Sexuality Conference in Hanoi Challenges Norms, Expectations

What does it mean to be straight, gay, queer, L or G or B or T or none of the above? What is it like to live with the stigma of HIV? How does it feel to be denied the right to marry your partner?

What does it mean to be straight,
gay, queer, L or G or B or T or none of the above? What is it like to
live with the stigma of HIV? How does it feel to be denied the right
to marry your partner? 

Sexual rights activists and
scholars from all around the globe met from April 15-18 in Hanoi to
share their thoughts and experiences on these questions, discussing
gender equality, sexual diversity, sexual identity, sexual health, social
justice and human rights. The VII Conference of the International Association
for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society (IASSCS),
convened for the first time in Asia,
involved a diverse range of participants undertaking multidisciplinary
study from a range of countries, such as Kenya, Indonesia, the United
States, Senegal, Taiwan, Peru, Pakistan, Argentina and Switzerland.
Past conferences have been held in Amsterdam (1997), Manchester (1999),
Melbourne (2001), Johannesburg (2003), San Francisco (2005), and Lima
(2007). The title of the 2009 conference drew upon the presumed sexual innocence
often used to define female sexuality and adolescent sexuality: "Contested
innocence: Sexual agency in public and private space."

One of the strongest messages
that I took from the conference was that of challenging society’s
expectations and norms about gender and sexuality. A gay rights activist
from Indonesia, Dédé Oetomo, opened his discussion with a reference
to sex-selective abortion and how Asian cultures have an obsessive preference
for male babies: "It is a perilous moment if we turn out or are even
suspected of being female".  He questioned society’s obsession
with conformity and asked why "gender" has become synonymous with
"women" or "gender identity" with transgender, "as if men
and women don’t have gender."  Referring to homosexual men,
men who have sex with men (MSM) or men who love men, he criticized the
emergence of "MSM language," which I myself have fallen into the
trap of using in previous
: "With
all this diversity, it is dangerous to classify it all by ‘MSM.’"
A similar comment that homosexual men who have sex with men do not commonly
use the label "MSM" was made by another researcher in reference
to Vietnam. 

Similarly, US researcher Evelyn
Blackwood criticized the notion of LGBT as a "western" concept." 
Referring to the June 1969 rebellion in New York City’s West Village
that helped spark the modern LGBT movement, she recognized that having
these labels creates a sense of community that one can identify with,
but concluded: "There’s a lot more going on with gender and sexuality
that can ever be encapsulated in four letters." This is particularly
the case with terms like Tongzi, tomboi or lesbi used in Asia. She also
felt that lesbian women or women loving women had been less visible
in the global homosexual movement. 

A great deal of discussion
was dedicated to the stigma of living with HIV. HIV prevention campaigns
have a "missing link" where the campaigns target men who have sex
with men but these men are unwilling, unable or, simply, do not identify
this way. The peculiar vulnerability of migrants and mobile populations
to HIV infection was also highlighted, particularly with reference to
Vietnam and China. Low condom use, either because of lack of knowledge
or lack of access among these vulnerable populations, was also evident
in the data presented by researchers. 

also received
some brief negative coverage. South African activist and scholar, Pierre
de Vos, highlighted that the introduction of same-sex marriage alone
is unable to change the deeply patriarchal and homophobic society in
which he lives: "Laws alone will not affect the radical social change
that some of us want to see." A more positive picture was presented
about Spain, where there were 1,275 same-sex marriages
in 2005, 4,574 in 2006 and 3,250 in 2007 following the introduction
of same sex marriage in mid 2005. In Spain too, however, homophobia
remains a challenge, with families sometimes absent at weddings and
same-sex couples fearful of telling colleagues at work, and therefore
losing the right to 15 days off work, a legal entitlement for all couples
getting married. 

To me, the entire conference
pushed boundaries and raised challenging ideas, particularly in light
of the backdrop of conservative Communist Vietnamese society. Many of
these activists and scholars will meet against at the VIII IASSCS Conference
which will take place in two years time. No doubt, they will discuss
new ways of tackling new obstacles in the fight for dignity, citizenship
and sexual freedom for all. For now, I walked away from this conference
with a better understanding of the influence of culture in creating
diverse sexuality. Any transnational fight for equality must recognize