How does Asia compare to other regions in terms of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights? While Asia lags behind the West on typical metrics of LGBT rights, this fails to capture the diversity of tolerance historically in the region. At the same time, conservative backlashes to LGBT policies are evident across the region, often invoking traditionalist or religious opposition, as also seen outside of the region. Moreover, much of the literature myopically focuses on one or two countries in Asia, rarely attempting to make broad comparisons across East, South, and Central Asia. Part of this is due to terminology differences, where “homosexual” is commonly used in some countries as a catch-all term for members of the LGBT community, compared to others in the region countries, especially in South Asia, with a longer history of specialized terminology for transgendered people. Yet broader comparisons in the absence of terminology differences remain rare despite growing attention to LGBT issues in public opinion polls, news, and academic work and despite the fact that the legal avenues chosen by LGBT rights proponents often mirror those chosen in the West. State policies on LGBT policies also range considerably in the region, with only Taiwan currently recognizing same-sex marriage at the national level, but with decriminalization and antidiscrimination policies at the national and local levels increasingly common. However, a commonly overlooked trend is that of harsher LGBT policies enacted by local governments. Meanwhile, despite trends in the West of growing public tolerance on LGBT issues, far less consistency emerges in Asia, further complicating state efforts. It is important to highlight Asia’s diversity in terms of rights and tolerance, but it is equally important to integrate evidence from Asia into cross-national research on LGBT issues to understand what is unique about the region and what may have been ignored in other regions.
Timothy Rich, Andi Dahmer, and Isabel Eliassen
Rina Verma Williams and Sayam Moktan
With over one billion adherents worldwide and 15% of the world’s population, Hinduism is the fourth largest, and among the oldest, of the major world religions, with important political aspects that reverberate well beyond South Asia. Yet it is perhaps the least studied of the major world religions. Hinduism is also one of the most geographically concentrated religions of the world. The majority of Hindus are concentrated in two South Asian countries, Nepal and India, where Hindus constitute 80% or more of the population. Small but politically influential diasporic communities of Hindus are found throughout Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, the United States, and Canada. Key characteristics of Hinduism that set it apart from Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), especially politically, include its polytheistic nature and lack of one single authoritative text; the tremendous variation in its practice across locality and caste; and its frequently informal practice beyond the confines of official institutions such as temples. Hinduism has been compatible with a range of regime types over time in India and Nepal, including empire, monarchy, and democracy. Both India and Nepal are officially secular countries, but the status of secularism in both countries is contested by the forces of Hindu nationalism, a movement that seeks to institutionalize the political, social, and cultural predominance of Hinduism. Religious conversion is expressly prohibited in Nepal; in India, it is increasingly under legislative attack. The politics of caste are an important political aspect of Hinduism in both India and Nepal. While politics in both countries remain dominated by upper castes, important lower-caste political mobilization has appeared in India, but has yet to take hold in Nepal. A better understanding of Hinduism’s political aspects has enormous potential to enhance knowledge of religion and politics more broadly.
Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) is the only region in the world where annual HIV infection rates continue to grow. According to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), in 2019 approximately 1.4 million people in the region were living with HIV. The main factors that have contributed to the spread of the epidemic over the past two decades include injecting drug use, the stigmatization and marginalization of vulnerable groups, the increasing spread of HIV into the general population, and the lack of evidence-based prevention and treatment programs necessary for controlling the epidemic. Limited access to life-saving antiretroviral treatment has intensified the impact of the epidemic in EECA and increased mortality rates among people living with HIV (PLWH). In the post-Soviet space, Russia is experiencing by far the biggest HIV/AIDS epidemic. This can be attributed largely to the government’s failure to introduce evidence-based prevention measures for vulnerable groups, e.g., harm reduction programs, which are recommended by international health organizations. Other countries in the region have been more pragmatic in their approach and introduced harm reductions programs on a broader scale. In Ukraine, the efforts to combat HIV, which led to an initial stabilization of the epidemic in 2012, have been endangered by the military conflict in the eastern part of the country and subsequent internal displacement, which has increased HIV vulnerability. In comparison with Russia and Ukraine, the countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia are less affected by HIV. However, labor migration to Russia constitutes a persistent risk factor for HIV transmission from higher-prevalence Russia to lower-prevalence South Caucasus and Central Asia. Although initially the HIV/AIDS epidemic has been mainly driven by injecting drug use, it is also clearly linked to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) politics and policies in EECA. Because of widespread stigmatization and marginalization, the spread of HIV within LGBT communities remains underreported and is barely visible in official HIV statistics. This makes it difficult for prevention programs to reach out to vulnerable groups. In all countries in the region, prevention efforts among LGBT communities remain inadequate and largely depend on local civil society organizations (CSOs), which lack the capacities to provide nationwide information campaigns and other prevention programs for the LGBT community. In addition, the work of CSOs that advocate for HIV prevention among LGBT groups is further undermined by repressive laws, e.g., the 2013 “gay propaganda law” in Russia, which has increased the stigmatization of LGBT people and has made prevention outreach more difficult. Research has contributed to our understanding of HIV vulnerability and its impact in EECA. Further research is needed, however, into the social and political factors that explain the persistent failure of regional decision-makers to adequately address the growing HIV epidemic.