The Democratic People’s Republic of Laos also called Laos for short, has the reputation of being one of the most tolerant communist countries for the LGBTQ + community. On the other hand, the first research shows that the online hit rate for LGBT topics is negligible. Comparatively, Google listed numerous videos of LGBT series or pride events in Vietnam, so the results for Laos are hardly worth mentioning. This should be characteristic of the situation of the LGBTQ+ Community in the Southeast Asian country, as we will show you in this article… Couple of Men reporter Sarah traveled around the Asian country alone as a woman and could get an idea of about the local LGBTQ+ community in Laos. After Georgia, Lebanon, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Russia, she is now analyzing the country regarding gay and LGBTQ+ rights in Laos for Couple of Men.
written by Sarah Tekath
translated by Karl Krause
Proud To Be Us: First & only LGBT rights Organization
But there is one organization in Laos that works for LGBT people in the country. It was founded in 2012 by Anan Bouapha. However, he clarifies in our conversation that Proud to be us (PTBU) is not an NGO. “NGOs are subject to state control in Laos. That is why we call ourselves a Civil Society Organization (CSO).” The word activism is also not used. Instead, the LGBT lawyers in Laos switch to the vague word advocacy.
Supported of the United States Embassy in Laos’ capital city Vientiane, and motivated by the LGBTQ+ rights campaign of the presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, PTBU organized the first pride event in the country’s history in 2017. However, it was not a public parade, but a festival of sexual diversity on the sports field of the embassy site. Over 300 visitors were counted throughout the day. “A parade would not be possible in Laos due to the legal situation. Groups of more than 20 people are considered an unauthorized demonstration.” Even today, three years later, Bouapha does not believe that the government would be willing to issue a parade permit.
Nonetheless, the Laotian government has now put HIV / AIDS prevention on its agenda. The Ministry of Health is now pursuing the National Strategic Plan on HIV / AIDS Prevention. Concepts for education in schools are also planned, since sexual diversity, venereal diseases and contraception have so far been addressed only marginally. The IDAHOBIT, short for the international day against homophobia and transphobia, which first took place in Laos in 2015, was also broadcast on state television. The 2017 event was also attended by some representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In this context, Bouapha emphasizes the good relationship between the PTBU and the Laotian government. “We are very grateful for their acceptance and their good initiatives because this starts to change things. Without this support and without government permission, we would not have gotten this far. PTBU’s strategy is to build a friendly relationship with the authorities in order to create a positive environment.”
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Check the political situation carefully
Political activism and public demands for one’s own rights are still difficult in Laos. “Many of us have learned from our grandparents and parents that it can be risky to open your mouth,” says the founder of PTBU. That is why many young people in the family still advise that they prefer to be quiet to not provoke any trouble. The number of LGBT NGOs in Laos (as a reminder: there is only one) illustrates the insecurity of the population to stand up for political issues. “People are afraid to stand up for their hearts. They prefer to test the water first to see how the government reacts,” said Bouapha.
Even though homosexuality is not considered illegal in Laos. Unlike in former British colonies with their strict gay laws, French dominance was relatively liberal. “No one in Laos is arrested by the police just for being gay,” said the activist. Homosexuals are also allowed to serve in the army and transgender people enter temples in traditional clothing. However, there are no anti-discrimination laws.
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Lack of understanding and discrimination
LGBT is a topic that hardly ever comes up in public in Laos. Lattavanh Sengdala can also confirm this from her personal experience. “I am a trans woman, my sister is a trans man, but my family had no understanding of what LGBTQI actually means. At that time, only the terms Kateray (trans woman) and Tom (lesbian or trans man) were vaguely known,” she stated in an interview. “Parents often tell their children that being LGBT is dangerous because members of the community would steal or be involved in drug trafficking.”
There was also little understanding of sexual diversity at school since mostly only the topic of reproduction was addressed to the younger generation. “When I was 10 years old, the other children at school tried to take my pants off by force because they wanted to check my genitals,” Sengdala recalls. “I couldn’t talk to my parents or teachers about it. Because teachers often participate in bullying and discrimination. In high school, a homophobic teacher broke my sunglasses during an attack. ”
During school, she began to stand up for topics like drug abuse and human trafficking, and through a friend from the gay community, she learned about the HIV prevention program at the New Friends Drop-in Health Center, where she volunteered. She also became active as a project manager at PTBU, where she declared to be proud of her identity during the broadcast on public television on the Day Against Homo- and Transphobia. However, Sengdala has now ended her work at PTBU and is aiming for a career in the fashion sector. Part of her project also includes free tailoring workshops for LGBT people, especially trans women.
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LGBT career: considered to be cute but not professional
Members of the LGBT community in Laos are increasingly experiencing discrimination and restrictions in their professional field and work environment.
According to Bouapha, surveys from a state-commissioned study by the Faculty of Law at Vientiane University show that more than half of all LGBT people in Laos take longer than average to find a job. This applies in particular to transgender women, whose access to the labor market is often limited to jobs with low income and few career opportunities. “A trans woman with a university degree still works in the cleaning service of a hotel,” says the human rights activist.
If it even gets to the point where trans people graduate, Sengdala explains. Because many would drop out of college early. The reasons for this are state school uniforms. Men wear trousers, women long skirts, and long hair typical for pupils’ dress code in Laos schools. Anyone who wants to dress and live out according to their sexual identity inevitably would run into trouble.
This is also related to a specific idea of LGBT in Laotian society. In this context, the words “cheerful”, “funny” and “entertaining” are often mentioned. “People like to spend time with gays because we are supposed to be in a good mood. That’s why you see them in jobs in the entertainment industry, but nobody can imagine a gay man as head of a bank or as a doctor,” says Bouapha. According to the activist, this is directly related to the Thai pop culture, since the stereotype of the gay best friend is exaggerated in films and series.
Within the LGBT community, trans people would also face additional difficulties because, like gays or lesbians, they cannot disguise themselves as cis-genders in the heterosexual norm of the business world. “That’s why only jobs in beauty salons, in fashion design, in restaurants, or in the sex industry are left as opportunities,” says the activist.
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LGBTQ+ in Laos: Acceptance through greater visibility
In Laos, LGBT people find themselves in a situation where diversity and sexuality are given little space and attention in public. Therefore, the question arises to what extent acceptance can really be spoken of if something is not visible anyway and the recognizable little is completely minimized instead of being taken seriously. At least this state of affairs should make traveling to Laos relatively safe for international queer and LGBTQ+ travelers, even if it is not common to show affection in public anyway. But the situation remains difficult for the local LGBT people. Even if laws guarantee the legal status of homosexuality, there is still a very long way to go before equality can be achieved. For this, you would need greater visibility of the LGBT community.
Photo Source: Proud To Be Us (PTBU) / Unsplash
Information Source:Proud To Be Us (PTBU) / Wikipedia
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