Laos: The Messenger

A Travelfish long read by Saqib Rahim
First published on 31st January, 2021 |788 reads.

Anan Bouapha looks to the camera, folding his hands on his desk. He is modest, upright, a model Lao citizen. A small communist flag sits to his left. It’s November 2020, the 65th anniversary of Laos’ diplomatic relations with the UK. In clean, measured Vientiane tones he congratulates the nation.

“As our country’s slogan says: ‘Together we walk forward!’,” he says.

In any other country it would be a dime-a-dozen piece of YouTube content. Laos is different. In Bouapha’s performance one sees the small, perfectionist craftings borne of a decade of experience. It is not by accident Bouapha has become Laos’ most prominent advocate for people of diverse sexual and gender identities—the most public face of a community that has long suffered from discrimination.

“Because I know how to do it with peace,” Anan Bouapha. Photo: Australian Embassy, Laos.
“Because I know how to do it with peace,” Anan Bouapha. Photo: Australian Embassy, Laos

Ten years ago, Bouapha was a twenty-something revelling in the Vientiane night scene, meeting new and exciting people, exploring his sexual identity. He was out to his parents as gay but unsure of his place in the world.

Over the next decade, Bouapha found it. He founded the country’s first LGBTIQ (see note) advocacy movement, Proud To Be Us Laos. He became the booked-every-day-and-weekends-too maestro behind a manic calendar of sexuality- and gender-awareness events. Perhaps most remarkably, he also built a network of alliances within the Lao government—in effect, a license to operate. Now he takes photos with ambassadors. He studies at foreign universities. He’s on Lao TV a lot.

Yet there’s a loneliness in Bouapha. He hears whispering criticisms, even from his own community.

“A lot of people misunderstand my approach,” he told me. “They think that I’m more about myself. Oh, it’s him again. He appears on TV again. It’s all about him. And I want to say, it’s not about me. Because I know how to do it with peace. A lot of people, they like conflict and confrontation. That’s not the way that you solve the problem.”

He still thinks this is how Laos’ LGBTIQ community gets ahead: by working within the Lao system, not against it. By doing it the Lao way, not the falang way or anyone else’s.

Sit like a man

It’s a bright saturday afternoon when I meet Bouapha in the backyard of his favourite Vientiane cafe. He’s working on a Mac laptop. He’s wearing shorts and Toms but in the shade, he pulls his grey, cable-knit grandpa sweater tight around his shoulders. It’s Laos’ cold season, a frosty 26°C. Bouapha has visited distant lands, but his blood still chills as that of any true-blue Lao.

Outreach work in Xieng Khuang province. Photo: Supplied by Proud To Be Us Laos.
Outreach work in Xieng Khuang province. Photo: Supplied by Proud To Be Us Laos

It quickly becomes clear how Bouapha, 33, has put Proud To Be Us Laos, and LGBTIQ equality, on the map. He’s charming. This is not the sombre citizen of YouTube. This is a man who knows how to make friends and influence people. He is thoughtful and articulate, with flawless English. Like an ambassador he pivots between gravity and camaraderie, high cadence and vernacular.

He orders an iced green Japanese tea, his favourite. Bouapha was raised in a traditional Lao household, but there’s a part of him that was always curious about the outside world. That world can feel distant in Laos, which is more physically and culturally cloistered than its neighbours.

But as a kid, Bouapha fell in love with Western music, particularly the great Black women singers of Motown, mid-century R&B/soul, and jazz. He recites their names as if from Wikipedia: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Gladys Knight, Nina Simone, on and on. “I loved that music and those figures,” he says. “They’re very diva, very powerful figures. Very passionate. Because I’m a passionate person. When I see them sing, I can feel their energy.”

Simone particularly resonated: “Singing for the freedom of Blacks...when you listen to that, you feel it relates to yourself.”

Still, at home a certain restraint was always expected of him. Bouapha came out to his parents as a teen. They knew but accepted it grudgingly. “They always corrected me on my posture,” he says. “Whenever they see I talk with my hands, with my feminine gestures, like this, they’re like, ‘ugh. Not with the hands please. You can just chin up and then sit like a man.’ ”

Bouapha bristled to hear this. But he knew his parents were taught to see gayness as aberrant. Confronting them would just start a fight.

He took this as a personal and lifetime challenge. He would wear them down over time. He would show them his sexuality was not aberrant but completely compatible with Lao tradition.

Laos is kind of a mystery

By appearances, Laos looks mellow on gender identity, at least to an outsider. The LGBTIQ nomenclature now common in the West is not in common use here. But at least in the cities, katheoy (a term encompassing a range of sexual and gender identities, including trans people and some gay men) exist in public life. Low-profile gay bars exist. Even straight men seem less shackled to Rambo-esque standards of masculinity than those of us raised in the West.

“Laos is one of the countries which is kind of a mystery.” Photo: Supplied by Proud To Be Us Laos.
“Laos is one of the countries which is kind of a mystery.” Photo: Supplied by Proud To Be Us Laos

But the real Laos exists in the private world, a place few foreigners (falang, as Lao say) get to see. There the subtler tensions around gender identity manifest. Some LGBTIQ Lao are embraced by their families, but plenty are cast out, and many more exist in an uncomfortable in-between. In the work world, LGBTIQ Lao say they’re tacitly passed over for jobs and promotions. “Being genderqueer is not acceptable if you want a leadership position in your career,” one anonymous respondent said.

“Sometimes I don’t feel like I belong to the community,” Dr. Inleusa Basengkham, a trans woman and teacher in Vientiane, said in a December interview. “I don’t feel I belong to this country—like a visitor in my own country.”

Harassment is common. Bouapha says it’s typical for trans people especially to get heckled from sidewalk bars. Lao people like the entertainment, he says. But mention something serious, like gender identity, and the mood dies: “What’s a nice person like you bringing that up for?”

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, human rights campaigners have documented extensive de jure and de facto discrimination against LGBTIQ individuals. A number of countries keep British-colonial-era sodomy laws on the books, among other discriminatory laws. These don’t have to be fully enforced to be menacing. In Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, police are known to wield them as tools to threaten people at will, especially trans women and gay and trans sex workers.

Southeast Asian leaders have made noises, in recent years, to condemn gender discrimination in principle. But in practice they’ve delivered little, LGBTIQ campaigners say. “The lack of discrimination protections in Southeast Asia leads to pervasive discrimination in the region that exists on every level of life,” Outright Action International said in 2017. “LGBTIQ people face discrimination in the education settings, in employment, in housing, healthcare, and access to services—all of which are violations to the fundamental human rights of LGBTIQ people.”

But little documentation exists on Laos. Last decade a research program called “Being LGBT in Asia,” jointly led by Sweden, the US and the UN, surveyed a number of ASEAN countries but skipped Laos. “Laos is one of the countries which is kind of a mystery,” said one foreign campaigner. The lack of quality data makes it difficult to understand, let alone improve, how LGBTIQ Lao are truly living today.

From disco to dining room

When Bouapha was 15, a friend roped him into a volunteer gig doing HIV/AIDS outreach in Vientiane. Bouapha was a surly, self-absorbed teen with little interest in community service. The friend promised camping and dancing. “C’mon, let’s do it,” he said. “It’ll be fun.”

Laos being Laos, there is always much talking over food. Photo: Supplied by Proud To Be Us Laos.
Laos being Laos, there is always much talking over food. Photo: Supplied by Proud To Be Us Laos

Bouapha found the work enchanting.

“We did outreach. At the discotheques, bars, clubs,” he said. “And we distributed condoms, we gave information about HIV and STDs to young gay men and young transgender women. That’s what we did. Very simple work.”

The memories still make Bouapha smile. It wasn’t the pay, a princely stipend of 20,000 kip a day (US$2). Meeting his community, face to face, he had never felt so fulfilled. He was already out to his family. Now he had found his calling.

Oh, and it was fun, too.

One night, after hours of outreach at the old D-Tek disco, his boss indulged a reward. “We joined the dance floor,” Bouapha says, grinning. “And our boss was like ‘OK, you have only 30 minutes and then you get into the van.’ ”

Bouapha started volunteering as much as he could, asking for all the responsibility he could take. When he left home at night, his parents asked where he was headed. He said he worked with young people.

But his profile as an advocate was rising. In his third year of volunteering Bouapha was invited to join Laos’ minister of health for a meeting with the UN in Manila.

Shocked, his parents asked, what do you really do, son?

He took a deep breath, then launched into his pitch.

“You know, men who have sex with men and transgender women are very vulnerable to HIV,” he said. “I work with them. I help them.”

Five seconds passed.

“You work with gay people? Trans people?”

“Yes! As I told you! It’s needed. They are the most vulnerable to HIV infection.”

And he needed a ride to the airport, please.

Thus went the arc of Bouapha’s early awareness campaigns: first in the discos, then in the dining room.

An intimate event

In 2009 Bouapha received a scholarship from the US Embassy in Vientiane to study at the University of Wyoming, located in the arid highlands of Laramie, WY. His first thought: “Cowboy, yes.”

Well, not quite.

Bouapha knows how to make friends and influence people. Former US Ambassador to Laos on right. Photo: Supplied by Proud To Be Us Laos.
Bouapha knows how to make friends and influence people. Former US Ambassador to Laos on right. Photo: Supplied by Proud To Be Us Laos

“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.

At a fashion show in support of IDAHOT, July 2020. Bouapha third from right. Photo: Supplied by Proud To Be Us Laos.
At a fashion show in support of IDAHOT, July 2020. Bouapha third from right. Photo: Supplied by Proud To Be Us Laos

Proud To Be Us Laos grew to five employees, including Bouapha, increasingly confident it understood how to operate. They were soon holding Laos’ first observation of IDAHOT: International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. It’s since become an institution; the 2019 IDAHOT in Luang Prabang drew 100 people. Lao TV covered it.

Proud’s other work has sought to educate the public and improve data on Laos’ LGBTIQ community. In 2018, Proud helped produce the Story of Ey, a short film about a transgender woman and her beauty shop.

In 2019, Proud joined a team of researchers that travelled the country to survey Lao LGBTIQ youth. It was one of the first formal efforts to gather data on the experience of rural LGBTIQ Lao.

In 2020 Proud issued a short report on LGBTIQ experiences in the workplace. The sample size was small, at around 30, but the report became the occasion for a law symposium at the national university—the wonky origin, it’s hoped, of a discussion to beef up protections in the workplace.

Doing it with peace

Bouapha hasn’t lost his talent for networking. In recent years he and Proud have met with increasingly senior Lao officials, including former provincial governors and members of the National Assembly. Bouapha knows Proud’s work is sometimes questioned by others. But he knows it has allies too.

Doing it with peace. Photo: Supplied by Proud To Be Us Laos.
Doing it with peace. Photo: Supplied by Proud To Be Us Laos

For now, he and his colleagues see their central mission as raising basic awareness. Bouapha feels most straight Lao are like his parents: not holding any deep malice toward individuals of diverse sexual and gender identities, but just needing to revise the prejudices they were taught.

This is what Bouapha means by doing it with peace. To LGBTIQ activists around the world, who often work in the face of appalling abuses, it may seem too congenial. Bouapha responds that aggressiveness and confrontation, in the Lao context, simply won’t work.

What works, he believes, is patience and a willingness to educate.

“I think read and look at your country, look at your parents. Look at what they’ve been through. And look at the development of your generation and your grandfather’s generation. It’s different. So you have to compromise if you ask for human rights, you need to compromise,” he said. “So that means the community also needs to accept the reality that you are different. But you are trying hard to let them understand you. Think like that.”

“Even in Laos there are many LGBTIQ people who don’t like my idea. They even say, he’s becoming like government. Look at the way he acts, talks on TV. I think he doesn’t get us anymore.” These words make him wince.

The messenger

Taken in a certain frame, it’s formidable what Proud To Be Us Laos has achieved in eight years. Bouapha and his team have brought LGBTIQ equality into the light as an emergent social issue, at a time Laos is somewhat receptive to it.

What world do you want in the future? Photo: Supplied by Proud To Be Us Laos.
What world do you want in the future? Photo: Supplied by Proud To Be Us Laos

What’s harder to assess is whether this has actually improved life for vulnerable LGBTIQ people. Data remains scant. Proud’s own reports say they are just starting to get quality data on the community.

Inleusa, the transgender advocate, said the knowledge gap remains real and in some cases, dangerous.

“We have seen a lot of progress in terms of dialogues that we’ve had with the government and different ministries,” she said. “However there are still cases that transgender [people] were assaulted and harassed both physically and mentally.” These often go unrecorded.

Bouapha believes this can change. He’s seen it with HIV/AIDS: how the government teamed with his community to battle the disease. He’s seen it with his parents, who have opened their minds over time.

But he knows some consider him too conciliatory. Or too patient. Maybe even a sell-out.

I asked him, what do you wish people knew about the work you do?

He sighed.

“It’s not about me,” he said. “I’m the representative of many unheard voices of LGBTIQ community in this country. What they told me, I speak out to the powerful people who can change things. And I pick up as much as I can from them to translate it to the language they understand.”

It’s the double-edged part of his success. In becoming the most prominent face of his community, he’s also blamed for hogging the spotlight.

He believes he’s doing the right thing.

“It’s like an airplane. How can you talk to the airplane? They don’t hear that. Even though you have a thousand, a million people all on the ground screaming to the airplane. They don’t hear you,” he said. “You need to have a messenger. And I’m doing that as a messenger.”


Note 1: Acronyms to identify the queer community vary throughout Southeast Asian states, communities and individuals (Citation: Destination Justice, p.10). For consistency, this story uses “LGBTIQ” to encompass a broad range of identities, unless a cited source uses a different acronym.

Note 2: Many thanks to Kate Walton for her helpful suggestions on an early version of this story.


About the author

Saqib Rahim is a writer in Laos. He writes about the environment, renewable energy, Lao culture and sometimes poetry. His awkward efforts at speaking Lao continue. Follow him on Twitter @SaqibSansU and see his other work at https://saqibrahim.journoportfolio.com/.


Reader comments

Alanba69

Posted on: 2021-02-01 07:03:28

Another thoroughly enjoyable read...

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