‘People must be true to themselves’: voices from Laos on love, family, stereotypes – and building a more inclusive society

Bounyali Souvankham Events, Influencing, Rights

In our latest blog for Pride month, Bounyali Souvankham reports back on powerful and diverse stories and messages from a panel of LGBTQIA+ people convened by a programme that works to boost marginalised voices

Speaker Tam Khounphouvong at the ”Our Bodies, Our Lives, Our Rights” event (Picture: Bounyali Souvankham)

The LGBTQIA+ community in many of the countries where the Voice programme works faces a context that ranges from acceptance without legal recognition to widespread stigma and persecution. In Laos, while same-sex marriage is not currently legal, LGBTQIA+ acceptance has gradually grown over the past decades.

Recognizing the rights of LGBTQIA+ people means acknowledging the dangers of violence, discrimination, and a plethora of other negative consequences that come with exclusion and unfair treatment. In projects funded by Voice – an international programme that offers grants to support marginalised comunities – there are two emerging trends among the LGBTQIA+ projects we fund:

  • Mobilising and organising groups to get official recognition as part of civil society.

On May 17th, the Voice team in Laos commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOBIT) by holding a panel: “Our Bodies, Our Lives, Our Rights”. In order to broaden the learning beyond our existing project network and to influence a larger community, we hosted a panel discussion with panellists drawn from different professions and both private and government sectors. The event was open to the public, with the aim of engaging many more LGBTQIA+ advocates and discover different points of view.

Panellists had a diverse range of life experiences and the discussion was fascinating because it brought together a wide range of emotions and personalities, while providing a complete picture of the Lao LGBTQIA+ community. People clearly felt safe enough to express their true selves without falsifying in order to fit in. The panel discussion concluded with all agreeing that change must start with yourself, and that everyone must participate in delivering inclusive social progress.

Discovering yourself in a positive environment

In the discussion, Tam Khounphovong, a well-known Laos fashion designer, reflected on his childhood: “When my mother introduced me to other people, they would ask if I am the “son” because I dressed and acted differently than other boys. My mother would always respond proudly: ‘Yes, son and daughter in one‘, and expressed her gratitude for having given birth to such a wonderful child.” Tam thanked his mother for her perseverance and for allowing him to live his life freely. She has been his most ardent supporter, assuring him that he would be raised in a secure environment and would grow up to be a truly amazing individual.

Tam spent years trying to figure out who he was. He experimented with fashion from a young age, wearing skirts, applying makeup, participating in traditional Lao dancing, and a variety of activities ranging from knitting to yoga to boxing and football. His awareness grew as he realized what activities brought him joy.

“I live my life with all my rights; this is my body, and I decide what to wear and pursue a career path of my choosing, not because of what others say or do. When I asked my family if they were embarrassed by my fashion choices, my mother replied: ‘If it does not harm others and is appropriate and respectable for the occasion and place, sure one can wear anything’.”

Tam’s story also revealed how acceptance can help tackle physical and mental health issues, discrimination in employment, and underrepresentation in positions of civic leadership. Tam was fortunate to have been raised and surrounded by a positive environment, which led to his confidence, and determination to be a success as a designer.

First to understand, then to be understood

By contrast, our panellist Pipop Aliya struggled to communicate with her parents about her sexual orientation and gender, under the pressure of cultural and social expectations.

Pipop was an excellent student in school, an obedient child at home, served as student president while studying abroad – and also ran a successful business during her university years. When it came to love and relationships, she did not refuse to talk to men; in fact, she did everything that society expects of a successful individual.

But beneath the smile she wore, she didn’t feel fulfilled or happy.

Pipop reached a point where she felt she needed immediate communication with her parents to thrive. Her father’s response: “I can only raise your body but not your heart, so it’s your life, you are the one living on it”, brought her tears as she remembered it.

However, Pipop’s mother objected to her actions and life decisions. Her mother worried how Pipop would be accepted by society, deal with her new identity, or care for herself as she grew older without marrying in a traditional binary marriage. But after a series of squabbles, Pipop realised that the disagreements were being driven by fact that her mother wanted to protect her, not suppress her right to be happy.

It took time, but her mother came to see that Pipop could be a leader in her own right, that she could care for herself and serve others.

Poster for the event

Pipop said: “We live in a diverse culture with diverse thoughts and opinions, therefore I learned to give before taking, which is to understand others before being understood by others. And this leads to inclusiveness – it is how I live my bodies, my life, and my rights.”

Generalisation and stereotypes

“A lot of time, people can over-generalise about and stereotype the LGBTQIA+ community,” said OA Phanida, a media company CEO.  OA comes from Luang Prabang, a historic northern city that is one of Laos’ most culturally conservative.

OA describes herself as having a masculine outlook and lifestyle. She recalls being teased by friends about how she dressed. She was humiliated, disowned, and beaten up by her own mother and siblings for hanging around with too many female friends. Her mental health was heavily affected by trying to be true to the lifestyle she wanted.

She remembered how in the 1990s – before the era of social media and particularly, for those who lived a masculine lifestyle, speaking a foreign language was seen as contradictory to social norms. She was mocked for communicating with her stepfather in a foreign language

OA said each individual is unique, not a reflection of their nationality, race, community, or family.  Yet the LGBTQIA+ community is subjected to generalisations and stereotypes as a result of a lack of efforts to learn about the complexity of human life. “Even people in my family, my sister and I, can be so different. How can it be considered that the rest of the women in Luang Prabang are like what you imagine? People must be true to themselves and refrain from making broad generalisations.”

OA highlighted negative stereotypes, such as all masculine females being lesbians and vice versa, or that women working in technical jobs are not considered authentic Lao women.

She said it was time for Lao people to break free from the old judgments and that individuals had the right to be themselves, as long as it did no harm to others. “Stereotyping does not make anyone a bad person, but taking the chance to educate and become more conscious is always a positive thing – especially when the LGBTQIA+ community is already a minority and could use all the help they can get,” she said.


Bounyali Souvankham

Bounyali Souvankham is Learning, Linking and Amplifier Officer at the Voice programme, Oxfam in Laos

The Voice programme is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, and delivered by Oxfam Novib and social justice and environmental NGO Hivos, with Oxfam leading the work in Laos. The programme offers grants to support the most marginalised and discriminated groups – including LGBTQIA+ people – in ten low- and lower-middle income countries in Africa and Asia. https://voice.global/.  

This is the fourth in a summer series of blogs about LGBTQIA+ rights around the world that started off in Pride month. All the blogs will be published on Oxfam’s Views and Voices site aimed at development professionals. Subscribe here to keep up with the latest posts and also follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.