Sunday, July 22, 2012

Rethinking 42 with Anan Bouapha, Laos gay leader

(some of the sections of this interview containing more personal questions were removed on Monday 23/7 9am Laos time, per Anan's request. The original interview text was approved by Anan prior to publishing, but he had second thoughts after seeing it live, which is totally legitimate dl)

Anan Bouapha is the unofficial recognized leader of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender) community in the Asian country of Laos, who recently organized the country's first ever Pride event, hosted at the US embassy. Anan is involved in a million and one activities around LGBT empowerment and HIV prevention. I sat down with him for a chat on the answer to life, the universe and everything. Our meeting was appropriately set to 11pm at Pack Luck, a gay-friendly bar in Vientiane. On a Thursday night, the bar was empty except for us - myself, being in the midst of a self-imposed no-alcohol month, sipping mineral water and Anan drinking coke. I wonder how this bar stays in business.

DL: How do you define yourself? LGBT is such a technical term
AB: I am feminine gay, but I am not a transgender, I enjoy cross dressing, but not every day. I enjoy cross dressing because I feel good when I see myself in women clothes, beautiful clothes, nice hair. I don't do that that often, only when going to a party.

DL: How was it growing up as a gay in Laos?
AB: I was born in a very conservative family. We have a big family, and my parents are very old fashion. When I was young we use to talk about gay issues, in other words what my parents saw as my problems, every day. I remember fighting with my sister when I was 5 years old, because I wanted to wear her dresses. Since I am the only son, and the last child - I have four older sisters - my parents have huge expectations of me to continue the family line.

DL: When did you tell your parents?
AB: I actually haven't ever told them, but I think they know, because I am feminine. I try to educate them about sexual diversity in general. Have them accept that being like this is not bad karma or a disease. I have been contributing to my community, and my family are proud of me today, that's my acceptance. I only told them about my work with the LGBT community in the 3rd year of my work. When I told them that I attended a meeting on HIV with the Minister of Health, they were quite shocked, and couldn't believe the government pays attention to "these people". Now they are seeing all the recognition that I am getting, and are proud of me and brag about my work to their friends.

DL: You spent a year going to university in the US, specifically, in Laramie, Wyoming - how do you compare people's attitude towards gays?
AB: Very different. Vientiane is small, but it is a capital city. There are many foreigners living here. It is not as developed as Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City or Phnom Penh, but still, this cosmopolitan environment of a capital city affects people's attitudes, and people are becoming more tolerant of diversity over time. Being a feminine gay like me or a ladyboy or whatever is completely ok here. In Wyoming, everything - infrastructure, education, is 100 times better than Laos. But people's attitude is different. In their mentality they accept straight looking gay people, but they have a hard time accepting a feminine gay that dresses like a woman, and behaves in a feminine way. Even when I visited San Francisco, most gays I met looked straight, it looks like this is mostly what exists in white countries. In South East Asia, we have everything. Its not just about men attracted to men. In Asia, it is acceptable to have a sex change, to just take hormones to grow your breast or what ever. In the US it looks like the sexual subgroups are isolated, don't mix with the mainstream gay, but here it is not like that. Here gay men, cross-dressers, transvestites, trans-sexual we all get together. We also don't categorize each other. We don't need to put on a label on people, and people can be cross-dressers one day and gay the next.

DL: What's your take on the the gay and ladyboy prostitutes that seem to be quite common in Vientiane?
AB: They are definitely part of our community. I have no problem with what they do, sex work is a profession. But of course, it is not a good idea to be a sex worker if you have other options. However, if that's what you do, you need to know what you you're doing. The main problem, is it has a very negative image, and you're bound to have a stigma, and in addition, you need to think how to protect yourself from disease and from being trafficked, but if you know what you're doing, you're ok. 

DL: It seems a very high percentage of ladyboys become sex workers. Is it because it is really hard for them to find a normal job?
AB: It's because of the stigma and discrimination of ladyboys in our region. Being gay is hard enough, but being a ladyboy seems you get shot twice - you're rejected by your society, even your own family, you start to go in the wrong direction. You start to hang out with the wrong friends etc. A lot of them become drug addicts. The ones that are doing ok, often get into the beautician (hairdresser etc) profession, because that profession is open to them. It is almost impossible for them to find a job. No company or government office will accept a transgender in a Lao skirt (the traditional female dress in Laos which is mandatory for women in most work places dl)

DL: Laos is a communist, one-party country, in which the government is deeply involved in every aspect of life. How is the community's relationship with them?
AB: It is very difficult for us to raise our problems with the government. We are engaged in a dialog with them, but only indirectly through our organizations (NGOs etc), since we don't have direct access. We are lucky that the government is tolerant of the LGBT community, and specifically the Ministry of Health recognizes the importance of working with us on combating HIV. One of the reasons for this tolerance in society, is that most of our TV programs in Laos come from Thailand, and the Thai media likes to make transsexuals into celebrities. This has a big positive influence. Our nature in Laos is very gentle. People might be curious or even laugh at you if you go to small places upcountry, but they will not harm you. However, the government will not support any LGBT rights in legislation, that is out of the question. Nevertheless, we don't have any problems with the government on a day-to-day basis.

DL: How about lesbians?
AB: Unfortunately, there is no lesbian organization or active community in Laos. This is quite sad. In the Pride event I organized in partnership with the US embassy, I started to involve them as well, for the first time.

DL: Tell me a little about your work 
AB: I work a lot in the HIV prevention and awareness space. Laos is still a low HIV prevalence country - about 0.2% of the general population and 5.6%  the MSM (men-sex-men dl) population are HIV positive. This is very low compared to our neighboring countries - Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar all have very high HIV prevalence. Since we have open borders and a very large number of tourists from our neighboring countries, we are at risk. 

I am the Laos representative of the Purple Sky Network foundation. I do advocacy work, I advocate the government for change the policy, as well as change public perception - reduce the stigma and discrimination of LGBT. I am also working for the Global Youth Network (Y-PEER) which is supervised by the UN Population Fund. This project tries to improve the sexual health, HIV prevention etc, and also empowerment of young people. I am in charge of this for Laos.

A few weeks ago, I collaborated with the US Embassy to organize the Pride event, the objective was to raise awareness in the country of LGBT, in a positive way - we can be a national resource to develop our country. I advocate for positive change for our community.

DL: What would you advise a Lao guy that is facing some of the same challenges you had faced?
AB: Always know your rights, that's the most important thing. First help yourself, then your community. A lot of LGBT people are afraid to be who they are because of the disapproval by their families and society. But they are an enormous resource for the country. A lot of them don't believe in their prospects, they think, "I am gay, so my only option is to be a beautician, do 'gay work' ". They don't think they are capable of working in the government, companies or international organizations, since they only hire straight people. It is very important for them to know their abilities, how they can leverage them to more significant contributions. The number one priority is try to let your family know who you are. If you are empowered by your family, you can do a lot without hesitation.

DL: What is your dream?
AB: I have an impossible dream. I want to work for the government at some point. I want to the first highest ranking gay official in my country, and I want to make a big change. Not just with regards to LGBT rights, but I want to use my pro-active skills to develop this country. At my core, I am a communicator  - I can communicate and convince people from all walks of life. I think that in the next 30, 40 years, I can do something enormous for this country. 

Did you like this post? Please feel free to share the link on Facebook or Google Plus. If you care to share your thoughts or feedback, I would love to hear them either in the comments section below or directly to my email Thanks! -divon

1 comment:

  1. I saw the news about the LGBT Pride parade in Vientiane and was wondering who took part in it and where it came from. Thanks for interviewing one of the organizers of it. Fascinating.