Written by Ismail Shogo for the QA Blog series “Resistance and Subversion” curated by QA 2018 committee member Ismail Shogo.
By observing queer movements in three distinct parts of Asia – Singapore, Kazakhstan, and Lebanon – this blog series has sought to unveil principle trends in the study of comparative LGBTQ+ resistance in Asia. Against the grain of dominant Western narratives of queer resistance that often manifest as bold pride parades, queer movements in Asia remain diverse and placed within specific settings, often entailing a product of unique national forces that seek to preserve or disrupt heteronormative structures of power.
Creating Resistance, Shaping Subversion
In Lebanon, where civil society has retained a certain degree of breathing space, non-governmental organisations, including several pro-LGBTQ+ associations, have pervaded the social space. This has culminated in the orchestration of the Arab world’s first pride parade in Beirut. Against pressures from Muslim conservatives however, queer civil movements in Lebanon have sought to re-map LGBTQ+ agendas by conflating them with other political currents such as refugee rights as well as Israel’s marginalisation of Palestine. Unlike Lebanon however, Kazakhstan struggles still to generate a concerted LGBTQ+ resistance that extends beyond leisurely assemblies – a problem Shaikezhanov has attributed to strong taboos of sex as well as transphobia and internalised homophobia that has fractured the Kazakh LGBTQ+ community.
Conversely, in Singapore, against uncompromising laws as well as hostile backlash from religious conservatives, LGBTQ+ resistance has been pushed to take on less confrontational means. This has entailed a certain degree of creativity of manoeuvre in the reclamation of public space and visibility. As Thng foregrounds, activism in Singapore has thus manifested through various ‘non-confrontational’ means, including art festivals, poetry slams, as well as ostensibly innocuous placards.
Looking Beyond Borders
The dynamic between resistance and counter-resistance, however, cannot be delineated along national frontiers alone. As Shaikezhanov highlights, conservative factions from within the Kazakh leadership have appropriated anti-queer rhetoric from Russia to champion the preservation of Kazakhstan’s own heteronormative status quo. Elsewhere however, in an astonishing jujitsu of power, pro-LGBT groups have learnt to leverage on transnational currents to amplify the ambit of their cause. In one case, Lebanese non-governmental organisation HELEM has become a potent force in shaping LGBTQ+ opinion and policy in other parts of the Middle East, extending to as far as Tunisia. In addition, the group has also established contacts across the Arab world – including war-torn Syria – in a concerted effort to maintain accountability on LGBTQ+ trends where local networks otherwise cannot. This leads us to realise therefore the influence of transnational (and transcontinental) currents that cannot be ignored when deciphering how queer discourse and resistance in Asia manifests.
In all three case studies, queer social movements converge to highlight one vital point – human ingenuity. Whether through non-confrontation (Singapore), leisurely assemblies (Kazakhstan), or re-mapping of objectives (Lebanon), resistance movements have been borne out of creative imagination in creating fitting strategies – each tailored to various national contexts – to subvert heteronormative status quos. At the nexus of these movements therefore a potent force is unveiled, the power of ideas, that thus cannot be underestimated in shaping LGBTQ+ resistance in the region.
Ismail Shogo reads Political Science at the National University of Singapore, and was a former research assistant at the Middle East Institute in Singapore. His interests are in authoritarian resilience, political violence and gender in the Middle East and Africa. He tweets at @ismailshogo.
In this series: