Courage Unfolds: LGBT activism in Asia


A few weeks ago I had the privilege of performing a couple of poems at a screening and discussion of Courage Unfolds, a documentary about LGBT* activism in Asia. The event was organised by the Australian GLBTIQ Multicultural Council.

I was impressed with the scope of the film – the filmmakers had interviewed activists from a dozen or more different countries, including India, Thailand, the Phillipines, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. I felt the film was sensitive to the varied political and cultural contexts of these societies, and engaged with the diverse approaches and political backgrounds of activist groups. It looked at social, cultural and legal manifestations of oppression and its sources in the state, colonial history, religious teaching, family values and more.

I liked that the film didn’t solely attribute queer oppression to religion and culture, and resisted the doctrine of queer oppression as part of “Asian values”. If I were to make one criticism of the film, it would be of the “re-enactment” scenes – dramatisations of real-life violence, primarily against trans women, that I found both harrowing and unnecessary.

Afterwards there was a discussion about how queers in Australia could support these movements. The organisers and much of the crowd was made up of Asian migrants, some of whom expressed guilt about leaving instead of staying to fight. I appreciated that several people pointed out that Asian queers don’t need Western pity, and that despite having much more legal protections and rights, cities like Melbourne also have higher incidences of street violence compared to, say, Singapore.

Someone else in the audience asked about the effect of religious extremism on Asian societies. I think it’s important to be able to reconcile your faith with your gender and sexuality and some activists have been effective in lending queerness more cultural legitimacy by reinterpreting sacred texts or finding religious leaders to advocate for queer & trans rights. But I also think that complex and sometimes contradictory cultural phenomena can be reduced to “religion”, ignoring other factors and also diversity between and within religions. I wanted to point out that the People’s Republic of China is secular (and was for a time aggressively atheist), has no specific laws against homosexuality and allows trans people to change their ID cards and marry other sex partners – but in my experience it has plenty of unpublicised repression and a much less active, visible and powerful queer movement than in Malaysia, a more religious and also more democratic society.

I think solidarity is invaluable when it’s well-informed and responsive to the needs of the specific community in question. But I have seen some well-meaning gestures that would produce devastating effects, like Dan Savage calling for cuts in aid to African nations which have homophobic laws. Queer liberation happens as part of a broad struggle for freedom and social justice. I think we support queer movements by supporting the development of a robust civil society and critical and progressive political culture in general.

* LGBT is the abbreviation used by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, who co-produced the film and seems to be the dominant abbreviation globally. It’s also true to the film which (from memory) didn’t really address intersex issues specifically. Personally I like GLBTI because I think it truthfully reflects the priorities many organisations have, with gay men at the front.

Jinghua Qian

Author: Jinghua Qian

Jinghua Qian is a Shanghai-born cultural commentator living in Boonwurrung and Wurundjeri country. Eir work focuses on marginalisation and resistance, and spans verse, prose, performance and broadcast. Jinghua has written for Overland, Sydney Morning Herald, and SBS, performed at Melbourne Writers Festival and The Famous Spiegeltent, and presented multilingual queer programming for 3CR Community Radio.

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