Point of no return: a daunting future of ASEAN LGBTIQ community living in COVID-19 pandemic
Despite being claimed to bring benefit to the majority of people, the measures adopted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its member states to curb the infection of COVID-19 - ranging from partial/total lockdown, restriction of movement, contact tracing to surveillance – have exacerbated the pre-existing vulnerabilities of marginalised communities, particularly people with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC), also known by the term Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer (LGBTIQ) in the region.
The community, whose needs for equal treatment and opportunities in all sectors have been denied by the member states on daily basis due to the pre-existing conservative patriarchal, religious, as well as hetero- and cis-normative values imposed by society in the region, are now forced to live in a precarious future because of the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected more than 90,000 people with around 2000 deaths across the Southeast Asia region (Dezan Shira & Associates, 2020).
Many LGBTIQ individuals, who work in informal and gig economy sector - a type of job that usually comes on a short-term temporary basis with daily or weekly wages - are at risk of losing their income without job security, as businesses are slowing down due to the movement restrictions. A rapid assessment made by an LGBTIQ coalition in Indonesia has revealed about 640 transwomen (especially those who are working in the beauty and arts industry, and transwomen as sex workers) have significantly lost their daily income, subsequently affecting their ability to meet their basic needs.
The self-quarantine/lockdown period also affects the community's safety and security, as the risk of becoming victim of domestic abuse and violence increases.
LGBTIQ individuals who have lost their daily income might not be able to pay their rent and have no other choice than to move back in with their closed or extended family members, who might become the main perpetrator of rejection, discrimination, and violence against their LGBTIQ family members (Nguyen, T. Q, 2015; Poore, 20016; O’ Connell, 2015; Kirnandita, 2019), manifested from having a pre-existing conservative and LGBTIQ-phobia mindset.
The same risks are also experienced by those who live together with their partner. A study from the UN Women during 2019 - 2020 has revealed an alarming fact on the increase of prevalence of domestic violence conducted by their intimate sexual or non-sexual partner against women, including LBQ women. Amidst the COVID-19 situation, being quarantine or lock-downed together with their abuser is a nightmare for every individual.
In the area of surveillance, the contact tracing system implemented by the ASEAN member states can also potentially increase offline and cyber-bullying, as well as “outing" for LGBTIQ individuals.
The recent situation in South Korea, where the Government's tracing system had managed to point on individual who had been partying in Seoul's gay district to initiate new infection and consequently requiring those who attended the same party to report and got tested, illustrates how the system can potentially expose individuals' sensitive identity and create further backlash from religious and populist society against the outed individiuals and the community. (Thoreson, 2020)
Fear of potential outing and discrimination has also made LGBTIQ living with HIV/AIDS reluctant to seek medical care except in a very urgent situation. A recent rapid assessment conducted by the author in Indonesia has revealed a disturbing reality in which people were being asked about their HIV status in a non-private and non-confidential setting during the COVID-19 assessment in emergency facilities ran by local hospitals, causing inconvenience especially for those who are living with HIV/AIDS. Consulting their health problem then can be more problematic since it will possibly give them double stigma: infected with HIV and COVID-19.
The aforementioned examples illustrate how the measures taken so far by ASEAN member states might disproportionately affect LGBTIQ individuals across the region. Five months since it was declared as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), it is unfortunate that little has been done by the ASEAN member states to address the challenges experienced by vulnerable and marginalised community in the region.
Neither the states have adopted perspective on gender and sexuality on responding to the COVID-19 emergencies, nor it has upheld the human rights and dignity of all people regardless of any basis.
Instead, most of the ASEAN member states have prepared themselves to gradually resuming activities under more strict movement restrictions and surveillance. Some countries have also established a plan to deploy the military as well as law enforcement apparatuses to enforce the "new normal" rule, inciting concerns from civil society organisations on the potential abuse of power and adverse impact, particularly on vulnerable community and human rights defenders.
ASEAN, with pre-existing repressive laws and practices that exclude already too many of LGBTIQ community from having equal opportunity to get their basic needs (ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, 2017), is now becoming more restricted for civic and democratic space. With the current political dynamics in ASEAN, aspiration to demand accountability at national, regional, and international levels seems very far from realisation. In such a daunting situation, what matters the most is to build and solidarity and resilience from within, piercing through all boundaries including economic and socio-cultural. With this, LGBTIQ individuals and their community can be prepared and vigilant to face challenges in the future.
Hanung is a human rights defender from Indonesia and is currently working with the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA). He enjoys books of various genres and any kind of coffee. Views are strictly his own
This article was first published under SHAPE-SEA’s Digital Project entitled, “Southeast Asia in Crisis: Opinions on the State of Human Rights and Peace in the Time of COVID-19”
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