February 21st 2009 was a day of ignominy for Chiang Mai, which should be marked down in history to be studied and remembered for years to come.
Leading up to the date, members of Chiang Mai’s LGBT community were giddy with excitement and pride. You see, one year before, a wonderful, if small, gathering of LGBT activists had descended upon Chiang Mai. Co-organised by Mplus, a local foundation working on sexual health of gay men and the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, Chiang Mai’s first international gay gathering saw around 150 people from all over Asia attend a conference which ended in a small and cheerful parade down the Night Bazaar.
With the modest success of 2008’s event, organisers and supporters of the 2009 event were aiming for something far more ambitious. Thailand was ready for a big and beautiful shout-out by the gay community, they thought. A total of 22 different organisations in various fields of LGBT activism had come together to organise this parade. As the day drew near, rainbow flags were being made, guest speakers lined up, fancy costumes designed and all accoutrements of celebration were being prepared. People were supposed to meet around 4am at Chiang Mai Religion Practice Centre on Tha Pae Road, walk up Chang Klan Road past the Night Bazaar and end at the Saengtawan old cinema, where a stage was erected in waiting.
With so many players, it had been a long slog to get the parade going, and rumours had been flying for months that it may not be pulled off. Alarmingly as the day neared – and remember this was at the height of the political shenanigans, just a couple of months after Bangkok’s airports were shut down by mobs and national tensions were running high – the media began to attack the parade and hate rhetoric was spewing from many unexpected corners.
People were calling in to radio stations to ask what weapons they should bring to the protest, others had called to say that they would throw pla ra (fermented fish) at gays passing by their houses. Alarmed, organisers toed and froed as to whether to go ahead or not, finally, just a couple of days before the event, it was announced that the event would go ahead as planned.
“There was misinformation that ours would be like the Brazil Gay Pride Parade, with bum cheeks showing,” said Sirisak ‘Ton’ Chaited one of the organisers of 2009’s and 2019’s parades. “This couldn’t be further from the truth. We were all very aware of Thai cultural sensibilities and had told all participants to dress and act respectfully. But there were groups of ultra conservatives who saw us as a blight on Lanna culture, destroyers of custom. The Red Shirts [supporters of Chiang Mai-born ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who at the time had gone into self-exile after being found guilty of abuse of power] suddenly took us on. I thought it was because an ex-premier supporting the opposite party was rumoured to be gay, so they thought we must all be Yellow Shirt supporters. But the sad truth turned to be that it was actually one of our own who turned on us.”
Gay Bashing Gays
In the late 2000s Nathee Teeraojjanaponse, who preferred the moniker Gay Nathee, was a loud and prolific voice in Chiang Mai. A self-styled political and social activist who wore his sexual identity with pride, Nathee had a very cosy relationship with the media as well as the conservative members of the Chiang Mai Office of Culture. He contacted Citylife, and other media, on numerous occasions to offer unsolicited sound bites on various topics du jour, once telling me, “I am gay, but first I am Lanna”. He had an opinion on many topics and liked to be viewed, and interviewed, as a gay crusader of Lanna culture, which was seen as laudable by the community at large.
“But, he wasn’t happy that he wasn’t in charge of the Gay Pride Parade,” said Ton. “The irony is that he wanted a full-blown farang-style gay parade, but we wanted it to be more muted, so ball gowns rather than glittery bikinis. He also felt as though he didn’t have enough of a role in organising the event, and when his voice wasn’t allowed to be the loudest, he turned. Being famous at the time, and inexplicably, he went the other direction. He reached out to the media and began to bash us, falsely accusing us of doing all the things he was actually pushing for. The media went berserk.” Nathee began to amass, and rile up, a large following of political mobsters, ultra-conservative activists and an underbelly of haters and the homophobic, all of whom promised to halt the parade at all costs.
According to one expat resident who wishes to remain anonymous, “We got to the Chiang Mai Religion Practice Centre in the late afternoon and it was like a scene from a horror movie. There were people shouting hateful rhetoric, spitting at us and waving signs which were just awful.”
Ton too recalls being in the car park of Chiang Mai Religion Practice Centre with a couple of hundred activists and supporters. “About 150 policemen were just standing there doing nothing while a large mob had blocked our exit. Led by the Red Shirts, songtaews and vans were used to block the exit where men dressed in red were hurling abuse. The police did nothing as they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go against the Red Shirts, who were very powerful in Chiang Mai at the time. There were some minor injuries, and we told some of our younger activists who were afraid to climb the wall and escape. The rest of us were blocked in, terrified yet defiant, until before midnight.”
The mob had demanded that organisers officially apologise on their hands and knees, that they promise to refrain from organising such an event for another 1,500 years and that they cancel the event.
“Sure, we cancelled the event, we weren’t going anywhere anyway, but no, we refused to apologise or make such promises,” added Ton. “And Gay Nathee didn’t even turn up, after causing all that.”
As I wrote in an editorial at the time, “The gay and political activist, ‘Gay Nathee’, was one of the voices behind the February protest, claiming that Chiang Mai was not an appropriate city in which to hold a gay parade as it is a cultural city and its image may be tarnished. Ironically, had the parade gone ahead, it would probably have enjoyed a couple of inches of column space in newspapers for a day, then been forgotten, Chiang Mai’s precious reputation intact. However, ensuing protests made headlines in newspapers around the world: Chiang Mai’s reputation was indeed established…as homophobic.”
Today Gay Nathee is serving a sentence of a staggering 12,257 years in prison for money laundering – which seems a mite excessive; even more so than his 1,500 year demand.
Regrouping and Refocusing
For ten years life went on as usual for LGBT activists, as they continued to fight for rights most of us take for granted.
“As a lesbian woman, I didn’t join the movement until a few years after the incident,” said Matcha Phorn-in, a director of Sangsan Anakot Yawachon Development Project. “It’s hard to move forward as an LGBT woman because there are multiple forms of discrimination, marginalisation and violations.”
There is this perception that Thailand is really progressive when it comes to LGBT issues. We now have the world’s first candidate for prime minister who is trans, and when LGBT tourists come they never get harassed. At the end of the day tourists and expats bring money, so they are naturally going to be treated well. But according to many activists we spoke to, they aren’t treated well because they are LGBT, but because of their wallet. “The problems of discrimination are still deeply embedded in our society,” said Matcha.
Ton and Matcha both cite a long list of issues which the LGBT activist communities are addressing, marriage equality being a big one. “Without marriage equality we lose so many of our rights,” said Matcha, whose partner and adopted teenage daughter pop by to say hi during our interview. “Sure civil union may sound like progress, but in reality it isn’t because it applies a different set of laws to us. We want to be inclusive within a society which applies one set of laws for all. If we can’t even help our daughter to get her passport because we are not recognised as a parent by law, then what happens if one of us is ill or dies? There are just so many things you take for granted that we struggle with. All we need here is for the law to change the wording for the definition of marriage from man and woman, to persons. So many other problematic issues will be resolved should this one step be taken.”
Other issues include changing the school syllabus, which still says that gays or trans are mentally ill, updating the law so that trans can use the word Miss or Ms instead of Mr on their ID card, having genderless bathrooms, covering trans’ medical needs into the 30 baht medical scheme, trans’ rights and privileges in prison…the list is lengthy, and because each gender has its own set of challenges, Matcha says that there is a lack of intersectionality which must be overcome.
“Under our patriarchy, often lesbian issues aren’t given priory as needed,” added Matcha. “Some who called themself feminist groups do not accept trans issues, not seeing them as women and few people talk about sex workers’ rights because we are privileged. So we need to reflect all of LGBT.”
LGBT Gen Z
We were soon joined by Chitsanupong ‘Best’ Nithiwana, 23, a beautiful and bright trans who is mobilising LGBT youths. She is a graduate of the Women Studies Centre at Chiang Mai University and was the founder of the Young Pride Club, which organises a slew of activities to raise awareness and encourage inclusion amongst LGBTs and their allies.
“Change is here, but it is slow,” said Best. “Look at Net Idols, these are massive celebrities on social media and many of them are LGBT, but on television, the more traditional form of media, we still have a long way to go to see real representation. On the other hand, social media also causes a lot of damage as many click-bait channels like to write dramatic headlines like, ‘ladyboy fight’ or ‘lesbian betrayal’, when in fact these are people and their sexuality should not be the reason they are in the news.”
She also points to schools and universities where there are often a larger number of LGBTs, yet in the work place they are less visible, “It’s because to get a job, a trans may have to cut her hair, a lesbian wear a skirt, and a gay ‘man up’. Sure there is the Gender Equality Act, but it comes with caveats in that it doesn’t protect you if you are considered a national threat, insulting to religion or counter cultural. This leaves much room for interpretation. Just like at Chiang Mai University where I would dress as a woman for a morning class, but have to wear trousers and take off my make up for an afternoon class. Different faculties and different lecturers have different sets of rules.”
“I think that Thailand is LGBT friendly in the sense that you don’t get beaten up or thrown to jail,” continued Best. “That’s a low bar as standards go, because the real issue is that the fundamentals have not changed as much as we want it to.”
Ton and Best are the two main organisers of this year’s LGBT Pride Parade and as we interviewed them a few days before the event, their nervousness was well masked, but palpable. There were only 200 people registered as ‘attending’ on the Facebook events page, and while Best was putting her best face on, insisting that the number was satisfactory, she was unsure of how events would unfold on the day. Though the organisers had received the blessing of both the Tourism Authority of Thailand (Chiang Mai) and the district police, they still received messages from people who were concerned for their safety. They remained on-message and used every social media tool in their arsenal to spread the word, reaching out to all organisational allies. All they could do was hope for the best.
Bursting with Pride
“Before 5pm on the day I went to see our stage at Tha Pae Gate which had the usual number of tourists milling around, before heading to Chiang Mai Religion Practice Centre, scene of the 2009 incident,” said Best a few days after the event which painted Chiang Mai every shade of rainbow. “I couldn’t believe it; there were over 500 people there! As we began to walk out down Night Bazaar, the gathering got larger and larger; people were coming out in all their outfits, holding banners, smiling from painted faces, laughing and dancing. By the time we walked down Loi Kroh I think we had about 1,000 people – Thais, tourists, parents bringing LGBT children, the disabled, sex workers, migrant labourers, ethnic minorities, even politicians leveraging the now-popular LGBT bandwagon – it was incredible. We got to Tha Pae Gate and there were even more people waiting for us. I thought they would find the speeches and the candle-lighting remembrance ceremony boring, but even Chinese and western tourists were lighting candles and shedding tears,” continued Best with a trembling of elation in her voice.
Best says that the parade is now established, and hopes to see this become an annual event that all of Chiang Mai can take pride in.
“Ton and I have been working in this area very informally, but looking at international models of success, we have decided that we need to form a central organisation,” said Best. “An LGBT Chiang Mai group can coordinate all resources and efforts so that we can achieve more equality for all.”
Ten years ago a brave gathering of LGBTs were blocked in a car park, police standing idly by as mobs shouted hatred and abuse at them. Today, over 1,000 came together in a parade proudly led by the police, as the public waved, cheered and encouraged them on their way. By all measures, this was a giant leap for the LGBT community in their long journey to come.