Regional Coordinator of ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, a regional network that works for the promotion and protection of human rights of LGBTIQ persons in the Southeast Asian region. This opinion piece expresses their own personal views. Ryan acknowledges their colleagues, namely, Nguyen Hai Yen, Lini Zurlia and Jan Gabriel Castaneda, who all contributed in producing a rapid needs assessment report cited in this opinion piece.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been a complex and challenging political terrain for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer (LGBTIQ) activism. The unholy concoction of conservative religious or traditional discourses and colonial penal laws resulted to criminalization of LGBTIQ persons. Five countries in ASEAN, namely, Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore, have domestic laws that criminalize consensual sexual relations, imposing penalties ranging from imprisonment, to public caning, and worse, death. Four countries, namely, Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar, apply domestic laws that restrict expressions of gender diversity, resulting to arrests, harassment and imprisonment of transgender and gender diverse persons. In many development programs, LGBTIQ and gender diverse persons are left-behind, leveraging on scant local support in the fringes of governance and development aid. These are part of the litany of issues many LGBTIQ groups in the region have been confronting for years.
When the region is hit with COVID-19 pandemic, pre-existing concerns is intensified. A paper by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2020 pointed out the challenges that confront LGBTIQ persons during the pandemic are varied. Among the challenges are homophobic attacks against LGBTIQ groups under the guide of health emergency measures; increased exposure to domestic violence when stay-at-home directives leaves no options but prolonged confinement in unsupportive households; and the loss of income and livelihood among LGBTIQ persons working in the informal sector.
Noting the impact of the pandemic to LGBTIQ persons, the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus conducted a rapid needs assessment involving local LGBTIQ organizations in the region. One glaring key finding is that organizational capacity and resources is not sufficient, and this might hamper sustained and effective responses to emerging needs and concerns of their members and communities.
Many local LGBTIQ organizations are underfunded, mostly relying on short-term, activity-focused or project-based and restricted funding. A report (Funders for LGBTQ Issues and Global Philanthropy Project, 2018) pointed out that only around 26% of global funding for LGBTIQ activism was allocated for general operating support. Meanwhile, only 14% of transgender organizations in Asia were reported to have received at least one grant. Such low funding allocation hampered the growth of many local groups (Scamell, 2019). These figures are indicative of the low investments given to build and sustain operations of local groups, much more when they are confronting crisis situations.
Several LGBTIQ groups also experienced cancelled projects such as trainings, workshops, and other public campaign activities (ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, 2020). Some funders have backed-out from the agreed funding, others were left with no choice but to reschedule the grants to a later time (ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, 2020). An immediate response made by groups was to negotiate with funders to reallocate pre-existing project funds to enable them to do emergency response while others resorted to on-line fundraising activities with their members and allies. Some used their organizational savings, which consequently may impact their future operations. There were organizational leaders who had to use their own personal savings. Despite funding limitations, local groups continued to distribute food supplies, and health and hygiene supplies for their members and constituents.
There is also the shift in terms of strategy. Across ASEAN, many civil society organizations have shifted to online space, and this consequently led to a noticeable increase in the number of webinars organized since the crisis hit the region face front. For some activists, this shift to online space is viewed as a reckless move, in which it is unmindful of the inequalities in access to technology and to the Internet.
In lieu of cancelled or suspended activities, the LGBTIQ groups have started to redirect their focus to address the pressing concerns of their members, constituents or communities (ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, 2020). Different groups have reported about the need to go back to the drawing board and revise their work plans. One group from Indonesia reported that within 2020 they would prioritize mobilization of emergency fund for the community.
At the individual level, the pandemic’s impact is also felt. The reality is that many persons engage in LGBTIQ activism in their voluntary capacity. Just like the others, LGBTIQ activists involve in part-time or freelance job and small businesses are greatly affected (ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, 2020). An activist from Thailand pointed out that there is no guarantee that the government’s socio-economic relief such as cash assistance will reach LGBTIQ informal workers such as those in the salons or those engaged in “sex work”. An activist from Cambodia pointed out significant income losses in their social enterprise, which fuels their organization.
Individual level impact, in the case of volunteer activists has ripples at the organizational level. As pointed out by an activist from Vietnam, as a result of the crisis, their members will focus on their own livelihood and thus may weaken their motivation to work with the organization (ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, 2020).
The COVID-19 pandemic is an on-going crisis; newer concerns, challenges and needs of LGBTIQ groups will continue to unfold. One immediate concern is to ensure that local groups survive and sustain, as they are integral elements in civil society. As such, governments, donors, humanitarian agencies and fellow civil society actors need to underscore organizational development support in their on-going crisis response. The pandemic does not simply expose groups to a new frontier of activism, but it also calls for a serious check-in. But the question is, are we ready?
ASEAN SOGIE Caucus (2020). Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic on LGBTIQ Organizations in ASEAN: Rapid Needs Assessment. [Unpublished Report]
Funders for LGBTQ Issues and Global Philanthropy Project (2018). Global Resources Report: Government and Philanthropic Support for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Communities, 2015/2016.
Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (2020). COVID-19 and the Human Rights of LGBTI People, April 17. In https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/LGBT/LGBTIpeople.pdf
Scamell, D. (2019). The State of Trans Funding: Funder Briefing. New York: Global Philanthropy Project, American Jewish World Service, Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice and GATE.