End of Singapore’s gay sex ban is small step in Asia-Pacific
BANGKOK (AP) — Singapore’s decision to decriminalize sex between men is being hailed as a step in the right direction for LGBTQ rights in the Asia-Pacific region, a vast area of nearly 5 billion people with different laws and attitudes.
Although many places have decriminalized sexual acts between people of the same sex, only a few allow same-sex marriage, partnerships or unions. Singapore tempered its decision by saying it will amend its constitution to prevent such unions from ever taking place.
Many of the region’s bans on sex between men were instituted under British colonial rule in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the laws describe such acts as violations against the “order of nature.”
Here are some details on the situation in the Asia-Pacific region:
All states and territories repealed gay sex bans between 1975 and 1997, while Parliament legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country in 2017. The age of consent became equal for all sexual acts as of 2016. People convicted for consensual sexual acts that are no longer illegal can have their criminal records cleared.
Homosexuality is not criminalized by law, but same-sex marriage remains unlikely to be legalized in the near future. While the largest cities have vibrant LGBTQ scenes, the stigma remains strong in Chinese society. Further, LGBTQ people have little recourse in the law regarding such areas as child custody or property rights. In the past few years, Chinese LGBTQ groups have faced increasing censorship and official pushback as part of general restrictions on civil society, with one national-level organization focused on advocating LGBTQ legal rights forced to shut down last year in face of government pressure.
The Supreme Court in 2018 struck down the section of the law that punished sexual intercourse by members of the same sex by up to 10 years in prison. Despite the landmark ruling, same-sex marriage remains illegal and multiple petitions seeking legal recognition have been met with resistance by the government. Over the past decade, the LGBTQ community has gained a degree of acceptance, especially in big cities, but the community generally remains stigmatized.
Sex between consenting adults of the same sex is not illegal in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, except in conservative Aceh province. However, only marriages between a man and a woman are legal. The LGBTQ community in the country of 250 million people complains of regular harassment and persecution.
Support for sexual diversity has grown slowly, but legal protections are lacking for LGBTQ people, who often face discrimination at school, work and at home, causing many to hide their sexual identities. A number of same-sex couples have filed lawsuits demanding a right to legally marry, but court rulings have been divided. Same-sex couples cannot inherit a house or other shared assets and have no parental rights over each other’s children. They are often barred from renting apartments together, from hospital visits and from services available to married couples. About 12% of municipalities issue partnership certificates to same-sex couples since Tokyo’s Shibuya district became the first to do so in 2015. Still, it is not a marriage certificate and does not provide equal legal protection.
Malaysia has strict laws against same-sex intercourse that can result in up to 20 years’ imprisonment. A former deputy premier was jailed twice for sodomy. He was sentenced in 2000 and again in 2014, in cases that critics say were politically motivated. Parallel to its secular courts, Malaysia has an Islamic court system for Muslims that often jails and canes gays and lesbians caught by Islamic moral police for attempting to have sex. Malaysia has even tried to censor or ban movies which it deems to promote what it calls the LGBTQ lifestyle, including Disney’s recent animated film “Lightyear.”
New Zealand decriminalized gay sex in 1986. Sex between men was first made illegal in 1961, while sex between women was never specifically made illegal although was stigmatized. In 2005, New Zealand began recognizing civil unions between same-sex couples, which conferred many legal rights to gay couples -- but didn’t, for instance, allow them to jointly adopt children. In 2013, New Zealand became the first nation in the Asia-Pacific region to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2017, lawmakers took the rare step of issuing a formal apology for the “tremendous hurt and suffering” inflicted on the hundreds of men who were convicted of homosexuality during the years that it was illegal. The following year, lawmakers passed a bill that expunged historic homosexual offenses.
Taiwan legalized gay marriage in 2019, but LGBTQ activists want the law to be made more inclusive. It currently says both partners must be from a place where such marriages are already legal. So couples cannot register their marriage in Taiwan if one partner is from a place like Japan or another place where their marriage would not be legal.
Still, the island is a hotspot for LGBTQ life and its annual Pride parade attracts attendees from all over Asia. Taipei is known for having a vibrant gay community and nightlife.
Thailand is also among the most liberal nations in Asia regarding LGBTQ issues. Four bills alternatively offering to legalize either marriage equality or civil partnerships for same-sex couples passed their first readings in the House of Representatives in June. A committee is working to consolidate them into a package that lawmakers are expected to pass, which would make Thailand the first Southeast Asian country to legalize same-sex unions.
Associated Press reporters from the Asia-Pacific region contributed to this report.