After suffering in silence in largely conservative societies, homosexuals in Asia are beginning to speak up. But not for them the luxuries of American homosexuals who are empowered enough to lobby for same-sex marriages: Asian gays are still fighting for the right to exist as ordinary human beings.
Gays and lesbians in much of the region are reeling under an atmosphere of extreme homophobia where they are constantly harassed, humiliated,
shunned or even beaten up in societies that cannot accept them for what they are, rights activists say.
"What we are asking for is non-discrimination. That's all we can afford to ask for now," Anna Leah Sarabia, a senior Asian official of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) said.
Brussels-based ILGA held a landmark meeting in Manila last week where 400 delegates from 30 countries tackled discrimination against homosexuals, particularly in Asia.
The meeting was ILGA's first in Asia, where the majority of gays and lesbians are afraid to live openly because homosexuality is culturally and religiously shunned. Hong Kong is the only place in Asia to have legalized homosexual acts -- in private -- between consenting adults.
Sarabia, the executive director of the ILGA's women's secretariat, said the Manila meeting gave top priority to counseling for homosexuals facing
psychological pressure and stress arising from society's discrimination.
Burdened with guilt and shame and having fallen prey to hate crimes, some are forced to go underground where they often turn to alcohol, drugs and anonymous sex, making them vulnerable to AIDS, she said.
"It is depressing to note that it is right here in Asia, the cradle of all major
religions which preach love and kindness to each other, that lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals are being condemned as evil, abnormal and unhealthy," Sarabia said.
Asian societies in ancient times were "very open" to diverse sexuality until possibly Western colonial powers institutionalized homophobia in the region, she charged.
For example, same-sex eroticism was prevalent throughout early Chinese history before Beijing considered homosexuality a mental sickness, delegates said. Only recently did China begin considering it a natural phenomenon.
In India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore, homosexuality is outlawed by laws inherited from British rule, delegates say, suggesting that homophobia is a by-product of Western cultural expansion.
The notion that gay and lesbian rights were imported into Asia from Europe is also wrong, said Claudia Roth, Germany's human rights commissioner and keynote speaker at the ILGA meeting.
Roth, who has campaigned for many of Europe's sweeping anti-discrimination laws, said the ongoing debate in Asia on homosexual rights would also set the pace for non-discrimination legislation in the region.
"It is extremely important that this meeting took place in Asia for the first time. This shows that human rights are indivisible and must be guaranteed, irrespective of cultures and regions," she said.
"That there is already discussion on the necessity of an anti-discrimination law is a first step. Same-sex marriage and same-sex partnership will be the future," Roth assured Asian homosexuals.
She vowed to lobby harder for a resolution on the rights of homosexuals at the UN Human Rights Commission next year, despite stiff opposition from the Vatican and Muslim countries.