COVID-19 Op-ed

Impacts of Covid-19 on LGBTIQ Organizations in the Southeast Asian Region

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Ryan SilverioRegional
Coordinator of ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, a regional network that works for the
promotion and protection of human rights of LGBTIQ persons in the Southeast
Asian region. This opinion piece expresses their own personal views. Ryan
acknowledges their colleagues, namely, Nguyen Hai Yen, Lini Zurlia and Jan
Gabriel Castaneda, who all contributed in producing a rapid needs assessment
report cited in this opinion piece.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been a
complex and challenging political terrain for lesbian, gay, bisexual,
transgender, intersex, queer (LGBTIQ) activism. The unholy concoction of
conservative religious or traditional discourses and colonial penal laws
resulted to criminalization of LGBTIQ persons. Five countries in ASEAN,
namely, Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore, have
domestic laws that criminalize consensual sexual relations, imposing
penalties ranging from imprisonment, to public caning, and worse, death. Four
countries, namely, Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar, apply
domestic laws that restrict expressions of gender diversity, resulting to
arrests, harassment and imprisonment of transgender and gender diverse
persons. In many development programs, LGBTIQ and gender diverse persons are
left-behind, leveraging on scant local support in the fringes of governance
and development aid. These are part of the litany of issues many LGBTIQ
groups in the region have been confronting for years.When the region is hit
with COVID-19 pandemic, pre-existing concerns is intensified. A paper by the
Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2020 pointed out
the challenges that confront LGBTIQ persons during the pandemic are varied.
Among the challenges are homophobic attacks against LGBTIQ groups under the
guide of health emergency measures; increased exposure to domestic violence
when stay-at-home directives leaves no options but prolonged confinement in
unsupportive households; and the loss of income and livelihood among LGBTIQ
persons working in the informal sector.Noting the impact of the pandemic to
LGBTIQ persons, the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus conducted a rapid needs assessment
involving local LGBTIQ organizations in the region. One glaring key finding
is that organizational capacity and resources is not sufficient, and this
might hamper sustained and effective responses to emerging needs and concerns
of their members and communities.Many local LGBTIQ organizations are
underfunded, mostly relying on short-term, activity-focused or project-based
and restricted funding. A report (Funders for LGBTQ Issues and Global
Philanthropy Project, 2018) pointed out that only around 26% of global
funding for LGBTIQ activism was allocated for general operating support.
Meanwhile, only 14% of transgender organizations in Asia were reported to
have received at least one grant. Such low funding allocation hampered the
growth of many local groups (Scamell, 2019). These figures are indicative of
the low investments given to build and sustain operations of local groups,
much more when they are confronting crisis situations.Several LGBTIQ groups
also experienced cancelled projects such as trainings, workshops, and other
public campaign activities (ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, 2020). Some funders have
backed-out from the agreed funding, others were left with no choice but to
reschedule the grants to a later time (ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, 2020). An
immediate response made by groups was to negotiate with funders to reallocate
pre-existing project funds to enable them to do emergency response while others
resorted to on-line fundraising activities with their members and allies.
Some used their organizational savings, which consequently may impact their
future operations. There were organizational leaders who had to use their own
personal savings. Despite funding limitations, local groups continued to
distribute food supplies, and health and hygiene supplies for their members
and constituents.There is also the shift in terms of strategy. Across ASEAN,
many civil society organizations have shifted to online space, and this
consequently led to a noticeable increase in the number of webinars organized
since the crisis hit the region face front. For some activists, this shift to
online space is viewed as a reckless move, in which it is unmindful of the
inequalities in access to technology and to the Internet.In lieu of cancelled
or suspended activities, the LGBTIQ groups have started to redirect their
focus to address the pressing concerns of their members, constituents or
communities (ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, 2020). Different groups have reported about
the need to go back to the drawing board and revise their work plans. One
group from Indonesia reported that within 2020 they would prioritize
mobilization of emergency fund for the community.At the individual level, the
pandemic’s impact is also felt. The reality is that many persons engage in
LGBTIQ activism in their voluntary capacity. Just like the others, LGBTIQ
activists involve in part-time or freelance job and small businesses are
greatly affected (ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, 2020). An activist from Thailand
pointed out that there is no guarantee that the government’s socio-economic
relief such as cash assistance will reach LGBTIQ informal workers such as
those in the salons or those engaged in “sex work”. An activist from Cambodia
pointed out significant income losses in their social enterprise, which fuels
their organization.Individual level impact, in the case of volunteer
activists has ripples at the organizational level. As pointed out by an
activist from Vietnam, as a result of the crisis, their members will focus on
their own livelihood and thus may weaken their motivation to work with the
organization (ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, 2020).The COVID-19 pandemic is an on-going
crisis; newer concerns, challenges and needs of LGBTIQ groups will continue
to unfold. One immediate concern is to ensure that local groups survive and
sustain, as they are integral elements in civil society. As such,
governments, donors, humanitarian agencies and fellow civil society actors
need to underscore organizational development support in their on-going
crisis response. The pandemic does not simply expose groups to a new frontier
of activism, but it also calls for a serious check-in. But the question is,
are we ready?References:ASEAN
SOGIE Caucus (2020). Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic on
LGBTIQ Organizations in ASEAN: Rapid Needs Assessment
. Funders for
LGBTQ Issues and Global Philanthropy Project (2018). Global
Resources Report: Government and Philanthropic Support for Lesbian, Gay,
Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Communities, 2015/2016.
Office
of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (2020). COVID-19 and the
Human Rights of LGBTI People
, April 17. In https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/LGBT/LGBTIpeople.pdfScamell,
D. (2019). The State of Trans Funding: Funder Briefing.
New York: Global Philanthropy Project, American Jewish World Service, Astraea
Lesbian Foundation for Justice and GATE. 

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