Laos holds first gay pride event despite taboo

BANGKOK - Laos has held its first ever gay pride event in what supporters hope is a sign of softening social values in the small communist country.

Although homosexuality is legal in Laos, it is frowned upon by many among the socially conservative nation of around six million people, and event organisers decided against holding a parade as is common at global pride events.

Instead around 100 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people gathered on a US embassy sports field in the capital Vientiane to watch performances relating to their marginalised position in society and sip beers provided by the capital’s handful of gay-friendly bars.

Organised by the embassy and local activists, the June 25 “Proud to be Us!” event also drew a senior government health representative, the US embassy said – a positive sign in one of the world’s few remaining communist countries.

“I think everyone involved realised that this event was just a first step, so there was no big agenda or set of specific issues we wanted to focus on,” Mike Pryor, the US embassy’s deputy public affairs officer, told AFP from Vientiane.

“The goal was to spread the message that LGBT people are valued and loved, and regardless of sexual orientation everyone should be treated with dignity and respect and be allowed to contribute fully to society,” he said.

Although they are rarely victims of violence, gay and transgender people in Laos face widespread discrimination and find it hard to find work in government or other high status sectors, leaving many in poorly paid jobs and the sex industry.

The US wants gay rights to be recognised as basic human rights, Pryor said, adding that the issue is high on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s agenda.

Laos is a land-locked mountainous nation where a bloody civil war ended in 1975, thrusting a communist government to power that has kept strict control over the country despite taking some steps towards economic liberalisation.

Homosexuality is widely accepted over the border in Thailand, although it is still taboo in neighbouring Myanmar which held its first gay pride event in May.

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