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Arrival of queer studies cheered
Published on July 08, 2005 - Nation
There’s no better sign to show that an event has been desperately needed than the sight of about 500 scholars, NGO workers and activists crowding out the spacious convention halls of the Ambassador Hotel.
They gathered yesterday for the first International Conference of Asian Queer Studies.
“The size and diversity of this conference clearly demonstrates that Asian queer cultures and Asian queer studies have genuinely arrived,” announced Peter Jackson of the Australian National University and AsiaPacifiQueer Network in his opening speech.
The organisers, the Australian National University and the Office of Human Rights Studies and Social Development at Mahidol University, originally expected between 50 and 100 delegates, but the numbers swelled beyond their wildest hopes.
A total of 165 papers on Asia’s gays, lesbians and transgenders are being presented by scholars from 22 countries - from Japan to Pakistan and Australia to Brazil.
“We need to know the real situation of Asia’s queer peoples in order to demolish stereotypes and promote rights and equality,” Jackson said.
Although progress had been made in recent years, academics who studied queer cultures often suffered the same discrimination as gays, lesbians and transgenders themselves from homophobic colleagues and employers.
Jackson said one of the aims of the conference was to counter such biases.
He noted the irony of the fact that, while some Asian countries prided themselves on their hard-won political independence, they had yet to release themselves from the shackles of 19th century colonial laws that criminalised homosexuality.
His words found echoes in the speech of Chulalongkorn University’s Professor Vithit Muntarbhorn, who recently received the Unesco Human Rights Education Award.
Referring to Reading Jail, where the famous Irish playwright Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for “gross indecency” in 1895, Vithit said he regretted that “Reading Jail is still with us today, and there are many Oscars.”
He emphasised the importance of respect for human rights as the key to preventing historical calamities from happening again. Such atrocities as the Nazi’s persecution of homosexuals still repeated themselves in modern Asia. Those committed by the Taleban in Afghanistan were but one example.
“A basic principle of human rights is non-discrimination; treat everyone decently irrespective of a person’s sex, race, social origin or other status,” Vithit said.
However, he admitted that an attempt to pass a UN resolution on discrimination, as it affected sexual orientation - the so-called “Brazilian Resolution” - was still an uphill struggle, opposed by “conservative countries”, including those in Asia.
The conference committee expressed their gratitude to Thailand, Thai queer communities and the Thai academic community - particularly Mahidol University’s Office of Human Rights Studies and Social Development - for providing the venue and hospitality to the landmark conference. There was no doubt, it added, that Thailand’s queer communities would benefit from it.
“For too long, Thai queers have been the subject of social dismissal and ridicule,” lamented Viroj Tangvanich, a well-known Thai personality and president of the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand, an organisation aimed at educating queer communities on HIV/Aids issues. “Our assigned roles are to entertain the public and our needs and beings are perceived as nothing but irrational and diseased.”
Viroj said the quantity and quality of participants in the “intellectual endeavour” of the conference was evidence of “rebuttal par excellence” to such prejudiced perceptions.
He added that the conference would also contribute to the understanding of Thai queer history, which was a “glorious or violent past” that still had to be written and debated.