Fact Sheet: The State of LGBTQ Rights in Asia and the Pacific

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In many countries throughout Asia and the Pacific, same-sex activity is legal. However, most countries lack LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws and provisions for same-sex marriage, and many don’t allow citizens to change their legal gender. LGBTQ people are also not allowed to openly serve in the military in the majority of countries in the region. Here’s a breakdown of where we are at in the fight for LGBTQ equality, visibility, and recognition under the law.

Click to view and enlarge maps that show where same-sex sexual activity is legal, where anti-discrimination laws exist, and which countries have the right to change legal gender in both Asia and the Pacific.

Continue to scroll through this page to read highlights about each country.
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EAST ASIA

South Korea’s constitution prohibits discrimination based on sex, religion, or social status, which the Ministry of Justice has said applies to LGBTQ people. But, these “protections” act as rights without any enforcement power behind them. There is no right to same-sex marriage. People can request a change in gender, but only if they comply with stringent circumstances that deprive them of other civil liberties.

North Korea’s laws are silent with respect to the right to have same-sex sexual activity. However, the North Korean government prohibits activities that go against the socialist agenda, and thus, same-sex activities are “de facto” prohibited.

China’s latest Penal Code doesn’t explicitly prohibit consensual homosexual activity. However, there are no laws protecting LGBTQ individuals from discrimination, and same-sex marriage and partnership is illegal. The right to change one’s gender, though available, is riddled with caveats.

Japan does not recognize same-sex marriage. However, a number of local municipalities recognize same-sex couples’ rights as “equivalent to marriage.” Transgender people under certain conditions may also request a change of gender in the state family registry.

SOUTH ASIA

Bangladesh criminalizes same-sex sexual activity: punishment could include life in prison, and only applies to penetrative sex between gay men. There is an express ban on gay people serving in the military. In 2013, Bangladesh legally recognized the Hijra population as being a “third sex” for purposes of voting, travel, identification, and other core civil rights.

Bhutan criminalizes same-sex sexual activity as a petty misdemeanor. There have been no reported cases of charges brought under this law. LGBTQ people are unable to marry or enter into civil partnerships, serve openly in the military, or change their gender.

In India, a colonial-era law criminalizes sexual activity “against the order of nature.” In 2018, the Supreme Court of India ordered a review of the country’s gay sex ban, which is pending.

The Maldives prohibits same-sex intercourse and marriage, with potential punishment including imprisonment, lashings, and the death penalty. These prohibitions are rarely enforced. The country has banned gay people from serving in the military.

Nepal’s Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that LGBTQ persons would be regarded as “natural persons” under the law. The country’s constitution specifically says that the state shall not discriminate against “sexual minorities.” Citizens can designate themselves under a third gender category.

Pakistan criminalizes same-sex sexual activity with imprisonment, which is rarely enforced. But another law that criminalizes “obscene acts” in public is frequently used to target gay and trans male sex workers. In 2009, the Supreme Court called on authorities to allow individuals to self-identify as “transgender-male” or “transgender-female” on national identity cards. In 2012, the Supreme Court affirmed the status of hijras as equal citizens.

SOUTHEAST ASIA

Cambodia has not outlawed same-sex sexual activity since independence. Although gay marriage is not expressly legal, the 2008 Civil Code uses the word “spouses” to describe couples. But, discrimination persists, especially due to laws that give police broad authority to discriminate in the name of security.

In Indonesia, there are no laws that criminalize same-sex sexual activity at the national level, although some laws stigmatize LGBTQ people. Same-sex marriage is expressly illegal, and there are differing ages of consent for heterosexual and homosexual people—16 for the former, and 18 for the latter. Broadcasting standards limit LGBTQ expression on TV (with the “logic” of protecting children), and there are proposed bans on LGBTQ-focused apps and websites.

Malaysia’s penal code criminalizes anal and oral sex, and levies a punishment of up to 20 years. Some states in Malaysia have enacted Islamic Sharia law and punish same-sex intercourse with lashings. The country explicitly prohibits gay individuals from serving in the military.

In Myanmar, same-sex intercourse can result in a prison term of up to 10 years. There are no laws protecting the right to marry or the right to not be discriminated against.

In the Philippines, a strong Catholic population has been able to forestall legislation that would protect same-sex couples. Even so, the US-based Pew Research Center ranked the Philippines to be most friendly to the gay community: 73% of adult Filipinos agreed that homosexuality should be accepted by society, as compared to 54% in Japan, 39% in South Korea, and 60% in the U.S.

Singapore penalizes same-sex sexual activity, a crime that carries imprisonment of up to 2 years. In 2014, the Singapore Supreme Court ruled that there is “no definitive conclusion” on the “supposed immutability” of homosexuality. Singapore explicitly bans gay people serving in the military.

In Vietnam, same-sex sexual activity has been decriminalized since 1945. Gay people can serve in the military. In 2014, Vietnam passed a revised marriage law with no clause to prohibit or recognize same-sex marriage, making it implicitly legal. Thus, same-sex marriages will no longer be fined, but same-sex partners will also not receive any legal recognition. It is illegal to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

PACIFIC ISLANDS

Same-sex activity is legal in many Oceania countries, sometimes with an equal age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual encounters (such as in Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau).

However, LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws are few and far between. In Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Tuvalu, same-sex activity is illegal. These countries, along with Kiribati, Fiji, and the Marshall Islands, do not allow same-sex marriages, the changing of one’s legal gender, nor the ability to openly serve in the military as LGBT.

In Palau, individuals have a right to change their legal gender, LGBTQ people can openly serve in the military, get married, and receive protection from anti-discrimination laws. Fiji and Samoa also have anti-discrimination laws in place to protect LGBT people.


The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance is a federation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Asian American, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander (APIs) organizations. NQAPIA builds the capacity of local LGBT API groups, develops leadership, promotes visibility, educates the community, invigorates grassroots organizing, encourages collaborations, and challenges anti-LGBT bias and racism. NQAPIA acknowledges the pro bono assistance of Shearman & Sterling LLP in researching country laws. Additional sources include ILGA, Amnesty International, and USAID.
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