BANGKOK — Long before Joe Wong surgically removed his breasts and uterus, he was Joleen, who once used an entire roll of brown duct tape to flatten her chest in an effort to look less feminine at her new secondary school in Singapore.
A close relative, angered by her clumsy and obvious attempt to bind her breasts, struck her on the head, pulled up her shirt and tore off the tape, ripping off bits of skin in the process.
Joleen endured a childhood of daily beatings from this relative, a knife pressed to her face, a death threat, and forced therapy with an expensive counsellor who told her she was “disgusting” for kissing and holding hands with girls.
“When you get beaten every day, you no longer feel the pain, you just feel numb,” said Wong, now a 31-year-old transgender man working with the Asia Pacific Transgender Network rights group in Bangkok.
Across Asia, which is largely patriarchal and conservative, the violence lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people face is often from their own families, who beat them to make them conform and maintain the social balance, experts say.
Homosexual acts are illegal in 78 countries around the world, punishable by jail time in places including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore, according to the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).
Such laws drive stigma and discrimination, and essentially condone family violence, though the problem remains hidden, glimpsed through many anecdotes but little data, activists say.
To escape the beatings and find a sense of belonging, LGBT people in Asia flock to cities in their own country, and increasingly—with the Internet and social media easing migration for jobs and gay marriage—many like Wong are leaving their home country altogether.
“I’ve never been more at home than now, even though I’m not at home,” he said, his deep voice, broad shoulders and moustache betraying no sign of his childhood as a girl.
“I removed everything that was bringing me down. I removed the toxic people in my life. Now it’s just me and my problems that I have to confront,” said Wong, who did not identify the abusive relative to avoid further straining family ties.
“I feel really liberated,” he said as he sipped a fruit shake in a quiet cafe next door to the offices of APTN.
Living in Stealth
A key reason for family violence against LGBT people in Asia—and the way this region differs from other parts of the world—is the “family shame factor,” says Ging Cristobal, the Asia-Pacific project coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).
“You do not shame your family, because it’s not part of the norm in that society. It’s a taboo,” Cristobal said in a Skype call from Manila.
Many Asian families push LGBT relatives into what the Chinese call “marriages of convenience,” partly to help parents save face.
One Pakistani lesbian in her mid-20s fled to Bangkok two years ago because she was forced into marriage in Pakistan and was facing death threats from her own family, said Anoop Sukumaran, executive director of the Bangkok-based Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, which is helping her as she applies for UNHCR refugee status.
While young LGBT people are theoretically covered under laws protecting children from violence, most suffer in silence for fear they will otherwise have no one to look after them.
Cristobal said she often advises young LGBT people who rely on their family for their tuition to find supportive friends, and then seek a college education or find work away from home.
“Then you try to be stealthy. You try not to give clues that you are an LGBT person,” Cristobal said.
Wong says he could turn to no one for help when he faced violence at home. “Sometimes neighbors intervened … but even police wouldn’t do anything about family violence,” he said.
Activists say including sexual orientation and gender identity in laws, policies and programs to prevent violence against women and children would reduce family violence against LGBT people.
For instance, Cristobal said a young man in Manila contacted her via Facebook last year because his brother had threatened to kill him because he was gay. She told him to call the police.
“The brother was not there anymore. Police came and gave their personal mobile number. The neighbors saw the police … were supportive of the gay guy, so I think that regulated them from directly telling him negative things,” she said.
Vietnamese mother-son activists Lily Dinh and Teddy Nguyen say family attitudes in Vietnam have changed since the government decriminalized same-sex marriage.
In 2013, Vietnamese government officials organized discussions on same-sex marriage, and invited Dinh—who heads a small chapter of PFLAG, a group for parents and friends of LGBT people—to speak, along with others from the group.
“I think that was the first time the government officers from the ministry of justice and from congress met LGBT people in real life, and the first time they met with LGBT parents, too,” Dinh said in a Skype call from Ho Chi Minh City.
“We told our stories because we wanted the government to understand the difficulties our children face in their daily lives … I think that the officials understood and felt empathy for the PFLAG members and for the LGBT community.”
The UN Development Program recently gave PFLAG Vietnam a US$24,000 grant to travel to five provinces over the next six months to raise awareness of LGBT issues and rights.
“Things are getting better … but it will take time for the government and society to understand clearly LGBT people, especially in the rural areas,” said Dinh.