Young, LGBT and proud

Citylife sits down to talk to two student activists who are leading the Young Pride movement in Chiang Mai

By | Fri 28 Aug 2020

Last year Citylife featured the return of the Chiang Mai Pride Parade, after the shameful 2009 incident which saw the parade shut down amidst intimidation and violence. In our 2019 article, we interviewed the rather breathtakingly beautiful young LGBT trans activist, Chitsanupong ‘Best’ Nithiwana, 25, who was instrumental in reviving the event and is committed to continuing to hold pride events and many other LGBT activities for years to come.

“Sure there is the Gender Equality Act,” Best told Citylife last year, “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 a lot of room for interpretation,” …and presumably intimidation.

Amidst the current national uprising of student activists who are calling for a constitutional democracy, we reached out to Best once again to see where she stands and what she is doing amidst this zeitgeist movement.

Best turned up to our interview on the 24th August at a café next to Chiang Mai University’s Ang Kaew reservoir with her friend Panan, 23, another trans student activist. Close friends and comrades in activism for the past five years, Panan, who calls Best ‘Mother’ is also a graduate of the university, the incubator which honed both of their passions for politics and activism. Arriving rather breathless, Panan said that her time was short as she was to step onto the student protest stage that night, a gathering of what she said would be a few hundred people, and her first major public appearance. Visibly nervous, little did she know that the event would draw thousands and end up being featured on not just national, but world news. Panan, who had already shot to social media fame earlier this year when a photo of her holding a sign saying she wanted to be Thailand’s first kratoey prime minister went viral, was to be one of the main speakers.

Panan’s photo that went viral

“Even as a child I was into politics,” explained soft spoken Panan of how she has found herself at the forefront of the current democratic movement. “I could never relate to any of it because it was older people wearing red and yellow and never addressing anything that had any personal relevance to me. But it was still fascinating nonetheless. I did an internship at MAP [foundation for empowerment of migrant communities] and during that time I had so many questions for society, mostly concerning injustice,” said Panan of her journey in activism to date. “I had always felt outside of the normal construct, so working in an NGO which helped others on the fringe was fascinating. When I joined Young Pride Club, I really found my inspiration.”

For Best, who is a graduate of the university’s Women’s Studies Centre, the impetus to action was the opaque rules and regulations at university. “Some lecturers allowed us to dress as women, others had us changing to men’s clothes. When taking photos for transcripts I was made to wear a man’s wig and shirt. Through my studies I had participated in many women rights activities. So I decided to fight for trans rights too.”

In 2018 Best tried to hold a pride parade at the university to raise awareness about various LGBT issues. While she gained some ground, and popularity, she wanted a more inclusive event and decided to form the Young Pride Club, a grounds-based as well as online activity group, which then successfully connected with various other LGBT groups across the nation to hold the successful Chiang Mai Pride 2019.

“I had wanted to do a pride parade long before I heard about its dark history in 2009,” said Best, who when learning about the event’s past was determined to hold it on the exact day of the 10 year anniversary.

“I was shocked when I first heard about it,” said Best. “We have come so far in ten years that it was hard to conceive that something so ugly could have happened so recently. I had no idea that LGBT was such a problem. We have had a lot more visibility in our generation. There are gays everywhere, in classrooms, on television. But we still felt let down with the discrimination we found at university. I began to think about other non-public spaces where we are not visible – board rooms, police stations, university councils, government and lawmakers offices – and realised that while many of us think that society is ready, we think that we are ready, the truth is that there are many blind spots. So visibility was my main aim.”

“We are not just cabaret dancers or entertainers,” insists Best, “we are as multi-dimensional as any subset of society. That is why we have really opened up our movement to be more inclusive. Today we work with women’s rights groups, migrant rights groups, child’s rights groups and many gay and lesbian groups. To have an LGBT movement with more individuality represented we need to open up more. Basically the movement over the past ten years or so isn’t just about LGBT, it is about active citizens. This has made a difference and as you well know, Chiang Mai’s landscape is very international, so we want to really reach out across borders as well. We are strengthening our alliances through vocalisation, social media and networking. The bottom line with all of these groups, including the current youth political activities, is to fight for our rights. Our country has lack of freedom of speech, and we are not in a free country when we live in fear of the military.”

Panan chimed in to add, “It’s about democracy, whether we want it to be or not, our agenda is by nature political because its politics which are stifling our freedoms. We are fighting for all marginalised groups.”

The pair explain that there is still discrimination in Thai society for the LGBT community who often struggle to get jobs in more conservative professions. A recent survey they conducted with LGBT students across Thailand showed that 60% of the respondents claimed that their universities failed them with lack of regulations or any support which they think comes more from ignorance rather than discrimination.

“We have tried to have conversations with the authorities both in government and within the university, but they don’t give us any access or space for discussion. Rules and regulations either come with caveats or are made behind closed doors with no participation from our community,” added Best who goes on to talk about Thammasat University which has set up an LGBT committee, led by an LGBT lecturer, to discuss the diverse needs of LGBT students. “This shouldn’t be radical at all, but that is the only university in Thailand doing this. For many lecturers who tend to follow rules and regulations by the word, there is no leeway unless it is set in paper. So while they may sympathise with us, they won’t let us wear women’s clothing, for instance, simply because it is not stated as allowed by the university. This is easily corrected, if there is a will. Many of us are getting bad grades or penalised academically for simply being who we are. The solution is to give those people who love regulations a set of regulations we can all live with and they will happily stay within the lines,”

While Best has stuck mostly to her Young Pride activities, Panan is becoming more and more visible on the public stage as she engages more in politics.

“After my photo holding the sign went viral I began to fear for my safety,” said Panan who says that while many members of the faculty and student body support her, it has been a concern.

“We all have to assess our own risk,” she continued. “How far to push, and whether or not it’s worth it. We each have our own goals in our hearts, and while I just want to shout it out, I can’t do that. So we are constantly evaluating and readjusting. What is crucial is to have a strong support system and now with this nation-wide student movement, many of us have found that.”

Chitsanupong ‘Best’ Nithiwana and Panan by Ang Kaew reservoir

Panan says that the LGBT movement in Thailand is now working alongside the democracy movement. “There is no choice. When we are talking about equality we are talking about democracy.”

When asked why now, Best stepped in, “My opinion is that there are no leaders to look up to at this point. The youth feel a sense of belonging and acceptance from their peers who are hearing one another, not from leaders who refuse to listen. Some come to us because they are handicapped, others because they were abused, or bullied, or different in some way. We have all been squeezed into speaking.”

As to the accusations being flung by the establishment that students are all being naive and brainwashed, Best said, “We have little in common with the older generation. They are not providing any space for any discussion for change or what we feel needs to be rethought or rebuilt. It is a shame because their time will go and ours will come, it would be good if we can work on common issues together. I also can’t imagine any of the young activists I have met across Thailand being brainwashed. We see our lives and our futures pretty clearly and we want society to see it through our eyes too. Instead of insulting school children for having bad haircuts, why not change the regulations and allow new haircuts that weren’t set in educational stone over half a century ago. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Panan and Best had many other topics to discuss, from the civil union versus marriage laws to education and legislation…but we realised that we were out of time and Panan was getting visibly more and more nervous about her upcoming speech. We crossed the road to take a picture by Ang Kaew before Best said a few parting words as we went our own ways.

“Please support us by liking our Young Pride Club, support LGBT run businesses, come out and join us on our next parade, talk and discuss some of these issues with your friends, spread the word. Raise your flag, we will keep you posted of our activities,” said Best.

A couple of days after the interview Best sent us this list of businesses and artists in Chiang Mai that supporting local LGBT+ community and NPOs, asking us to share it with our readers.

Entertainment: Sixcret Show

Cafe: Penguin Cha CNX

Spa: Le Best Spa

Shop: 100perhuman


Photographer: PERNphotography