MSM who are not 'open' about their sexuality are not cowards; as discussed above, they rather are smart tacticians, carefully balancing social obligations with private desires.
LGBTI activism crushing locally negotiated balances between public and private
In Asian countries where the situation of MSM is now deteriorating, I believe there had been a silently agreed and carefully negotiated equilibrium, where MSM could generally do what they liked, sexually, in exchange for their agreement to do it in private. Sex between men is, in many Asian cultures, of little social concern since it does not lead to questions about marriage, inheritance, about pregnancies or about the virginity of daughters or sisters. In many Asian countries, most same-sex experiences were seen as naughty, pleasurable and probably sinful, but no-one cared much, since these behaviours were not linked to any identity that might rival those of the heterosexual mainstream.
LGBTI activism demands to change that. Rather than a behaviour, they consider same-sex attraction to be the basis of one's identity, and these identities need to be acknowledged and protected. The LGBTI movement is based on a proud Western history of struggle and an ideology of 'gay liberation', where homosexual men were encouraged to throw off the shackles of sexual repression, to stand on the barricades and tell the world that they were gay and that this was their right. LGBTI activism is therefore by nature confrontational and 'in your face', as it is impossible to 'come out' without destroying the heteronormative expectations of family members and others in the direct social environment. This confrontational approach is at complete odds with the quiet, accommodating and behind-the-scenes approach via which Asian men who love men have lived their life, in perfect harmony with their social environment for hundreds of years.
Many activities under LGBTI projects and programs in Asian countries 'proudly' promote LGBTI rights and work to normalise LGBTI identities, producing glossy guidelines and reports and holding events to inform and train journalists and other professionals. Media attention becomes inevitably focused on taboo behaviours and pleasures that previously occurred without anyone paying any attention to them. Bringing homosexuality in the realm of public debate and in the (social) media seems ultimately aimed at creating understanding and acceptance in mainstream society, and at encouraging local MSM to 'come out of the closet', and move from 'behaviour' to 'identity'. The ultimate aim must be for local MSM to organise and show themselves as gay men during pride events and parades, and to demand equal rights, including, eventually, the right to marriage.
I remember being present at a meeting during the Mexico HIV congress in 2008 where two major development agencies were celebrating a number of "brave LGBTI pioneers" from African countries, who had been supported financially and technically to organise the first gay prides in their countries. The atmosphere was one of unbridled optimism. But even then, other participants quietly expressed their fears of a coming backlash. A pride event of a few hours is not so difficult to organise, but did these activists also take the time to advocate quietly and consistently beforehand in order to obtain the backing of important allies and stakeholders in their societies? And did they ask the men who have sex with men they purportedly represented if they were ready and interested for such a gay pride event to be organised?
There has been a strong counter-reaction. In the African countries that were celebrated at the Mexico meeting, homophobic violence, attacks and murders have skyrocketed in recent years. The LGBTI initiatives in those places served as ammunition for a broader agenda of conservative Christian and Islamic groups, objecting and feeling threatened by what they see as 'gay propaganda' and a 'recruitment drive'. Ironically, many of these conservative groups receive financial support from right-wing Christian groups in Western countries, not unlike the LGBTI activists who also receive financial support from Western entities. Homosexuality has now been declared a mental illness again in Indonesia, turning back the clock by fifty (?) years. There is a serious possibility that homosexuality will soon be outlawed in this previously relatively tolerant country.
The problem with 'universal' human rights (and universal tactics to promote them)
LGBTI activism, if promoted and implemented in a 'one-size-fits-all'-approach, runs the risk of making MSM in developing countries less free. Often, LGBTI activists ignore the way in which local MSM have already carefully negotiated certain rights and privileges for themselves in the contexts of their own life situations. They have done this not in an antagonistic manner, but in a smart accommodation with the social and even religious structures of mainstream society that they live in and depend on. In recent decades, these local MSM have been helped by the increased freedom that has arrived thanks to the advances of the internet and social media. Not surprisingly, one of the first things the Indonesian anti-LGBTI-movement has announced recently was to block more than 30 gay social media applications and websites, depriving local MSM of an essential way to meet and support each other.
The global LGBTI rights agenda mostly emerged in 1970s and 1980s New York, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Sydney, Geneva or Paris, and seems to propose confrontational 'out-and-proud' strategies everywhere. Whereas goals about reducing inequality and improving access to education and health care should be universal, activists should take distinctly local sexual cultures into consideration. This includes studying and making use of distinctly local communication tactics related to exposing or not exposing sexuality-related issues, and local advocacy strategies and tactics. If they do not bother about this, these LGBTI activists will end up being like elephants in a China shop.
'Hidden MSM': How LGBTI activism reduces access of local MSM to essential HIV services
Most HIV donor agencies have now become convinced by Western and local LGBTI activists that HIV services for MSM can only be effectively delivered in the context of LGBTI community-empowerment and community-based organisations. Many if not most HIV services I have visited in Asian countries are staffed by people who are also active as LGBTI activists.
As a result, local MSM who do NOT want to be part of a gay or LGBTI community often do not feel welcome there. They are fearful to be 'discovered by association' if they are seen to be using these services and therefore are unwilling and unable to make use of them. When such HIV services fail to attract MSM without a 'gay' social identity, ironically these men are then suddenly referred to with the term 'hidden MSM'. What this term really implies is "if only these hidden MSM would not be such cowards, they would come to our clinic and get tested!" This conveniently ignores the fact that the problem lies with the inappropriate design of these HIV services. It unfairly shifts the blame on the people whose access to these services is already structurally impeded, literally by the way these services were designed. I have therefore started correcting people who use the word 'hidden MSM'. These men should be referred to as 'unreached MSM', a term which moves the 'blame' back to HIV service providers.
How to move forward?
It is unfortunate that the large majority of MSM who are not 'gay' now have to face the consequences of the 'brave gay activism' of a tiny majority in some countries. Many MSM, especially those who are young, rural and/or poor, probably do not care much for human rights, and have other urgent priorities. Indonesian MSM and those from the African countries that are facing a violent backlash now would probably much prefer to go back to the time when they could live their lives in harmony with their families and with mainstream society and continue to quietly enjoy their private sexual lives. The current situation, including state-sponsored stigma and hatred, has made their life much worse.
We need to go back to basics. We need to understand the different meanings and significance of 'human rights' in the lives of MSM whose lives we aim to improve, as well as different ways to move forward towards fulfilling these rights. This means we have to study their diverse cultures and societies, the ways in which they live, and most importantly, the socially well-tested, culturally clever and economically smart tactics and strategies they have always used to peacefully live their sexual lives and advance their own life situation in harmony with societal, religious and familial expectations.
A shocking number of HIV services in Asian countries have failed to do any social, ethnographic or marketing research to understand the diversity and segmentation of local same-sex cultures before they opened shop. Such research is essential in the design of successful and effective HIV services. Delivering HIV services under an LGBTI umbrella will attract only the most confident, read: richest, wealthiest and 'gayest' constituents of the MSM population. We need to do proper studies of same-sex cultures in different countries/regions and across different classes, castes, age groups or generations before designing HIV and sexual health services for MSM, ensuring that these services are appropriate and welcoming for them as well.
When it comes to promoting the common goal of improved human rights and better development outcomes for MSM, including more welcoming and effective HIV services, let us celebrate the diversity of the populations we are trying to reach with the application of a greater diversity of strategies and tactics to advance these goals.