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Dons Take Second Look at Gay, Lesbian Studies
BANGKOK, Jul 8 (IPS) - Dede Oetomo, an openly gay Indonesian anthropologist, quit his post at a major university in his country when his request for a new academic programme - a masters degree in sexuality - was turned down.
That moment in February 2003 helped define what Indonesia's sexual minorities are up against: academies that are against opening their doors to serious examination of that Muslim country's culture of gays, lesbians and transgender people.
‘'That was the closest we got to getting the academic community to change its attitude,'' Oetomo said during an interview. ‘'Indonesia still does not have a university that is receptive to this idea. It doesn't help young scholars who want to work on queer studies.''
But what prevails in Indonesia, the worlds most populous Muslim country, is reflected in varying degrees across the rest of Asia: research at the university level focusing on the gay, lesbian and transgender lifestyles remains ignored, frowned upon or, if accepted, very much on the margins.
Consciously making up for the deficit, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have a focus on human rights, sexual minorities and public health. According to a leading Thai gay activist, programmes conducted by NGOs on HIV/AIDS provided an avenue to engage Thai youth in discussions about homosexuality.
Yet, if the spirit of a ground-breaking conference that began here Thursday is any indicator, the lack of enlightenment within the halls of learning on the subject of may soon be a thing of the past.
Indeed, the organisers of the ‘First International Conference of Asian Queer Studies,' which runs from Jul 7-9, were overwhelmed by the research papers they received from scholars across the region.
‘'We had expected about 50 papers, but the response was overwhelming. We got 225 abstracts for presentations,'' Peter Jackson, an Australian academic specialising in Thai history and a conference co-organiser, told reporters Wednesday. ‘'It was beyond our capacity.''
The compromise that was struck has resulted in 125 presentations from 24 countries for this conference, which has attracted 300 foreign participants and 100 Thais. The speakers come from countries that include Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines and Singapore.
The broad themes to be addressed by this academic gathering range from Asian gay men and lesbians; gay, lesbian and transgender rights; Asian transgender cultures; Asian gay and lesbian cinema; history of Asian homosexual cultures; and HIV/AIDS and health.
‘'This conference will give more legitimacy to the need for scholarly work on sexuality,'' said Josephine Ho, an academic from Taiwan, where universities have been more excepting of gay and lesbian studies than in Oetomo's Indonesia. At the National Central University, where Ho, a feminist scholar, works, queer studies have been available since 1996.
Other countries where universities have responded to the emerging trend for scholarly work in sexuality include the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, India and China.
Yet the climate is far from comforting for researchers. ‘'Academics who study homosexual cultures often suffer the same homophobic discrmination as gays, lesbians and transgenders themselves,'' says Jackson. ‘'While younger scholars are eager to research this region's communities, they are often stymied by anti-gay professors.''
Much of that arises from attitudes that are hostile towards homosexuals and lesbians across Asia. In former British colonies like India, Singapore and Malysia, for instance, homosexual acts are deemed a crime.
One Thai scholar reminded the conference that in at least 10 Asian countries, one can get the death sentence or life sentence for being a homosexual.
Even in Thailand, which is more liberal and open to gays and transgender people, sexual minorities suffer from a lack of rights to protect them.
To overcome these hurdles, university programmes in sexuality are vital, Ho explained during an interview. ‘'Having a university programme on such a theme will make gay and lesbian activity more acceptable, since it has been accepted as an academic field of study.''
‘'Queer studies are also vital to combat homophobic discourse,'' she added. ‘'And the gay and lesbian students will have a figure of respect to turn to, an academic in the university sensitive to their concerns, because the teacher, like the parent, is respected in Asian societies.''
For some of the other conference participants, this gathering in Bangkok is another seminal step in the march by Asia's sexual minorities to claim their place as equals in the societies they live in.
It adds to the growing list of firsts in the region's homosexual and lesbian culture. They include Tokyo having its first modern gay bar in 1948, the first sex-change surgery performed in Thailand in 1972, the first Asian gay rights organisation set up in Indonesia in 1981 and the Philippines hosting Asia's first Gay pride march in June 1994, says a background note.
The conference is bringing into relief undercurrents sweeping through Asian countries that are rapidly transforming, like China. ‘'The number of papers from East Asia, particularly China, was a surprise,'' says Jackson. ‘'It reflects the rapid sexual transformation happening in China.''
Such realities will also help ‘'debunk the notion that gay and lesbian culture is Western,'' adds Ho.
‘'The scholarly interest here shows the Asian flavour of gay and lesbian culture and, at times, the total transformation of concepts, making them different from Western concepts.''