Resistance and Subversion: Queer Movements Across Asia Concluding Remarks – A Comparative Outlook of Singapore, Kazakhstan, and Lebanon

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: 

Resistance and Subversion: Queer Movements Across Asia – Lebanon

Written by Ismail Shogo for the QA Blog series Resistance and Subversion curated by QA 2018 committee member Ismail Shogo.

The Arab world witnessed its first gay pride event in Beirut early this year, a culmination of years of efforts of various Lebanese grassroots organisations. Beirut Pride however was far from replication of traditional pride parades in the West, calling for neither legal rights for same-sex marriage nor a repeal of Article 534 of the penal code which prohibits sexual acts “contrary to the order of nature”.  Instead the event sought to denounce “all kinds of hate and discrimination”, specifically that against sexual minorities.

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Campaign tags for Beirut Pride 2017 (Image Credit: CNN)

However, Beirut Pride is no indication of a new open Lebanon. Lebanon, unlike most Arab states, has retained some political space for civil society to flourish: an impetus for LGBTQ+ resistance as pro-rights activists and support groups organise to effect change. Yet many conservative (religious) segments of society have sought to clamp down on pro-queer civil agendas. In March, Hezbollah Secretary General, Hasan Nasrallah, rebuked homosexual relations for “defy(ing) logic, human nature and the human mind”. In addition, extremist Sunni groups also successfully disrupted plans for activities days before Beirut Pride.

As a result, the modus operandi for most of Lebanon’s pro-queer campaigns has been, as Beirut’s sui generis pride illustrates, a negotiation between the relatively open civil space and conservative religious backlash. In the past, local groups had sought to deflect conservative pressures by pairing LGBTQ+ resistance with wider political currents. In 2003, HELEM  (Himaya Lubnaniya lil Mithliyeen wal Mithliyaat/Lebanese Protection for Gays and Lesbians) – the first LGBTQ+ organisation in Lebanon (and the Arab world) – joined Lebanese mobilisations against the Iraq war, flying a rainbow flag that attracted attention from the media. Similarly, during the 2006 Lebanon war, the group castigated Israel for its incursion into Lebanon, as well as provided a sanctuary for refugees caught within strife. Beirut’s LGBT compound became one of the city’s most active relief centres during the four-week bombing campaign, earning even the praise of conservative Islamist group Hezbollah. Today, HELEM has broadened its agenda to include the protection of domestic workers and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, as well as campaigns against Israel’s ill-treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

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“No to violence…no to discrimination…no to homophobia”, at a gay rights protest in Beirut. (Image Credit:Al-Akhbar)

This deft re-configuration of HELEM’s activism blueprint has lent to its prominence, which is necessary to effect change in Lebanon. This has included a ban on coercive exams that previously sought to acquire evidence of sexual (mis)conduct, following state-orchestrated ‘virginity’ (hymen) tests in 2011 in Egypt for female demonstrators during the Arab Spring. Although the Lebanese Syndicate of Physicians and Ministry of Justice enacted bans only for anal exams on male bodies, the change was considered a victory for many. The extent of such initiatives has transcended beyond Lebanon. Across the Middle East, LGBTQ+ associations have developed in areas like Palestine and Tunisia. In addition, the decisions of the Lebanese Medical Association and the Lebanese Psychiatric Society to declare publicly that homosexuality is not an illness have influenced attitudes on LGBTQ+ issues across the Arab world.

Through clever manoeuvring, Lebanese civil movements have averted social pressures to advance various agendas, much to the benefit of the local LGBTQ+ community. With the recent resignation of Prime Minster Hariri however, Lebanon may find itself one again at the centre of great instability. This may entail greater challenges for civil movements and queer 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, gender, and human rights in the Middle East and Africa. He tweets at @ismailshogo.

In this series: