“I arrived in Laramie, Wyoming and I was like, OK. It’s quite different from what I saw in TV,” he says. It was his first trip out of Asia.
His scholarship required him to study some American history. He chose African-American Studies. That complemented his coursework in international relations and social work. For a year in the mountain air, he took in the world.
Bouapha returned to Laos unsure of his next move. With his old job as an HIV campaigner gone, he felt unmoored. He partied aimlessly for a few years.
One day, the US Embassy called and asked how he was capitalizing on his scholarship.
He wasn’t sure what to say. Then he found himself brainstorming an LGBTIQ awareness event. “That’s how the party started,” he chuckled.
But he had to be mindful.
What exactly would an “awareness event” about gender and sexuality look like in Laos? Public gatherings, unless for government purposes, are heavily restricted. A march was out of the question.
So Bouapha decided to plan an intimate event, of some 100 attendees, almost as a trial balloon. He called it Proud To Be Us. It was held in June 2012, on the sports field of the US Embassy, with appearances by the US Ambassador and a top official from the Lao Ministry of Health.
It was a success: Laos’ first-ever public gathering to celebrate LGBTIQ identity. Some international headlines called it a “pride” event. Privately, some Lao officials complained. “It was logical they were upset,” says Bouapha. “They didn’t know what we were trying to do, and actually our intention was not to criticize our government.”
“It was not a gay pride. It was just an event. We didn’t think of it as pride.”
He treated it as a misunderstanding. The next year, he invited Lao TV to cover the event. “I wanted them to see what’s going on,” he said. So now they see with their own eyes that what we did is not against anybody. It’s just to start the conversation about inclusion and diversity...but keep the original idea that HIV is a great concern to our national development.”
Here Bouapha found a theme that has become the bedrock of Proud to Be Us Laos’ work. Lao citizens don’t have a direct channel to influence policy. But Laos’ government does espouse a singular mission: rapid development. As the argument goes, in a small country like Laos, you need everybody—regardless of class, ethnicity, faith or gender identity—pulling on the rope.
When Bouapha saw that message on state TV, he knew he had room to work.
“LGBTI people like all human beings have the right to live their lives free from fear, violence, discrimination, persecution and inequality,” the LaoTV anchor said. “Sustainable development requires full participation by everyone.”
Growing profile, growing data
His calendar became a blizzard. He found himself at conferences, workshops, and sensitivity trainings. NGOs and Embassies called him to schedule more. Each one got splashed on Proud’s Facebook page and led to more funding and projects.