The state of LGBTI in Thailand: Tolerated, but still not quite accepted

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 17, 2015

It pays to be welcoming and tolerant – that piece of mundane everyday wisdom especially applies if you’re the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). In one of its few moments of actual good marketing, the TAT launched ‘Go Thai. Be Free’. a couple of years ago. The campaign is specifically aimed at lesbian and gay travelers and Thailand can pride itself as a destination that is rather liberal towards the LGBTI community – or can it?

Despite Thais being able to express their different sexual identities publicly and without fear of persecution, the country is still not quite at the point where everybody is fully included, as many are still facing obstacles and discrimination in their lives and change is coming at very slow pace.

Ironically, we may say real change under the current authoritarian military junta government, a regime generally more known for promoting sanctimonious moralist and traditionalist ”values”, which has passed of the Gender Equality Bill and potentially the Civil Partnership Registration Bill.

The Gender Equality Bill, which was passed in March, aims to outlaw: “Unfair discrimination among the sexes’ means any act or failure to act which segregates, obstructs or limits any rights, whether directly or indirectly, without legitimacy because that person is male or is female or has a sexual expression different from that person’s original sex.” It is the first of its kind in Thailand to explicitly recognize gender diversity, but rights groups have criticized exceptions stipulated in the draft concerning education, religion and ”public interest.” These parts have been removed from the final version.

A rather long history has been behind the campaign for marriage equality, starting back in 2012 and gained an unprecedented bi-partisan push in 2013 well on its way being passed, before eventually getting lost in legislative limbo due to the political crisis and the subsequent dissolution of parliament in late 2013.

This issue was picked later after the military coup exactly a year by the junta’s fully-appointed ersatz-parliament in form of the Civil Partnership Act, which defines “civil partnership” as “two persons of same sex who have registered under the bill,” and includes stipulations including property rights between partners and rights in case the partnership has ended.

However, this bill is also not without its problems:

Superficially, civil partnerships seem to enjoy the same rights and status as heterosexual marriages under the Family Act. However, when looked at in detail, the bill does not entitle homosexual partners to raise children. Moreover, the minimum age of those allowed to register civil partnerships is 20, while for the heterosexual marriage it is 17.

Unlike the Civil Solidarity Pact in France, which allows either opposite-sex or same-sex couples to register for civil partnerships, Thailand’s draft civil partnership bill is for homosexual couples only.  

Anjana Suvarnananda, head of Anjaree and a renowned LGBT rights campaigner in Thailand, considers this bill as yet another form of discrimination, which puts homosexual couples into a different category and as a result, they enjoy different rights from opposite-sex couples.

Same-sex marriage may come true under Thai junta”, Prachatai English, October 9, 2014

Not only the controversial fine print in the bill, but also the general political situation led to debate in the LBGTI community. On one hand it would be a unprecedented watershed moment towards marriage equality in Thailand’s history. However, on the other hand, given how problematic it could be for future elected governments to amend or pass new laws because of the military junta’s political ”reforms”, it could mean an imperfect marriage equality bill that is very unlikely to be amended in the near future.

But the problems for the LGBTI community are facing are not only of legal or political nature, but more often than not they run much deeper, especially when it comes transgenders. Social critic and Siam Voices contributor Kaewmala said in a 2012 interview:

Compared to many other societies, yes, Thai society is quite open in day-to-day treatment of people with different sexual orientations and gender identities. (…) We have transgender people working prominently in shopping malls, in customer services, in beauty, entertainment and sex venues. But that’s pretty much where most of them are. Very few of them are in regular jobs, often not because they don’t want to, but the opportunities are limited. They are still discriminated against widely in terms of employment. Their opportunities are even officially restricted, in particular in government, police and military jobs. Military service regulations still include “katoey” as a prohibited disease and hence disqualifies anyone who is a katoey to apply for jobs in military service. Only months ago that the official branding of transgender people as “having a permanent mental disorder” on the military conscription exemption paper was finally put to stop. This paper has been the biggest obstacle for transgender people for a long time and has prevented them getting jobs, visas, doing legal transactions, etc.

In short, socially there is a fair amount of tolerance for people with different sexual identities but they are still lots of problems and unfair treatments going on based on attitudes and laws and official regulations in this country, most particularly concerning transgender people. It’s not all peaches!

On ‘100% Thai manliness’ and the reality of LBGT in Thailand”, Siam Voices, June 7, 2012

And systematic discrimination already starts very early, as a joint-study by UNESCO, Plan International and Mahidol University found out:

Nearly one-third (30.9%) of self-identified LGBT students reported having experienced physical abuse, 29.3% reported verbal abuse, and 24.4% reported being victims of sexual harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Around two-thirds of victims said they did not report these incidents or even talk about them with anyone.

The report paints a troubling picture of the impact of this bullying has on teens. Nearly one-quarter (23%) of those bullied because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity/expression were depressed, as compared to only 6% of those that had not been bullied at all. This depression can lead to self-harm. Most alarmingly, seven percent of those bullied because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity/expression reported having attempted suicide in the past year.

Media Release: Study shows Thai schools have a long way to go in promoting acceptance of sexual and gender diversity, and school safety”, UNESCO Bangkok, November 29, 2013

Unlike most of its regional neighbors (except for Vietnam, which recently decriminalized same-sex marriages), Thailand has a head start on LGBTI issues, but it must not rest on its laurels.

There are no reliable statistics (yet) on what percentage of the Thai population identify themselves with as LGBTI, but there’s really no point denying anymore that people of various sexual orientations are part of Thai society and all efforts should be made to include everybody in this society (and any other societies around the world for that matter), regardless of what somebody identifies as and who somebody choose to love.

May 17 marks the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT)