The second session of the meeting discussed aspects related to the negotiation of multiple sexual identities being politically expressed within Asia, but are denied recognition by states. However, some are just starting to gain some visibility and rights.
Saira Shameen, from the Gender and Development Program of the Asian and Pacific Development Centre in Malaysia, chaired the session that examined the complex interplay of sexuality and power and how people wage battles on various fronts to carve out space for the realization of human rights. Another important issue raised was the methods used by conservative forces such as systems of religious and political control, barriers to health services, and also what the strategies are people make as resources in order to cope with these obstacles.
The presentation by the founder of the GaYa NUSANTARA Foundation of Indonesia, Dedé Oetomo, focused on the lived experiences of Indonesian male-to-female transgenders (waria), gay men and men who have sex with men (MSM), specifically on how they do or do not construct contextualized identities in their daily lives within their communities.
Waria refers to all kinds of males, including intersex people, who construct their genders differently from what societies would like them to. They might perform bodily modifications and, since the 1970’s, hormonal oral contraception has been often used for this purpose. In 1973, the local court of Jakarta approved the first sex change operation and formalized a legal channel to ensure access to sex re-assignment. However, the political terrain is not the same for waria people in different regions of the country. If a Waria lives in a Muslim community, for instance, she may not always crossdress. In Manago, for example, there are “closeted waria” who only crossdress in the dressing room before a pageant, but when they return home become full “men” once again.
The two issues that are of highest concern for Indonesian waria in the present days are the violence perpetrated by state and non state actors, such as militia men who gained much space after democratization in 1998, as well as employment opportunities. State violence usually occurs when someone looks transgendered but her identity card states a male gender. “Some waria don’t keep an ID card in order to avoid this kind of harrassment. In addition, 34 percent of waria are HIV positive and as clients of health services they always face the dilemma of what gender they will be assigned.
In Dede’s words: “Anthropology scholars who studied religion inform us that religious expressions start locally, then they become more generalized, and finally they are perceived as global phenomena. The same is happening to the waria. Their identity was local and non problematic, but since waria was legitimized by the state in the 1970’s it also started to become problematic. As dogmatic Islam gradually gained strength, problems have intensified. Today conservative mullahs openly attack the pluralist, the feminist, the more liberal Muslims, LGBT activists, and also warias. These create tensions amongst these groups and in state spheres.”
According to Dedé, the discussions around the pornography bill that was passed in Congress in December 2008 were highly controversial. Although it is a rather restrictive law, it should be said, however, that these debates made it easier to talk about sexuality issues in Indonesia.
Professor Pimpawun Boonmongkon, from the Center for Health Policy Studies of the Mahidol University, Thailand, then presented research findings on the diversity and fluidity of identities and sexuality of Thai women living with HIV/AIDS. In Thai society, as well as in other contexts, good women are women who have sex only within marriage. But her research shows that Thai women who are diagnosed as HIV positive experience sharp shifts in their perceptions about gender roles and in their behavior. For example, when their partners die, while they go through deep mourning, afterwards they become sexually active again. Sometimes this is aimed at fulfilling the script of being a good mother. But many other times these women engage with new sexual partners, preferring shorter-term casual relationships because they are not sure whether these men will or not accept their HIV status. Many of them are also peer group leaders.
Paradoxically as it may seem, stigma attached to HIV status leads towards a new sense of agency amongst these women, who start exploring their bodies and exercising their rights and choices regarding reproduction in ways that were not typical of their behavior before been exposed to HIV. It should be noted that exercising reproductive choices is not exactly so simple because very often HIV positive women are compelled by institutions and communities to not keep their babies if they get pregnant.
These research findings indicate that state policies are challenged to recognize the shifts in women’s identities and practices as their lives change under the impact of HIV. In the words of Dr. Boonmongkon, this is a big challenge because today, “As main targets, policy frames have female sex workers and housewives. While the former are told to use condoms the latter are requested to behave properly. The housewives, for example, are told to not dress too sexy. HIV seems to have open new venues for these women to exercise their agency. However, at the same time they remain at risk of being re-infected and have very limited access to sexual health and rights.”
The third presentation in this session addressed the rights of transgender people. Khartini Slamah, from the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) started by raising concerns about the re-labeling of transgender people as men who have sex with men in the discourse of international and national HIV/AIDS agencies. This trend, in her view, undermines transgenders’ access to services, the possibilities for innovative peer led programs, as well as restricts opportunities to identify and address transgender health as human rights issues.
She also talked about the variation of cultural meanings recalling that “transgenderism is a western terminology.” She remarked that in the Indian context, hijras, have historically had a recognized social status. This is also found in other Asian countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, where there are many local terms to name transgender persons. This is an important aspect to be considered when these communities are claiming rights. She also reminded that while today it is relatively easy to talk about transgenderism in Asia, Europe, North America and Latin America, it is very rare to hear about African transgender persons, as if they do not exist. As a result, in Africa the MSM language prevails in the approach of UNAIDS and other agencies.
Malu Marin, from the Philippines, called attention to the fact that in Asia female to male transgender persons remain an invisible group and topic among social movements engaged in sexual politics: “It is important to understand the origin of this silence,” she said. Being part of the lesbian movement in the region, I can retrace back how this tension has evolved. When feminists started organizing in the 1970’s a strong ‘anti-butch’ position crystallized. As a result butch lesbians have never had a space in the feminist movement. We need these cross-identity dialogues because in the Asian region most debates about sexuality are framed in terms of HIV/AIDS, even today. It is critical to go back to realm of sexuality itself in order to move beyond these limitations.”
Nike Esiet from Action Health Nigeria, who is a member of SPW assessed the session as a very illuminating debate with regard to the meanings of sexual diversity. “Usually we tend to conflate issues and experiences, in particular in respect to transgenders. I have learned a lot from this session because in Africa we experience a denial of diversity. And sexual diversity must be brought up because when the rights of one person are denied, the rights of all people are denied. ”