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Pride Month Partner Spotlight: Proud to Be Us Laos

A vibrant and independent civil society is crucial to securing the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals across the globe. As we join our partners around the world in celebrating Pride Month, the International Republican Institute (IRI) is spotlighting our partners at Proud to Be Us Laos (PTBUL), who are leading the charge to build a more inclusive society.  

Although the Lao Constitution prohibits gender discrimination, LGBTI individuals lack explicit legal protections. As a result, according to the U.S. State Department’s Laos 2019 Human Rights Report, members of the LGBTI community are often vulnerable to stigmatization that can have damaging socioeconomic consequences. There also appears to be a great deal of misunderstanding about LGBTI individuals in Lao Society: a UNESCO study on LGBTI Youth in Laos revealed that many do not understand how someone could be attracted to the same sex or identify as a third gender.

In an interview with IRI, the Director of PTBUL, Anan Bouapha, explained that “social acceptance is the highest priority for the LGBTI community in Laos” – a priority that his organization has made significant strides toward achieving in its eight year history.

PTBUL has used local and global platforms to publicly communicate the importance of LGBTI equality and ways to achieve social acceptance in Laos. Since its founding in 2012, PTBUL has served as an integral force in the facilitation of annual activities recognizing the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) in Laos. The 2019 IDAHOT Day celebrations in Vientiane attracted considerable support from the Lao government and international community, with the event serving as a public platform to underscore the importance of equal access to healthcare, education and employment opportunities for the LGBTI community.

PTBUL also produced a documentary exploring the experiences of Lao LGBTI individuals who live with disabilities, which premiered at the popular Luang Prabang Film Festival, and was shared on Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith’s Facebook page. According to Bouapha, the film was “A rare advocacy message in Laos that mentions and amplifies the voice of one of the most marginalized groups, such as a transgender individual living with a disability. This mini-documentary has touched many hearts and souls through social media in Laos and helped people to think about this topic.”

Most recently, PTBUL assisted IRI in identifying obstacles to civic engagement that marginalized youth face, including LGBTI young people. Stigmatization of the LGBTI community was clearly reflected in the research findings, with the overwhelming majority of LGBTI respondents associating taboos with their sexuality. For example, one LGBTI respondent stated, “When it comes to a big celebration or gathering led by a civically engaged member of the LGBTI community, people are likely to think it is a way to convert or persuade young people to become LGBTI.” Another LGBTI respondent said, “Being gender queer is not acceptable if you want a leadership position in your career.” Yet there was also optimism about the positive role civil society can play in furthering LGBTI rights. As one respondent put it, “Local NPAs [local nonprofit associations, the official term for civil society organizations] like Proud to be Us Laos will be the ones who can make a change. They are able to coordinate with many partners — civil society organizations, international groups and the government — to talk about the inclusion of LGBTI people in the community.”

IRI will continue working with PTBUL to pilot a LGBTI Peer Education Network in Vientiane, tapping into PTBUL’s network of LGBTI rights activists and pair them up with LGBTI youth who have not yet become civically-engaged. Activists will introduce their peers to the idea of volunteering and social work through their co-participation in LGBTI rights-awareness events. By enhancing the civic engagement of LGBTI and SGD individuals, PTBUL and IRI together are strengthening young leaders capacity to address barriers to inclusivity. This program and IRI’s continued civil society capacity development in Laos will be an important step toward ensuring the rights of all Lao citizens are heard, recognized and represented.