Protecting and safeguarding the sexual and reproductive health rights of every person, regardless of their sexual orientation, is essential for a just social order.
However, in many parts of Asia, people with different sexual identities including lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, and inter-sex people (LGBTS), face serious human rights violations due to their sexual orientation.
Many governments in the region are in a state of denial about same-sex relationships, and therefore lack the systematic research and facts required to effectively respond to the specific public health needs of LGBTS individuals.
LGBTS individuals have little to no access to public health services and information – a scenario which makes them highly vulnerable to HIV and STI infection. In addition, gender-based inequalities prevent many LGBTS people from being able to protect themselves. Millions of LGBTS people lack the social and economic power to insist on HIV prevention measures such as condoms, abstinence or mutual monogamy.
Due to political, socio-cultural, legal and religious systems that prohibit same-sex relationships, many who are LGBTS are unwilling to openly disclose their sexual orientations.
"The main issue facing LGBTS individuals in this region is discrimination due to their sexual preferences and orientation," said Aung Myo Min, the Asia Male Representative in the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA).
"The discrimination of people who LGBTS occurs at many levels within the socio-economic, political and cultural systems in the society. Discrimination happens within the family and within the legal system," added Mr. Myo Min.
According to Mr. Myo Min, many governments in Asia maintain laws that violate the fundamental rights of LGBTS people. For example, in many parts of Asia, a person can be imprisoned for showing an affinity to same-sex relationships, he said.
"Same-sex relationships are perceived as unnatural within the cultural and religious systems, and that is what is reflected in the legal regimes of many of the countries in Asia," said Mr. Myo Min.
However, he highlighted that some countries, such as Thailand and Taiwan, had taken significant steps to improve the situation of sexual minorities but much more needed to be done to protect the rights of sexual minorities.
Even in model countries such as Thailand, LGBTS people cannot get health insurance because of discrimination thereby limiting their access to public health services. Also, healthcare workers stigmatize people involved in same-sex relationships.
Many LGBTS people live in fear of persecution and harassment in their communities, and they cannot seek legal protection because their rights are not recognized within the scope of the law.
"There is a culture of violence against LGBTS people in many parts of Asia which is condoned by the society, culture and legal processes," said Mr. Myo Min. "There is need for an anti-discrimination law that specifically protects the rights of people involved in same-sex relationships."
LGBTS are often afraid to reveal their sexual orientation because of the violence that confronts them in society. As a result, they cannot access information that can assist them to make responsible and informed about safer sexual activity.
"LGBTS individuals tend to be very secretive about their sexuality and hence do not go to access the relevant information which may be available," said Mr. Myo Min. "There have been efforts to reach out to LGBTS individuals with the appropriate information but where same sex relations are criminalized, it makes it difficult for non-governmental organizations to implement any reach-out programmes."
Decriminalization of same sex relationships and participation of sexual minorities in the design of programs is a key to halting the spread of HIV within that group.
"The heterosexual population may not be in a position to adequately understand the needs of people in same sex relationships, and that is why it is important for LGBTS people to be involved at a decision making level to ensure equal access to public health services," said Mr. Myo Min.
According to Mr. Myo Min, inaction will only increase the levels of HIV infection among LGBTS – a trend that is already apparent in many parts of Asia where men in same-sex relationships are disproportionately infected by HIV in comparison to other segments of the population.