At the end of last month Laos celebrated its first gay pride with an event at the US consulate.
Lao LGBT rights activist Anan Bouapha was one of the organizers. He talks to Gay Star News about the effect of the event and the situation for gay rights in Laos.
What’s been the effect of the LGBT Pride event at the US consulate?
Now we are going to establish an LGBT committee to continue the momentum and to plan an LGBT national day next year. The government will hopefully give us a green light.
Since we had that event every organization has got to know each other's work and they can see the potential partners to tackle the same problems. Most of the organizations at the event are working on HIV prevention.
At the event we had two messages. The first message is to be who you are. The second message is to encourage people to protect themselves from HIV.
Is HIV infection a big problem in Laos? How is the government tackling the problem?
I think in the past few years the government has been working very well. I'm very impressed at their contribution compared to 2004. Since 2008/09 there has been very good progress.
In terms of HIV prevalence, it's quite serious among MSM (men who have sex with men). It was 5.6% compared to the general prevalence of 0.2% in 2007.
What is the government doing?
The government set up a centre for HIV/AIDS and STI looked after by the Ministry of Health. We have ten organisations working in this area, but only three working on MSM. I think this is really low.
In 2008 we used to have a lesbian group supported by the UN Population Fund, but it's very sad that they stopped funding because these people don't reproduce and they're not at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.
Are gay men more accepted by society in Laos than lesbian women?
Actually it's the opposite way. It seems like lesbians are more accepted than gay men. I don't know why, maybe because of culture.
In Laos men are expected to be the leader of the family, so families disapprove when their brother or uncle says they are gay. Gay men face more stigma and discrimination than lesbian women. It's different from other countries. I think it's because of the fact that lesbians are women so they respect women.
Gay men suffer verbal abuse and physical abuse in small cities. But Vientiane [the capital], it's getting much better compared to the past, because the UN, the government and NGOs are talking about MSM and TGs [transgenders], so people are more accepting. But in the small villages I'm sure that this negative phenomenon still exists.
Do transgender people get medical support?
In Laos the government doesn’t even help with that. I think a lot Lao transgender go to Thailand if they have money for the operation. In Laos they just provide you with basic medicines - hormones - and basic sexual health counselling.
At Cambodia Pride in May, representatives from other Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) got together to share experiences campaigning for LGBT rights in their countries. Are ASEAN LGBT groups planning to work together more?
I went to Cambodia Pride where there were representatives from other ASEAN countries. But we participated and then just went home. We have to work together more, have more engagement and commitment.
The Purple Sky Network is playing a significant role in the region if you talk about MSM and TG work. MSM and TG have more groups because we started to work on this issue from the HIV prevention programme. So we had a lot of external assistance. But now we're not focusing only on sexual health issues but we try to integrate human rights and advocacy work.
Do you think gay marriage will come to Laos in the next ten years?
No I think maybe the next thirty years, twenty years. It's still abstract to talk about gay marriage in Laos because our government leaders are very conservative about that.
In Laos, you can be who you are but you are not protected by law. They don't harrass you, they don't beat you, they don’t abuse you because of who you are. But if you want to ask for a change in law it's impossible.
Two men or two women or transgenders can live together with happiness, without being bullied or abused or something. There will just be some gossip, but they won't do anything to you.