( 4 ) East Asia - Part 1

 

The countries of East Asia have a long history of gender diversity and relative tolerance.  Prior to European colonialism, Hindu traditions thrived throughout Indochina, down the Malay Peninsula and across the Indonesian archipelago.  One example of this is the large Angkor Wat Vishnu temple of Cambodia, built in the eighth century A.D.  Another example can be found on the island of Bali in Indonesia, where Hindu culture flourishes to this day.  Up until the first few centuries A.D., much of the Indonesian islands were under the control of East Indian traders and priests that brought with them traditional Hindu attitudes regarding gender diversity and tolerance.  Buddhism was also imported into the region a few centuries later and became prevalent from Indochina all the way up to Japan.  Both of these religions preached virtue, responsible family life and asceticism among their adherents but at the same time tolerated various types of sexualities within general society.  Unlike Europe and other parts of the world, East Asia has little if any history of widespread execution or torture of homosexuals.

 

The indigenous natives of East Asia lived relatively simple, rural lives for thousands of years and typically viewed human sexuality in a light-hearted, playful fashion.  This attitude is demonstrated in early East Asian folksongs, poetry, art and especially dance.  Traditional dance performances have been an important part of Asian culture since time immemorial and dance troupes were customarily either all male or all female.  This practice in theatre and dance, wherein crossdressing men played female roles and crossdressing women played male roles, fostered a great deal of gender levity that invariably attracted many homosexual and transgender people into the profession.

 

Throughout the Indonesian archipelago, third-gender natives were acknowledged for centuries by traveling Hindu, Islamic and Dutch merchants.  Homosexual and transgender Indonesians remain common in the islands today and are known by terms such as waria, banci, bencong and many others.  Waria is the most familiar of these and is especially used to address male-to-female transgenders.  As a combination of the Indonesian words for female (wanita) and male (pria), waria reflects their mixed-gender status as both woman and man.  Indonesians traditionally viewed the waria as symbols of prosperity and their presence was believed to bring good luck.   In a similar tradition still practiced today, intersex animals are kept as pets in the belief that they bestow good fortune upon the family and village.  Another time-honored custom still found in many remote sections of Indonesia is the practice of homosexual apprenticeships.  In this tradition, accomplished shamans and artists known as waroks offer tutelage to young male disciples or gemblaks that often involve homosexual relationships.

 

In the eleventh century A.D., Islam was introduced into the western islands of Indonesia and gradually spread eastward until, by the 1500s, most of the country was Muslim.  Unlike other parts of the Islamic world, however, male castration never became a widespread practice in medieval Indonesia.  The Dutch gained control of the islands in the seventeenth century and established the highly lucrative Dutch East India Company.  Both the Muslims and Dutch overlooked third-gender behavior among native Indonesians and sodomy laws were never legislated.  After gaining independence from the Netherlands in 1949, Indonesia remained legally neutral toward homosexuality.  Nevertheless, Islamic beliefs increasingly stifled traditional attitudes toward gender diversity and authorities often harassed homosexual and transgender citizens.   In 2003, calls by Islamic fundamentalists to legislate Shari’a or strict religious laws throughout the islands brought Indonesia’s traditional stance of tolerance into question.  Several local districts were allowed to adopt Shari’a law and an immediate persecution of homosexual and transgender citizens ensued.  Nearby Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore also had large Muslim populations and were even more conservative than Indonesia.  In these three countries, British colonialists instituted strict sodomy laws during the 1800s that remained firmly in place well into the early twenty-first century.  Brunei punished homosexuality with up to ten years in prison, Malaysia with twenty and Singapore with life.  In addition, Malaysia and Singapore had repressive laws banning any organization or public expression in support of homosexuality.

 

On Mainland Indochina, early rural cultures were full of gender diversity and this is reflected in the colorful same-sex dance and theatre traditions found throughout the region from Burma to Vietnam.  Traditional Siamese culture recognized three sexes known as ying (female), chai (male) and kathoey (effeminate homosexuals and transgenders).  Another term used for the third sex in northern Siam is pu-mia or “male-female,” which refers to the crossdressing transgenders found in that region and describes their mixed-gender status.  Early British colonists in both Burma and Siam noticed homosexuality as well as crossdressing among the natives and often complained about their inability to distinguish the men from the women.  In her book, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (London: 1870), Anna Leonowens wrote about the gender-ambiguous natives she encountered in Siam as follows: “Here were women disguised as men, and men in the attire of women, hiding vice of every vileness and crime of every enormity—at once the most disgusting, the most appalling, and the most unnatural that the heart of man has conceived.”

 

Great Britain incorporated Burma into the British Indian Empire during the nineteenth century but allowed Siam to remain an independent yet supervised kingdom.  Under British influence, Siam briefly enacted sodomy laws during the early twentieth century although not a single case was ever brought to trial.  In 1949, Siam changed its name to Thailand and sodomy laws were abolished seven years later during an effort to purge Thai legal codes of obsolete edicts.  By the end of the twentieth century, over ninety-five percent of Thais were Buddhist and the country was among the most tolerant in Asia.  Modern Thailand became an international center for gender-variant people of all types and famous for its drag queens, legal prostitution and easily accessible transsexual operations.  Gay tourism grew in popularity and local homosexual and transgender Thais united with their Western counterparts to form thriving communities in resort areas and large cities such as Bangkok.  Burma, on the other hand, remained stagnant in terms of civil liberties and social tolerance.  Under British rule, strict sodomy laws were established in the mostly Buddhist nation that punished homosexuality with up to life in prison.  Burma gained independence from Great Britain in 1948 but chose to keep the inherited sodomy laws.  In 1989, the highly isolated country changed its name to Myanmar and eventually reduced its punishment for homosexual behavior to ten years in prison.

 

The early indigenous cultures of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were similar to that of Siam and Burma.  All three became predominantly Buddhist with some traditional animist tribes in remote rural areas.  Vietnam was heavily influenced by China, which ruled the region from the second century B.C. until the early tenth century, while Cambodia thrived under the impressive Khmer Empire from 800 to 1450 A.D.  Laos was more closely related to Siam and they united as a single kingdom in the fourteenth century.   Detailed legal codes from Vietnam’s Le and Nguyen Dynasties, beginning in the fifteenth century, banned male castration but not homosexual behavior.  While Vietnam’s laws often mirrored those of the Chinese, in this case Vietnam outlawed male castration even though China did not.  Similarly, when China passed laws discouraging homosexuality in 1740, Vietnam chose not to follow suit.  In the nineteenth century, France dominated all three countries and established French Indochina.  Sodomy laws were never enacted under French rule and Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos all achieved independence in 1954.  By the early twenty-first century, all three countries had resisted criminalizing homosexuality although the general mood toward homosexuals and transgenders was mostly conservative.

 

The Philippines were first sighted by Portuguese explorers in the early sixteenth century and colonized by Spain from 1565 onward.  Documents from early Spanish colonists mention male-to-female crossdressing and “nonconforming” behavior among the island’s indigenous animist shamans.  Under Spanish rule, homosexuality was a punishable offense and Christian Inquisitions were conducted until Spain abolished its sodomy laws in the early 1800s.  Independence was achieved through revolution in 1896 but the United States took possession of the islands two years later.  In 1946, the Philippines was granted full independence by the Americans.

 

Research conducted on the Philippines’ island of Negros in the 1950s and ‘60s by anthropologist Donn Hart reveals a longstanding presence of homosexual and transgender individuals in the region, from the slightly effeminate dalopapa or binabaye to the fully transgender bayot.  Similar third-gender subcultures can be found throughout the country’s many islands, each with its own set of local categories and terms.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Philippines remained a diverse and mostly tolerant nation despite the fact that over ninety percent of its inhabitants were Roman Catholic.  Homosexuality remained decriminalized, transsexual operations were legal and male prostitution was often a livelihood for some of the islands’ poor.  Gay and transgender Filipinos maintained a significant presence in large cities such as Manila and were known as bakla in the local Tagalog language.  Masculine women and lesbians were also common in the Philippines and called lakin-on.

 

(Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, pp. 203-207)

[Continued in Part 5...]