Creating spaces for dialogue
Exploring queer cinema in Southeast Asiaby Griselda Gabriele
Southeast Asian queer creators are familiar with having their stories hidden or overwritten, but with films as their medium of choice, they are gradually reclaiming their places in society’s narrative.
Our identities and places in society are regularly defined by stories told about us. For queer people in Southeast Asia, it’s not uncommon to see other people define their identities in their place. Thoughts like “you don’t belong here” are conveyed through stories of deaths and unrequited loves, “you’re immoral” through stories of punishments and cheating spouses. These narratives perpetuate homophobia within Southeast Asian societies, resulting in real life consequences—queer people in the region are marginalised, struggling with violence and a lack of rights. They are pushed to live in hiding, with no defined place in society.
Queerness is difficult to define. Originally a derogatory term used against homosexuals, the term “queer” has since been reclaimed. Now, it is an umbrella term for non-normative sexual orientations and gender identities. This includes anyone who are not strictly heterosexual or cisgender—people who identify with the gender they’re assigned at birth.
While LGBT+ labels constructed by Western societies—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, and more—have become more widely accepted, queerness has always existed before these labels did, and its definition is constantly being expanded upon and questioned. To be queer is to live in constant dialogue.
It is fitting, then, that film is the medium of choice for many to tell their stories. With films, Southeast Asian queer creators and allies present their own takes on queer identities—from genderfluid priests to budding same-sex relationships—in an attempt to reclaim their places in society.
In the last few decades, Southeast Asian creators have released films that depict how queerness has always played a role in our history. It comes with nuances that can only be captured in local contexts, going beyond formal labels and adapting to what different communities find intuitive—in other words, vernacular queerness.
One way this manifests is in various traditions, professions, and art forms.
In some Southeast Asian societies, gender and sexual fluidity are not limited to certain professions or traditions. In fact, it may be ingrained in their day-to-day languages and cultures, and persists in modern societies.
The Philippines, for example, has a kind of four-part system that combines the ideas of sex, gender expression, and identities: babae (cisgender, heterosexual women), lalaki (cisgender, heterosexual men), tomboy (used interchangeably for trans men, masculine women, or lesbians), and bakla (used interchangeably for trans women, effeminate men, or gay men). Bakla, in particular, is described using various terms in other countries, such as Thailand’s kathoey, Indonesia’s waria, and Malaysia’s mak nyah. For some languages like Malay and the Myanmar language, binary pronouns are simply not the default at all.
What words cannot explain, films fill the gap—as an audio-visual medium, the audience gets to learn about these nuances through personal stories and lived experiences.
Despite the presence of queer communities throughout Southeast Asia’s history, they hold an uncertain position in society, and perceptions are ever-changing. Queer-themed films produced throughout the years reflected these perceptions and the dialogues surrounding them.
What does the overall landscape look like? Let’s take a step back and identify some patterns.
Suppression of queer voices have worsened in Indonesia and Malaysia, where authorities have recently called for stringent bans on queer-related media. This happens in other countries too, on a subtler level. Vietnam and Singapore have media guidelines for films to promote “good public morals or ideologies” or preserve “public order”, which can very easily be used against queer films. This leads some directors to pull out their films or self-censor their scripts to avoid any political issues, such as director Leon Le with Song Lang (2018).
As a result, one’s homeland may not be the best place to produce queer films. Some creators turn to other countries, where there is better funding and support. For some, it’s the only choice; films like Singapore’s Sambal Belacan in San Francisco (1997) are banned in their home countries despite critical acclaim overseas. But this path comes with its own set of challenges. Southeast Asian creators are usually not treated as equals among Western filmmakers, or tend to feel confined by Western standards of filmmaking and definitions of queerness.
In the end, the desire to belong in Southeast Asia still exists for many.
Now, Southeast Asian queer communities are still trying to define their place in society by creating spaces for one another.
Pride parades have been a huge part of queer movements. They create a space for the community to make their voices heard, to observe public response, and to start conversations. Most importantly, they foster a sense of belonging within the community.
Queer film festivals are similar, though slightly more specific to film. These festivals tend to be organised by queer people for the community, which means queer creators aren't limited by what censorship boards or non-queer audiences find appealing. Budding creators get to tell stories that imagine queer spaces on their terms, and gain recognition for their craft. Southeast Asian creators overseas also find spaces to discuss queerness within Asian-centric festivals such as Queer Asia and Queer East.
For some people, film festivals are the only places they can release their films. A large portion of films released in the past decade never made their way to mainstream cinemas or streaming services.
Unfortunately, these events face constant opposition. It’s not uncommon for them to be banned by authorities or ceased due to protests and lack of security for the organisers. Despite that, these events show the community’s resilience. Time and again, when one ceased, another took its place.
These events aren’t possible without the work of allied organisations. Queer creators need safe spaces to learn and express themselves, and obtain support and resources for their work. This can be a drop-in centre, production house, or human rights advocacy group. Some organisations have also taken their work online, where digital safe spaces and archives of queer history are created to ensure that the community gets to tell their stories.
Click on each point on the map to view a list of organisations or collectives in the country.
Queer communities have always been part of society, and they are here to stay. Seeing Southeast Asia through their eyes will enrich our understanding of the region as a whole. There are a lot more stories waiting to be told. While they’re persistent, there’s only so much they can do when simple acceptance is still a hurdle.
For them to be able to tell their stories, they need an audience. There is a lot that can be done, such as donating or raising awareness about the work of queer creators and organisations. Making films happen is only the first step. As dialogues surrounding these films continue, greater diversity of topics will emerge, and we will be all the better for it.
Until then, explore our database of Southeast Asian queer feature and short films on your own, and contribute to ongoing databases out there—maybe these stories will move you to redefine your place and identity in society too.
This story is written with thanks to Elsewhere Cinema Club, Queer Indonesia Archive, U Bava Dharani of Queer Asia, and the community of readers who contributed to our crowdsourced database.