Asian Lesbian Network Holds Its First Conference

The Asian Lesbian Network gathered for its first conference in Bangkok, Thailand, marking the first formal, regional meeting of lesbians in Asia.

Summary of Event

The Asian Lesbian Network (ALN) emerged out of an international gathering in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1986, an event that had been sponsored by the International Lesbian Information Service International Lesbian Information Service
Lesbian Information Service, International (ILIS) and had attracted more than eight hundred lesbians from around the world, including ALN founder Anjana Tang Suvarnananda. The ILIS supported the founding of ALN shortly after the gathering in Switzerland. [kw]Asian Lesbian Network Holds Its First Conference (Dec., 1990)
[kw]Lesbian Network Holds Its First Conference, Asian (Dec., 1990)
[kw]Conference, Asian Lesbian Network Holds Its First (Dec., 1990)
Asian Lesbian Network
Bangkok, Thailand
Lesbian conferences;Asian Lesbian Network
[c]Organizations and institutions;Dec., 1990: Asian Lesbian Network Holds Its First Conference[2040]
[c]Race and ethnicity;Dec., 1990: Asian Lesbian Network Holds Its First Conference[2040]
Suvarnananda, Anjana Tang

Suvarnananda was a key figure in promoting the budding ALN, as she traveled around Asia to do outreach work with lesbians in Singapore and the Philippines and was in constant contact with lesbians in countries such as India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. One of the first activities of the ALN was a conference hosted by Anjaree, a Thai lesbian organization, in Bangkok in December of 1990.

Thai lesbians Thai lesbians who described themselves as “women who love women” founded Anjaree in 1986. Anjaree, Anjaree, definition of which means “someone who follows non-conformist ways,” is an indigenous term that comes close to describing women’s same-gender attraction. The word was chosen because there is no descriptive Thai term for “lesbian.” Most Thai women, however, do not use “anjaree” to describe themselves but rather refer to themselves as “tomboys” (tom) or “ladies” (dee, or dy). Tom and dee relationships Tom and dee relationships are in some ways analogous to butch-femme relationships in the Western world.

Organizers first faced difficulties trying to create the ALN conference in Thailand. Problems and concerns included the hesitancy of many Asian women who are sexually attracted to women to use the word “lesbian” to describe themselves. Suvarnananda suggested in a letter to ILIS that part of the difficulty of organizing ALN was the perception that lesbian sexuality had been imported from the West and was not indigenous to Asia.

The conference’s opening reception was well attended by more than two hundred Thai toms and dees, in addition to conference registrants. Attendees of the workshops included thirty-six Asians living in Asia (seven of whom were Thai organizers), nine Asians living outside Asia, and nine non-Asians living within Asia (two of whom were Anjaree volunteers). Workshops throughout the weekend focused on questions of visibility, organization expansion, and the development of an Asian lesbian identity. One of the workshops raised questions about the hierarchy of power among toms and dees in Thailand, along with how to negotiate traditional Thai ideas about what it means to be unmarried.

The plenary session on the final day of the conference, “The Future of the ALN,” raised the question of who belongs in the Asian Lesbian Network. There was dissension among participants about whether or not non-Asians should be included in the organization or the conference. Non-Asian lesbians left the room voluntarily when this question came up, and the conversation continued; it ended without agreement.

The first issue of the ALN newsletter reported details of the conference, including the disagreement over whether or not non-Asians could or should participate in ALN. The newsletter resolved the issue by stating that ALN Nippon (Japan) would organize the second conference and members would decide among themselves who should be included. ALN Nippon resolved this issue in December, 1992, by holding two concurrent conferences in Tokyo, one for Asian lesbians only and a concurrent retreat open to all lesbians regardless of ethnicity.


The Asian Lesbian Network conference was the first formal meeting of Asian lesbians. ALN later had an impact on the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, which was held in Beijing, China, in 1995. ALN members helped to educate other women at the conference by encouraging them to see lesbian issues as important women’s movement issues.

Also, the ALN conference decreased the social isolation felt by Asian lesbians from many countries, and it provided a venue for newly formed lesbian groups to network and exchange information. Even though a few Asian countries, such as Japan and Thailand, had emerging lesbian communities at the time of the conference, many countries had no organizations or support groups, let alone bars, for lesbians. In Thailand, Anjaree had been the only formal organization, and in Indonesia, there was just one gay and lesbian group for the entire country.

The ALN conference also raised issues that would continue throughout the history of the ALN, namely, issues concerning the connection between Western culture and lesbian sexuality Lesbian sexuality;and Thai lesbian culture[Thai lesbian culture] and identity, an association that marks lesbian sexuality and identity as “phenomena” imported from the West. The second issue was how to incorporate (or not incorporate) into ALN the non-Asian lesbians who live in Asia. It was argued that by including non-Asian lesbians in ALN, the ALN would be stigmatized by the Asian world, given the association of lesbian sexuality with the West. Others argued that it was possible that non-Asians would co-opt and dominate ALN. The Japanese community, in particular, which had a non-Asian lesbian community of more than one hundred women and a handful of events and organizations, had experienced conflict over the benefits and disadvantages of including non-Asian lesbians in Japanese lesbian events. Asian Lesbian Network
Bangkok, Thailand
Lesbian conferences;Asian Lesbian Network

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Shelley. “Tomboys, Ladies, and Amphibians.” Connexions 29 (1989).
  • Anjaree. “Anjaree—Toward Lesbian Visibility.” Connexions 46 (1994).
  • Kase, Alleson. “Asian Lesbians Speak: A Conference Report.” Off Our Backs 22, no. 8 (August, 1992): 8.
  • Sinnott, Megan J. Toms and Dees: Transgender Identity and Female Same-Sex Relationships in Thailand. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
  • Thongthiraj, Took Took. “Toward a Struggle Against Invisibility: Love Between Women in Thailand.” Amerasia Journal 20, no. 1 (1994): 45-58.

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