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Urbanization, Mobile Phones, Aging, NGOs and Media Shaping GLBTQ Identity in Southeast Asia

In Southeast Asia, GLBTQ people have traditionally been seen as being of "alternate genders," as opposed to western countries which, Noviscape asserts, "usually view that same-sex attraction and transgender expressions imply identities composed of positions on the dimensions sex, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity."

However, new identities, somewhat strongly influenced by Western notions of homosexuality, are emerging in Southeast Asia.

Terms that AIDS prevention NGOs use, such as "gay" and "men who have sex with men" (MSM), are gaining traction with their clients and becoming a popular identity label. From Noviscape:

"The term MSM (or its super-abbreviations, such as em in Thailand and Cambodia) has been popularized as an identity label among NGO clients–unintentionally in Thailand, intentionally in Cambodia... In Cambodia, it is more widespread than the term “gay,” which is common in Thailand. Existing terms such as gay, tom, or dee (in Thailand; see Ojanen, 2009) is also popularized through interactions between NGO staff and clients. In some cases, this has created new awareness of the possibility of homosexual identification without transgender expression among NGO clients, and consequent identity change."
"Terms... meaning “person loving the same gender” or... "a person who has sexual diversity" (Thailand) have been introduced in these countries as more acceptable terminologies than more stigmatized existing expressions, but these terms still have mostly limited circulation in NGO circles.

More balanced media representation of GLBTQ people "especially in Thai media, is likely to both spread information of LGBT identities and to make these identities appear more normal and acceptable, thus facilitating LGBT identity formation. Thai media are also more influential in Laos than local media."

"Urbanization and wage labor/private entrepreneurship is providing LGBT individuals more privacy to build LGBT identities and lifestyles than earlier rural forms of labor and accommodation do, especially when salaries are high enough to rent accommodation away from parents. Bangkok is a case in point, with its environment for LGBT individuals considered comparatively relaxed and casual, inviting both domestic and international LGBT inflows."

"Businesses aiming to benefit from LGBT spending may help to make these identities more visible and desirable through their marketing strategies."

"Increased access to the Internet, mobile phones (especially smartphones) makes it easier to establish and operate virtual communities in which identities proliferate, and that create opportunities for discussions, sex and relationships between LGBT individuals....However, use of such services is not as common in Cambodia as it is in Thailand."

There are also some uniquely indigenous aspects to identity formation:

"The aging of Thailand’s population may shift the nature of LGBT identities and lifestyles, as well as create new forms of extended families which same-sex couples are a part of; family members who are LGBT are frequently seen to assume responsibility for taking care of their ageing parents as they often have no children of their own to take care of."

Implications from Noviscape:

"While there is not much violent homophobia in Southeast Asia, discrimination against GLBTQ people is widespread."

"The activities of NGOs and other LGBT groupings may popularize some terms, especially MSM, much more in the near future."

Implications from IFTF:

The article doesn't go into much detail, but it's probably worth looking into how much contemporary GLBTQ identities are influenced by, or are perceived as influenced by, western culture. Having attitudes towards homosexuality intertwined with attitudes towards the west and westernization has its own set of perils."

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