Not-So-LGBT-Friendly: Thailand Still Has a Long Way to Go

Thailand promotes itself as a country accepting of all lifestyles including LGBT and transsexual people, but a recent article by Time Magazine paints a much darker image of the country’s supposed tolerance and accepting attitudes. The article depicts many people’s negative perceptions of Thailand in terms of LGBT tolerance and highlights crimes involving LGBT or transsexual people that have taken place in recent years.

On a continent where roughly half of the countries strictly forbid homosexuality, Thailand projects itself as a gay-friendly destination for same-sex couples, even though local couples do not enjoy family rights and are not eligible for the legal protections offered to heterosexual couples. So while same-sex sexual activity has been legal since 1956, it wasn’t until 2002 that the government stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental illness or disorder. In 2005, LGBT people were finally allowed to serve in the military, as they had previously been banned due to them having a mental disorder or illness.

It was only in 2007 that victims of sexual assault or rape could legally include men, and it was also the year marital rape was recognised as a crime. In 2014, the government still doesn’t include the designation “hate crime” for cases involving attacks against LGBT people, and they do not benefit from discrimination protections in the workplace. Today, the Thai Red Cross still upholds their ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men.

Frequent and alarming violence against LGBT and transsexual people still takes place in the self-proclaimed tolerant country, with systematic discrimination believed to occur within many Thai communities and families. In 2012, a shocking case was reported to police by a 14-year-old girl, whose father had been raping her for four years because she socialised with toms (a word in Thailand for lesbians who dress and act like men). Plenty more horrific cases have been reported over the years, while many more have not due to the low percentage of LGBT victims who report assaults against them. The perception of rape being a means to “cure” homosexuality is still present outside of bigger cities, where LGBT people might be seen as defying the gender norms of these less-developed regions.

Ladyboys performing at one of the many “ladyboy cabarets” in Pattaya.

Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission says that Thai authorities are less interested in cases of violence when gay and lesbian victims are involved. A UNESCO year-long survey of more than 2,000 Thai students revealed that more than 30% of self-identified LGBT students reported being physically abused and bullied, with two-thirds of victims saying they didn’t report the incidents or talk about them to anyone. The survey calls for better training for teachers to address bullying and support for LGBT students, and cites the findings as threatening to LGBT students’ right to a safe learning environment. Currently, there is not one anti-homophobia or LGBT educational campaign taking place at any Thai schools.

Another issue which needs to be addressed is the fact that many transsexuals and transgenders are pigeon-holed to the sex and entertainment industries. Insulting stereotypes perpetuated through mainstream media, and aimed particularly at young Thais, is also a contributing factor to discrimination against transsexual and transgender people. These “kathoey” or “ladyboys” are often portrayed unsympathetically in demeaning comedic roles as over-the-top made-up drama queens with no substance. On the other side of the coin, toms have very few roles in mainstream television series or films, and are very rarely discussed in the media.

Thai couple Aris and Pizchy showing off their wedding rings.

Same-sex couples have been campaigning for years for legal recognition of same-sex marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships. A Facebook-famous couple known as Aris & Pizchy had a wedding ceremony with their parents’ blessing last year, but are still hoping to receive legal recognition in the future. They have amassed over 23,000 likes on Facebook, where they say many of their fans are teenagers afraid to come out. The couple says, “We try to be good role models for them. We are never afraid of holding hands or kissing in public.”

While Thailand might seem tolerant to same-sex couples, transsexual and transgender people, and the rest of the LGBT community, many believe this is not the case, and that under the surface there is far more discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation than people might think.