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Asian Studies Review, 2013

Vol. 37, No. 3, 335–349,

Queer Activist Intersections in Southeast

Asia: Human Rights and Cultural


Southern Cross University

Abstract: The practice of human rights elicits a range of theoretical positions

and problems in relation to advocacy across Southeast Asia. This raises questions
about the universal nature of human rights, the problem of cultural imperialism
and the dynamic of the local and the global. These questions become heightened
when connected to queer or LGBT issues. This paper focuses on the intersections
of queer scholarship, activism and human rights in relation to LGBT asylum
seekers from Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia in order to explore the potenti-
alities, possibilities and difficult challenges queer activists and scholars face in
translating human rights principles, values and actions across and between
modes of activist communication. A special purpose of the paper is to explore
how the discipline of cultural studies and its attention to everyday lives, identity,
self-reflexivity and socio-cultural context offers a scholarship that is specifically
attuned to the problematics and complexity of human rights and queer activism
and their application in researching these Southeast Asian contexts.
Keywords: human rights, cultural studies, Southeast Asia, activist scholarship,
queer studies, asylum, everyday life

My research in human rights over the last decade and more has focused on homosexual
rights activism and movements in Southeast Asia, specifically in Indonesia, Singapore
and Malaysia.1 The approach that I have taken has involved cultural studies and queer
studies methodology, which combine self-reflexive accountability about position and
context with robust empirical enquiry.2

*Correspondence Address:

Ó 2013 Asian Studies Association of Australia

336 Baden Offord

The concept of human rights elicits a range of theoretical and methodological posi-
tions and problems in relation to advocacy across Southeast Asia. There are questions
about the universal nature of the concept, the problem of cultural imperialism, and the
dynamics of the local and the global. The last two decades have seen great changes
across Asia generally in terms of the acceptance of human rights as the normative
moral international framework of modernity, evidenced through the formation of
national human rights instrumentalities, the impact of transnational networks, globalisa-
tion and the networked society. The Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in
1993 crystallised the discontent of a number of Asian cultures into a decade-long
“Asian Values” debate centred on an argument between universalist (perceived as Wes-
tern) and cultural relativist (Asian heritage) positions.3 The outcome of this debate has
not been resolved but rather extended by political transformation, the impact of the
“war on terror” and world financial crises.
In this article, I explore the intersections of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-
gender) queer scholarship and activism in relation to LGBT asylum seekers to the Uni-
ted States and Australia originating from Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Through
a focus on this issue I tease out some of the complexities, and ethical and other chal-
lenges activists and scholars face in translating human rights principles, values and
actions across and between modes of activist communication. Closely tied to this
exploration is a discussion of how the discipline of cultural studies and its attention to
everyday lives, identity, self-reflexivity and socio-cultural context offers a scholarship
that is specifically attuned to the problematics and complexities of human rights and
queer activism and their application in researching Southeast Asian contexts. I consider
the positionality of the human rights/queer activist/cultural studies scholar working in
regions such as Southeast Asia and implicated in transnational contexts.
First, I open with a brief discussion of cultural studies and its relationship to human
rights. Second, I review queer activism in Southeast Asia, contextualising LGBT activ-
ism and human rights scholarship through a set of methodological and theoretical
points framed around an argument for a global decolonising queer studies approach.
Finally, I focus on some examples of LGBT activist/academic intersections involving
Singaporean, Indonesian and Malaysian asylum cases, the media and attendant human
rights struggles.

Cultural Studies and Human Rights

In previous work I have made a strong case for the value of approaching human rights
activism through other than legal frameworks. My argument is that human rights work
requires extra-legal thinking, understanding the cultural, social and political (everyday)
context in which human rights principles, language and values are being negotiated,
created and used (Offord, 2006, pp. 11–12). In terms of understanding human rights in
a contextual manner, my starting point for understanding one of the primary challenges
of human rights discourse and praxis is Raimundo Pannikar’s cornerstone insight in
relation to the applicability of human rights in non-Western contexts: “Translations are
more delicate than heart transplants” (Pannikar, 1996, p. 202). I am also interested in
Upendra Baxi’s articulation of human rights as something that potentially give “voice
to human suffering” (Baxi, 1999, p. 103). These salient ideas are extremely relevant
when combined with an attention to questions of agency across diverse cultures and
Queer Activist Intersections in Southeast Asia 337

societies. One of the main arguments I make in this article is that there is a complex
tension to be found in the work of being a cultural translator of human rights and
LGBT activism and human rights methodology, which rests on giving agency or voice
to human suffering.
Cultural studies as a field, although slow to have approached and theorised the
human rights terrain, is specifically attuned to studying human rights in both practice
and discourse. To begin with, cultural studies is characterised by its interdisciplinary
and multidisciplinary approach to knowledge, which enables nuanced, holistic and rig-
orous human rights investigations. One of the essential drivers of cultural studies is the
view of culture as a primary dimension of social and political life, focusing on the
struggle among structures and institutions of power, representation, identity and subjec-
tivity. Cultural studies practitioners, therefore, investigate agency in compelling ways.
They see agency as being implicated in the formation of moral and ethical frameworks
that are experienced in everyday lives.4 For John Erni, “[c]ultural studies has long been
attentive to the complex interpenetrations of power, agency, and the social imaginary”
(Erni, 2010, p. 227).
Cultural studies offers an approach to human rights that engages in its theory and
practice in a critical but also practical/activist sense, without retreating from the com-
plexity that this involves. Glenn Mitoma has argued indeed for the centrality of cultural
studies in human rights research: “Cultural Studies,” he says, “can provide some of the
most compelling readings of [the]… post-colonial encounter, pushing beyond the sterile
dualism of ‘cultural relativism vs. universalism’ toward a critical engagement with the
processes of both culture and the universal” (Mitoma, 2008, p. 8). I would argue that
cultural studies, framed as it is by its primary concern for activating knowledge, and
being foundationally ethical (Zylinska, 2005, p. 35), is therefore activist scholarship
par excellence. As R.J. Coombe puts it, “[t]o the extent that issues of social exclusion,
inequality, identity, power, and representation engage us, cultural studies are practically
invested in human rights discourse and praxis” (Coombe, 2010, p. 233).
Thus, for the purposes of researching sexual identity, activism and the LGBT move-
ments in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, my concern has been to be mindful of the
need to engage as both an academic and an activist in human rights issues in Southeast
Asia in ways that are informed by decolonising methodologies. The importance of self-
reflexive research and its capacity to engage in questions of culture and its translation
are intrinsic to this approach.
My research on LGBT issues and the state in Southeast Asia has been framed in
methodological and theoretical terms by these considerations and is extrapolated further
in relation to queer global studies. In the next section, I turn to the ways in which these
considerations have informed my research in the area of queer activist scholarship in
specific parts of Southeast Asia. Following Tom Boellstorff, I see an “epistemological
and political imperative to forge interdisciplinary networks of theory and practice that
draw upon the locatedness of careful, invested scholarship” (2007, p. 5).

Queer Activist Intersections: Human Rights and Southeast Asia

A gathering momentum of human rights-based movements across the world and
throughout Asia over the last 15 years has been characterised by the effects of an
interconnected society as well as densely interconnected intimate lives.5 In this context,
338 Baden Offord

the linking of human rights discourse and sexual orientation has become crucial in
order to challenge, resist and end the social, cultural, legal, political, religious and eco-
nomic violations against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender iden-
tity in intimate human relations. Violations, however, occur endemically, pervasively
and frequently with impunity (O’Flaherty and Fisher, 2008, pp. 207–14).
There has also been a burgeoning movement, reflected in public culture, media and
the public sphere generally, of a human rights approach to socio-legal and cultural
issues of sexuality, and coevally it has become a highly important area of debate in
international scholarly and activist literature on sexual orientation (Graupner and
Tahmindjis, 2005; Offord, 2003a; 2011; Kollman and Waites, 2009; O’Flaherty and
Fisher, 2008). Therefore, human rights language and frameworks have become ubiqui-
tous in the critical literature on sexuality, notwithstanding the complexity, subtleties and
sensitivities attached to the subject matter in terms of arguments that often rely on
either universalist or relativist positions.
Trans-regional and transnational networks have emerged in Southeast Asian nations
which are informed by policy research and analysis, and increased communication
among individuals and groups who are actively involved in sexual orientation and
human rights struggles. A demonstration of this was the historic first ‘Sexualities,
Genders, and Rights in Asia’ Conference, held in Bangkok in July 2005, hosted by
Mahidol University and the Australian National University, which brought together a
large group of academics and activists for a critical review of the conjunction of human
rights discourses and sexual orientation struggles. This remarkable intersection of aca-
demic and activist concerns demonstrated the way in which transnational discourses of
human rights, specifically those on sexual orientation, have become embedded in Asia
generally. Peter Jackson’s recent edited collection Queer Bangkok: 21st Century Mar-
kets, Media and Rights (2011), which comprehensively analyses the Thai context of
these discourses in terms of human rights language, activism and scholarship provides
strong evidence that queer activist scholarship is now entrenched in Asian Studies.
The convergence of human rights discourses and sexual orientation struggles has
produced a plethora of social movements and organisations concerned with gender and
sexual minority oppression and discrimination. Networks of connections have emerged
between researchers, activists, politicians, cultural producers and law-makers to facili-
tate and develop responses to dialogic negotiation, interpretation and understanding of
human rights and cultural values across diverse national contexts. There are clear exam-
ples of this occurring within a local–regional–global systems synergistic framework.
Dede Oetomo has noted this conjunction in the field of human rights in Indonesia spe-
cifically over the last few years since 1999 (Oetomo, 2007).
In terms of critical research on sexuality in Southeast Asia, there is now a significant
field (see Berry et al., 2003; Offord, 2003a; Boellstorff, 2005; 2007; Welker and Kam,
2006; Jackson, 2011). This work has interrogated the problem of a Western hegemonic
approach to the rubrics of human rights and queer, in order to counter monolithic terms
such as “Asia”. As Wilson (2006) has argued, “[p]opular discussions conflate Western,
modern and globalisation as the source of sexual modernity, particularly non-normative
sexuality, in Asia”. Approaching human rights through cultural studies is an important
antidote to this problem. As a counter-hegemonic approach, the project of cultural
studies focuses on the potential dialogic quality of human rights discourses across
Queer Activist Intersections in Southeast Asia 339

different cultures, offering an ethically charged activist scholarship of intervention and

engagement. These discourses and struggles have been negotiated, articulated and
deployed by individuals and organisations in and by their interactions and connections
across cultures and nations, and through their inter-cultural communication. The poten-
tial offered by cultural studies is to understand the work that is being done within and
through a trans-regional context, within and between nations, towards even a queer
regionalism that is alert to the challenges faced in the relationship between Western-
dominated scholarship and Southeast Asia. Wilson (2006, quoted in Welker and Kam,
2006) “proposes a critical ‘queer regionalism’ as a ‘heuristic and strategic device’ to
unsettle the Western dominance within and bias of Queer Theory and Queer Studies”.

Queer Methodological Issues6

To adequately understand the intersection between human rights, activist scholarship
and LGBT asylum seekers originating from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore requires
robust conceptual scaffolding. A set of theoretical protocols is needed in transferring
into a Southeast Asian context the languages and practices of lesbian and gay activism
that often seem self-evident in Western polities. As Michael G. Peletz (2007, p. 87) has
remarked about the study of gender, body politics and sexualities in Asia, there are
dynamics at work in Asian cultures and societies that do not make it inevitable that
LGBT activism will mirror what has developed in the USA, Australia or Europe.
Dennis Altman made similar observations in his essay, ‘The Emergence of “Modern”
Gay Identities and the Question of Human Rights’ which, although written largely
about the 1990s, holds true today (2000, pp. 211–28).
My position as a cultural studies practitioner and queer theorist working in an
Australian university presents immediate problems for social and cultural analysis in
Southeast Asian contexts where contradictions and paradoxes can arise between
well-meaning emancipation scholarship and the oppressive neocolonial realities of that
very same scholarship. Tensions may develop, especially in work that directly involves
understanding and working with people who are claiming human rights. I return to this
tension below with reference to LGBT asylum seekers.
However, these tensions do not mean that research on LGBT activism in Southeast
Asia is necessarily paralysed conceptually or practically. Self-reflexive evaluations can
offer, as Anjali Arondekar (2007, p. 338) puts it, “pathways for further analysis into
languages that vigilantly reimagine the vastness of sexuality’s locations and its analyti-
cal frames”. Negotiating cultural specificities in connection to universal imperatives
remains a challenging but productive way forward.
Like Altman (2000, p. 137), I see myself as a “co-researcher” with Southeast Asian
LGBT activists and scholars based on our shared sexuality and concerns for human
rights for homosexuals and diverse sexualities. As a human rights scholar and activist I
am attentive to the problematic of the translation of human rights language (now a uni-
versal template of morality) across borders – social, cultural, legal and political – which
resonates strongly with similar cultural translation issues found in sexualities and their
struggle against forms of oppression, exclusion and silence.
The challenges in mapping the influence of the state on LGBT activism in Southeast
Asia stem from a complexity of assumptions and positions that derive from Western
global hegemony.7 For example, a recent collection on global gay movements
340 Baden Offord

specifically used the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969 as a starting point. The use
of Stonewall as the critical historical departure across diverse Western and non-Western
national contexts immediately invokes a comparative methodology that is based on a
specific northern template of analysis, something that can impact adversely on our
understanding of southern sexualities. In their conclusion, the editors reflexively
contend, however, that

the development of a lesbian and gay movement outside Western countries, where
sexuality may be constructed differently, and the consequence of the process of
globalization of sexual identities must be further investigated. Indeed, the way we
have looked at the relationship between the state and the movement, and indeed
the notion of the lesbian and gay movement itself, could be considered as too
focused on Western countries and the way in which the movement has developed
there (Tremblay, Paternotte and Johnson, 2011, p. 226).

Much has been written over the last decade about the difficulties, ambivalences, chal-
lenges and complexity faced in “queering Asia”,8 just as there has been a significant
move towards a deeper acknowledgment, application and critical value of theories that
emerge from outside the “western”/“northern” metropolitan centres, which Raewyn
Connell (2007) refers to as “southern theory”.9
Critical research at the intersection of globalisation, sexuality, human rights and
activism invokes a complexity of logics or illogics that cannot be ignored if the task of
mapping the modern state’s influence on LGBT activism is to be accomplished in a
respectful and non-neocolonising fashion.10 Responding to the task in this way can be
highly productive. With his oeuvre of work on Indonesian homosexuality, the American
activist-anthropologist Tom Boellstorff, for example, has radically broadened and deep-
ened contemporary theoretical queer perspectives on sexuality in Southeast Asia. He
has argued that a queer comparative approach can be sufficiently sensitised as a critique
that “opens up new possibilities for scholarship and activism” (2007, p. 209), which I
see too as the ethical frame of this paper.

Queer Activist Scholarship and LGBT Asylum

Nowhere have the above considerations been clearer to me than in the work that I have
done in testifying for lesbian, gay and transgender asylum seekers from Indonesia, Sin-
gapore and Malaysia since 1997. Walter Williams has recently provided his own critical
and activist reflections on providing expert testimony regarding Malaysian asylum

Gay people have no one to speak up for them in Malaysia. Even academic
researchers are intimidated by being dependent upon government appointments
and funding. Faculty at Malaysian universities are prohibited from engaging in
political debates (Williams, 2009, p. 13).

This is a crucial factor in relation to the intersection of human rights and LGBT issues
in Southeast Asia as there is a stark absence of academic research about sexuality and
rights in much of the human rights literature on the region.
Queer Activist Intersections in Southeast Asia 341

For example, in the recent edited collection Human Rights in Asia (Avonius and
Kingsbury, 2008) there are no references to sexuality or LGBT issues.11 This is all the
more surprising given the book’s focus on reassessing the Asian Values debate of the
1990s. One of the crucial markers of the Asian Values debate was (and continues to
be) the question of the role of the “traditional” family. Key political exponents (particu-
larly in Singapore and Malaysia) of the purity of Asian Values have used homosexual-
ity extensively and deliberatively as a trope for Western decadence and moral
inferiority and therefore have actively excluded LGBT rights advocacy (Offord, 2003a,
pp. 35–47; 2003b, pp. 133–47). Academic research on LGBT human rights issues in
Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia remains scant, despite recent innovative develop-
ments such as the Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human
Rights Law in Relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, which were
formulated in Indonesia in 2007 in a unique convocation of academics, researchers,
humanitarians, activists and leading human rights scholars and non-governmental
representatives (O’Flaherty and Fisher, 2008, pp. 207–48).12
Altogether, I have provided testimony on behalf of more than 45 individuals who
have sought refuge in the United States or Australia on the basis of their sexual orienta-
tion.13 This has included gay, lesbian and homosexual-identified individuals, transgen-
der individuals, and a great many who are reluctant to identify in any way with
homosexual or same sex attracted identity but who realise that for the purposes of seek-
ing asylum they are required to claim a gay identity. Most of the asylum seekers were
Muslim, Chinese-Indonesian or Christian. All had experienced various forms of physi-
cal and psychological violence. The majority had been sexually abused by the police or
army, and often had been tortured, including forms of sexual abuse. All of them had
been ostracised or abandoned by their families and had been forced to flee from their
homes and country for safety.
Claiming asylum in the United States based on sexual orientation is a fraught and
difficult process. Swetha Sridharan has noted that:

LGBT asylum trends in the United States are closely linked with the domestic
political, social, and legal climate surrounding gays and lesbians. Though the cli-
mate has become more accepting of gays and lesbians, some states and localities
still ban homosexual conduct. This situation, combined with difficulties in prov-
ing LGBT identity and other factors, makes sexual orientation asylum claims
especially challenging (2008).

What is most challenging for LGBT asylum seekers is that in the United States the
focus of the court, in establishing a claim to asylum, is based on homosexual identity,
and not on homosexual conduct. Invoking asylum in the United States rests on the fact
that sexual conduct is criminalised in some states, while sexual identity is not. This is
where, from a cultural studies methodological and theoretical point of view, the inter-
section between subjectivity, everyday life, identity and sexuality coheres around
complex cultural dynamics that need to be carefully considered when interpreting
claims based on sexual orientation.
In preparing testimony for LGBT asylum seekers from Singapore, Indonesia and
Malaysia, one of the immediate difficulties and challenges is the translation of sexual
342 Baden Offord

subjectivity into a fixed (Western) identity – as a lesbian or gay person – something

that for the majority of homosexual Indonesians, for example, is entirely foreign and
even at times traumatic. The phenomenon of “coming out”, so ubiquitous to Western
homosexual psychological discourse and experience, is frequently and decisively rei-
fied, that is, highlighted and foregrounded, by these asylum seekers in order for them
to argue for and access asylum status through legal channels through acceptable Wes-
tern standards of sexual identity. This is often something that occurs in consultation
with their legal representatives and psychologists.
Sridharan concurs that “[t]his emphasis on identity becomes problematic when appli-
cants are from cultures in which homosexuality is defined primarily as the act of engag-
ing in sexual activity with someone of the same sex”. He further states that “[i]dentity-
centric terms like ‘gay’, ‘homosexual’, or even ‘sexual orientation’ are, as a result, ill-
suited to describing the LGBT population in these countries” (2008). This is certainly
the case of many of the LGBT asylum seekers from Southeast Asian countries.
My experience of providing expert testimony began in 1997 when US immigration
lawyer Lavi Soloway14 contacted me after reading about my research into Indonesian,
Singaporean and Malaysian homosexuality and its connection to human rights. The
many affidavits that I have now read by LGBT asylum seekers have provided rich
empirical data about the everyday experience of LGBT people in these Southeast Asian
societies. The scarcity of reporting of LGBT oppression and especially of violence
towards them in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia made these affidavits crucial
evidence of how LGBT human rights were being politically, institutionally, legally and
socially oppressed. The affidavits demonstrated an immense silence and scarcity of aca-
demic work about these issues.
Physical oppression against LGBT people in Indonesia, for example, has only
recently been reported by the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights
(Komnas HAM) which has noted that “[m]embers of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender group continue to face discrimination, marginalization, torture and harass-
ment … with the government denying them their rights as citizens” (Wijaya, 2008).
The Indonesian Foreign Ministry, however, faced with a high-profile gay Indonesian
asylum claim by Anton Tanumihardja in the US, which featured in a report on CNN
in 2011, declared through a news release placed on its website that oppression against
gay Indonesians did not exist. The Embassy stated in fact that Tanumihardja’s “sexual
orientation is absolutely not an issue in Indonesian society” (Embassy, Republic of
Indonesia, 2011).15 These contradictory governmental statements highlight the problem
that LGBT Indonesians face in a society that offers no protection under the law when
it comes to sexual identity. While LGBT Indonesians are often regarded as tolerated
by Indonesian society, such a view needs to be assessed against a context in which
homosexuality across Indonesia is considered a private matter, often a source of
illness and not to be made explicit. In my earlier fieldwork in Indonesia through the
1990s, what was clear about LGBT Indonesians was that their sexual identity was
rarely ever permitted to be explicit or visible. There was no such thing as “coming
From a cultural studies point of view, LGBT asylum claims by Southeast Asians rep-
resent fundamental struggles about power, representation, agency and social recogni-
tion, all key human rights markers. Within transnational contexts of asylum claims
Queer Activist Intersections in Southeast Asia 343

based on sexual orientation, LGBT Indonesians, for example, have to negotiate their
sexual identity often for the first time, by actively “coming out” through a legal and
psychological process. A consistent story and frame in affidavits by LGBT asylum
seekers rests on the necessity of proving sexual identity as a psychological and physical
fact, linking identity to their everyday experience of who they are and narrating how
their sexual identity has been formed. To seek social recognition in the United States
based on sexual identity is to confirm that they belong to a recognised social group that
requires protection. The following excerpts from LGBT affidavits illustrate how sexual
identity becomes pivotal to being granted asylum in the US.16
One such Indonesian claim thus states early in the affidavit that:

I was an effeminate, shy, and introverted child and I began to realize that I was
different from most of the boys around my age. I preferred and felt more com-
fortable playing with girls than boys, because there was less violence in their
games. At school I did not have many friends because most of the students
thought I was too effeminate to be a boy. Some of the boys started abusing me
both verbally and physically. They called me “banci”, an Indonesian term for
“faggot” and they mimicked the way I talked and I walked.

This is quite a common rendition of how an Indonesian gay male will describe their
awakening to sexual identity; that from an early age they have experienced social mar-
ginalisation, stigmatisation and ostracisation. In the next excerpt, the claimant is
describing how they have come to terms with their sexual identity as a homosexual.

Now that I have come a long way in openly self-identifying as a homosexual, I

could never turn back and revert to a life of hiding, fear and shame on account
of my sexual orientation. My homosexuality is part of who I am as a human
being and, even if I tried, I could not reverse this process of self acceptance and
identification as a homosexual. If I were forced to return to Indonesia, I would be
immediately identifiable as a homosexual by individuals who reject and abuse

Prior to beginning this coming out process as an openly self-identifying homosex-

ual, I could never have sought asylum on account of my homosexuality. Even if
I wanted to, I was simply unable to reveal my homosexuality to anyone, espe-
cially a stranger who was an attorney or an officer of the US government. My
fear of being rejected and abused for being gay was so overwhelming that there
was not a single person in the United States who I dared to confide in about my
sexual orientation. After fleeing Indonesia due to the abuse I experienced after
my homosexuality was discovered, it would have been impossible, not just diffi-
cult, for me to reveal my sexual orientation to anyone.

As an activist scholar, my role as a provider of expert testimony foregrounds difficul-

ties in how to culturally translate the many complex conditions and forms of LGBT
experience in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia when such significant markers as
gay identity or the notion of “coming out” are not as relevant or obvious (Boellstorff,
344 Baden Offord

2005, pp. 125–26). I find myself caught between Pannikar’s notion of cultural trans-
lation being as difficult as doing a heart transplant and Baxi’s exhortation that human
rights give voice to people’s suffering. This tension is fundamental in activist scholar-
ship where there are cross-cultural and transnational dimensions to people’s lives.
Being asked to interpret as well as attest to the veracity of LGBT Southeast Asian
asylum seekers making their claims on the basis of sexual orientation through their
sexual identity is a fraught and complex request. How does one explain to a New
York judge about the very different subjective and everyday reality of sexual identity
for an Indonesian homosexual?
Boellstorff has discussed this issue in his own anthropological reflections of Indone-
sian gay and lesbi subject positions and their difference from conceptions of selfhood
in the West (following Charles Taylor’s [1995] thesis of the politics of recognition).

One of the greatest paradoxes of the gay and lesbi subject positions is that while
they have a national and spatial scale and draw upon national discourses, their
cultural logics do not seem to demand the link between meaningful selfhood and
political recognition that Taylor identifies as so important in the West (Boellstorff,
2005, p. 225).

And yet, for a homosexual Indonesian male to engender legitimacy into their claim
for asylum in the United States, they must adhere to Western ideas of selfhood.
There is an explicit interpellation of gay identity. I did feel initially uncomfortable,
therefore, as a cultural translator of sexual identity, being asked by the asylum seeker
to represent their experience, and to evaluate the truthfulness of their statement, given
the paradoxical nature of their subject position. These LGBT asylum seekers have
frequently suffered some of the worst physical and sexual abuse at the hands of fam-
ily members, police and vigilantes. Yet, would I be merely re-inscribing a Western
colonialist mindset into this context? Similar to Boellstorff, who ruminates on his
own moments of methodological vertigo when he was asked to represent Indonesia at
a meeting on behalf of Indonesian activists (2010, p. 225), I had to come to terms
with what it means to be an ongoing participant/observer in research while also
maintaining an ethical interventionist position, as the discipline of cultural studies
Indeed, these asylum cases are moments where activist scholarship produces iterative
research mapping; that is, where research is nourished and sustained by the ongoing
relationships formed with an aggregation of asylum seekers over time. In this sense, the
nature of my fieldwork has moved its gravity from in situ interviewing/observation and
participation towards transnational fieldwork informed by participants (LGBT Southeast
Asian asylum seekers) who are actively crossing into new ways of social recognition,
where sexual identity is reified as a core subjective account of the self.
My disquiet was tempered when I realised that my efforts as a cultural translator
were crucial for the LGBT asylum seeker, that my work was not to “represent” their
experience or case (which was the lawyer’s job), but to culturally, precisely, carefully
and rigorously speak about and qualify their experience contextually and strategically,
to connect their subjective position to fieldwork and analysis of LGBT conditions in
their respective Southeast Asian societies.
Queer Activist Intersections in Southeast Asia 345

These asylum cases, where the assertion of a particular sexual orientation has
become a crucial marker for gaining freedom from oppression, provide a compelling
impetus for engaged scholarship. One of my arguments in this article is therefore to be
alert to the reality of people’s lives while recognising the complexity of queer global
studies and its inherent limitations, contradictions and slippages as well as its enabling
and empowering potential. The same ethical issues face the scholar when their views
on human rights and sexual orientation in Indonesia are sought by the Indonesian
media and are reported in Indonesian papers and later on LGBT activist websites. Over
the past decade I have been sought by the Indonesian media to comment on a range of
LGBT issues in relation to human rights (see, for example, Sabarini, 2008; 2010a;
2010b). In the work that I have undertaken in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia in
relation to homosexual rights activism, there is always an ethical challenge in terms of
how to translate and interpret the context and situation of LGBT people in these coun-
tries as a human rights scholar for media, activist and academic audiences.
To enable critical sensitivity about the connections between human rights and sexual-
ity, I draw on the work of Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia Wieringa (2007), who have
argued for an approach to sexuality that is informed by actively decolonising global
queer studies.17 I see this as an ethical foundation germane to queer and cultural studies
research. The basis of their approach is to make explicit and query Western conceptual
frames when examining sexualities in diverse non-Western contexts. That is, they pro-
pose research that is reflexively oriented and empirical.
Blackwood and Wieringa posit a nuanced way of moving beyond local–global reduc-
tive binaries to a definition of “transnational sexualities” as “the way particular genders
and sexualities are shaped by a large number of processes implicated in globalization”
(Blackwood and Wieringa, 2007, p. 4). These processes are complex and in Southeast
Asian postcolonial contexts are impacted by global discourses and institutions on
homosexuality, human rights and activism that are framed frequently through a Western
(“Stonewall”) lens.
Peletz paraphrases Manderson and Jolly’s (1997) cautionary view that “we need to
be wary of discursive genealogies and ‘theories of development which conceive a teleo-
logical trajectory’ whereby the West becomes ‘a dress rehearsal for the rest of the
world’” (Peletz, 2007, p. 87). This is perhaps the most salient factor when approaching
the complexity of understanding LGBT human rights activism in a Southeast Asian
context. The local negotiation of the global queer movement and its language produces
for activists a complex conjunction of influences. Thus, when we ask what is the
relationship between academic research and human rights advocacy, it is clear that in
the context of queer scholarship and human rights activism in Southeast Asia there are
important theoretical and pragmatic considerations to be made that cohere around
representation, power, identity and subjectivity.

In this article I have attempted to connect the work of the cultural studies practitioner
to human rights discourse and praxis through a discussion of LGBT Southeast Asian
asylum claims. The importance of connecting human rights to everyday life and
experience appears to be crucial for these claims, given the absence of recognition and
protection of LGBT rights across polities such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
346 Baden Offord

To return to R.J. Coombe’s statement: “To the extent that issues of social exclusion,
inequality, identity, power, and representation engage us, Cultural Studies are practically
invested in human rights discourse and praxis” (2010, p. 233).
As cultural studies is an interdisciplinary approach to power, identity, agency and
representation, it is a discipline well suited to analysing human rights and queer activ-
ism in Southeast Asian contexts as it forges a sensitivity to how knowledge and culture
work across the intersections of local and transnational terrains in multiple, complex
and often contradictory ways. The question of sexual identity becomes strategically
fundamental in asylum claims made in the United States. And this is not a matter of
identity politics, but identity reification for survival in the everyday. What is particu-
larly fruitful in approaching the study of Southeast Asian LGBT asylum seekers
through cultural studies is how human rights are conceived to be implicitly connected
and relevant to the everyday life and experience of people and communities. What cul-
tural studies therefore offers is a human rights methodology contextually based on the
convergence of narrative and cultural translation.
Cultural studies offers a robust activist and ethical scholarship uniquely attuned to
human rights praxis; it sets forth an approach that brings together self-reflexive and
empirical methodologies in response to hegemonic challenges posed by the translation
of human rights, sexuality and subjectivity across Western and Asian contexts.

I sincerely thank the Centre for Pacific and American Studies, The University of
Tokyo, for the generous collegial and financial support I received during my time as
the 2010–11 Chair (Visiting Professor) of Australian Studies, which made this paper
possible. Other financial support came from the Australia–Japan Foundation. Thank
you to Vera Mackie for her inspiration as well as expert collegial and scholarly

1. See Offord (1999); Offord and Cantrell (2001); Offord (2003a); Offord (2003b); Offord (2011).
2. This paper develops and extends theoretical issues flagged in Offord (2011, pp. 135–52).
3. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Malaysia’s Mahathir bin Mohamad and several Chinese leaders were
vociferous advocates of ‘Asian Values’ while many local activists across Southeast Asian nations
dismissed such arguments as authoritarian and anti-democratic (Altman, 2000, pp. 211–28).
4. Graeme Turner argues: “cultural studies has helped place the construction of everyday life at the
centre of contemporary intellectual enquiry and research in the humanities” (2012, p. 15).
5. Jeffrey Weeks discusses this convergence at length in The world we have won (2007).
6. A different version of this section appears in Offord (2011).
7. Former British colonies such as Singapore and Malaysia inherited anti-sodomy legislation from
Macaulay’s Indian Penal Code. In Singapore Section 377A of the Penal Code criminalises homo-
sexual conduct.
8. See: Altman (2001); Berry, Martin and Yue (2003); Offord (2003); Boellstorff (2007); Wilson
(2006); Blackwood and Wieringa (2007).
9. Also see D’Cruz (2008).
10. This refers to any state, non-Western or Western.
11. Despite this absence, the work provides a very useful re-evaluation of the “Asian Values” debate.
Queer Activist Intersections in Southeast Asia 347

12. This development is only being flagged as it is not directly relevant to the purpose of this article.
Other recent commentary on these principles from a queer studies perspective includes Waites
(2009, pp. 137–56).
13. I have also provided advice to the Canadian Government and to CNN.
14. See, accessed 1 November 2011.
15. See the CNN interview at
tation.cnn, accessed 1 November 2011.
16. These excerpts are from affidavits dated between 2005 and 2011 and have been de-identified and
aggregated to protect the identities of the asylum seekers. Files with author.
17. A different version of this section appears in Offord (2011, pp. 135–52).

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