Locked down and locked out: A review of the experience of LGBTIQ+ people of Southeast Asia amid the COVID-19 pandemic

MARTIN PETLACH  |  21 FEBRUARY 2022  |  ISSUE #19
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Photo by Jordan McDonald on Unsplash.

The swift transmission of COVID-19 has had a great impact on everyday life across the globe. Life-changing consequences have been substantial to everyone, particularly to the members of the LGBTIQ+ community, and those living in Southeast Asia were no exception. How did COVID-19 get this community on lockdown?

 

There are multiple factors and problems experienced under this pandemic, notably psychological and physical ones that we shall foreground. These types of pandemic effects snowball systematically whilst adding new struggles to those that LGBTIQ+ people already endure. 

 

In the socio-economic sphere, members of this community are associated with various industries which were most negatively affected by the pandemic. Many LGBTIQ+ people employed in the informal sector and the gig economy were left in dire straits, as they financially depended on services mostly taking place outside (e.g. street stalls, bars and clubs, hospitality, art, beauty salons, sexual services, etc.). This plight is exacerbated especially among undocumented and stateless people. For instance, in Malaysia, they were not eligible to access any financial support from the state as it was conditional upon being married and having children, which prevented LGBTIQ+ people from receiving help. As strict curfews restricted mobility and job opportunities, numerous LGBTIQ+ people faced different constraints that emerged from either their own LGBTIQ-phobic families and communities or even their governments.

 

First, many LGBTIQ+ people, especially youths, who needed financial support were forced to return home after losing their jobs. The treatment they received led to a growth in cases of depression and homelessness. Family crises sometimes escalated to domestic violence, both physical and mental, as documented, for example, in Burma/Myanmar. Not rarely young LGBTIQ+ people – the most vulnerable group – were thrown out of their family homes or forced to be re-closeted. As in Malaysia, they could not ask the authorities for help with housing either. These violent patterns also appeared among LGBTIQ-phobic flatmates and roommates. Furthermore, the number of suicides committed by young LGBTIQ+ people has disturbingly increased in countries such as Vietnam since the beginning of the pandemic.

 

At the same time, the pandemic resulted in an extension of state-endorsed LGBTIQ-phobia, particularly in Muslim-majority countries, and an increased invisibility of the LGBTIQ+ community in other countries. Very often, LGBTIQ+ people experienced violence and oppression from the state administration itself, as in the Philippines, and even from health workers, especially but not exclusively in the case of people living with HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS patients could be more predisposed to COVID-19 and its corollaries, especially if they have been denied access to treatment. Continued discrimination has led to a decline in LGBTIQ+ people’s trust towards the healthcare system and the vaccination campaigns against COVID-19. 

 

When fighting not only physical but also psychological problems caused by family rejection or victimisation, forced to return home or stay alone during lockdowns and curfews, LGBTIQ+ people sought solace in films and series that they could identify with. In this context, paid streaming services have become all the rage – and especially GagaOOLala, generally regarded as ‘Asia’s gay Netflix’, with films and series from, among other, Thailand and the Philippines. Some local media companies, such as Thai GMMTV, have started adding English subtitles to widen the reach of their programmes. On the one hand, the representation of LGBTIQ+ issues and non-biased framing in newly streamed films, in these and other platforms, such as Netflix, may help spread information and normalise the LGBTIQ+ community. On the other hand, this attention has brought a serious ‘backlash’ in the form of violent online and physical attacks. 

 

Regardless of the location, the pandemic also immobilised NGOs advocating for LGBTIQ+ rights, because many projects and funding had to be suspended, postponed, or even cancelled. Moreover, NGOs had to re-focus on finding new sources of subsidies and new opportunities, and move their activity online (for instance, through webinars). The need for donations and food aid from private donors and the public has become greater than ever before. As a positive example, Indonesian transgender initiatives organised charitable events to help everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, which received wide acknowledgement. 

 

Nonetheless, most consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on LGBTIQ+ communities are yet to be discovered as there is currently not enough data. We can expect other concealed issues to emerge in future in-depth investigations. The prospects for LGBTIQ+ people are particularly unfavourable, as the pandemic added ‘another layer to their pre-existing marginalisation’.

 

In the post-pandemic era, an essential resource for LGBTIQ+ people to maintain their mental health and well-being will be the traditional places of meeting, such as community centres or bars, albeit in a modified form. At the same time, the growth of the internet and social media, which has already allowed to hold educational webinars, workshops and even pride events online, should be further recognised and utilised by the community. 

 

COVID-19 has got many LGBTIQ+ people on lockdown in Southeast Asia, but it has also created new opportunities for them and new avenues to connect online with other members of the community. It is key that LGBTIQ+ people make use of these instruments in order to become more visible and accepted members of Southeast Asian societies. Moreover, governments should move towards acknowledging LGBTIQ+ people by raising public awareness, providing services, and disseminating unbiased information, so that local societies can follow good practices to recognise and help LGBTIQ+ people amid the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

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Martin Petlach

Martin studied International Relations and European Studies with honours and obtained a PhD in Political Science after graduating from Palacky University in the Czech Republic. He has also stayed and studied in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Currently, he works as Assistant Professor at Mendel University where he specialises in diplomacy and diplomatic protocol, Southeast Asia, and comparative European politics. His book on elections and democracy in Malaysia was issued in 2019. He can be reached at martin.petlach@mendelu.cz.

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