Sex and sexuality part 1: Thailand

The difference between tolerance and acceptance

Cin Peeler

Society and culture | Southeast Asia

19 August 2014

Cin Peeler examines the nuances of acceptance for those belonging to the local LGBT community in Thailand, and why it is not the safe haven some may expect.

Back in 2013 it looked as though Thailand might become the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. While the country’s current political climate has pushed this issue to the legislative back-burner for the time being, any traveller willing to brave the ongoing coup d’état can still be sure that they won’t need to worry about being accepted for their gender or sexual identity, right? After all, Thailand has long been promoted as one of Asia’s most liberal countries, especially with the nations’s Buddhist majority placing a high value on tolerance.

However, Thailand’s treatment of its LGBTQIA community clearly demonstrates that there can be quite a large disparity between tolerance and acceptance. Further, although tourists may not need to worry about LGBTQIA discrimination, the same cannot necessarily be said for the local people of Thailand.

The most visible members of the LGBTQIA community in Thailand are the kathoey (commonly referred to as ‘lady boys’). While this term can encompass a wide range of people, generally kathoey is used to refer to people identifying differently to trans women. Sometimes considered a third gender and at other times considered a special category of male or female, many kathoey undergoes hormone therapy and receive breast implants, among other medical treatments. Some kathoey may refer to themselves with feminine pronouns but still continue to dress in typically male clothing.

Kathoey are popular with travellers in tourist hotspots such as Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket and often manage to make a living in the entertainment industries of these cities. While their lives may appear exciting and glamorous, the reality is that very few kathoey are able to attend university and have a professional career due to discrimination. Those who do not spend their days amusing tourists may find work in cafés, restaurants, retail, or beauty salons, but often kathoey seek employment in the sex industry due to lack of job opportunities. Thailand does not have any laws prohibiting the discrimination of kathoey or other members of its LGBTQIA community in the context of employment, or for hate crimes.

Despite the fact that same-sex marriage was close to becoming legal last year, Thailand’s laws regarding LGBTQIA issues on a broader scale are also far from ideal. Kathoey or other trans people in Thailand cannot legally change their sex and same-sex marriages from other countries are not recognised; in fact, there is no registry for same-sex couples at all. Same-sex couples are prohibited from adopting children (even if they are stepchildren from one of the partners’ previous relationships), nor do they have access to IVF or surrogacy options. Even if the proposed same-sex marriage legislation were to be implemented, it would not resolve many of these issues; the bill did not include any provisions for the custody of children, and the minimum age for same-sex marriage would be set at 20 years, despite the fact that heterosexual couples are able to marry at 17 years.

In light of the legislative restrictions, many non-heterosexual couples hold commitment ceremonies in place of a civil union or wedding. While these ceremonies are publicly tolerated in major cities (despite not being legally recognised), members of Thailand’s LGBTQIA community in smaller cities and villages will usually not reveal their gender identity or orientation in order to avoid social and employment discrimination. In 2009 a pride parade in Chiang Mai was cancelled due to the hostility faced by the local LGBTQIA community. Anjaree, Thailand’s leading LGBTQIA activist group, has not held a pride parade in Chiang Mai since, nor has it held parades in Bangkok. It is only in Pattaya and Phuket, major tourist destinations, where pride parades are still regularly held. These cities also contain Thailand’s largest LGBTQIA communities and provide them with safe spaces where they can live, work and socialise without discrimination.

However, it is important to note that the image of tolerance which Thailand promotes is not entirely false. Both Pattaya and Phuket are welcoming to members of the LGBTQIA community, tourists and locals alike, and many reports suggest that if Thailand hadn’t fallen into such political unrest last year then the same-sex marriage bill probably would have been passed. This is more than can be said for Australia. In fact, if the two countries are compared, it is evident that many Australian states are just as uncompromising as Thailand in relation to LGBTQIA issues, for example regarding adoption and surrogacy laws for same-sex couples.

Thailand is in a state of progression. It is gradually moving forward in its campaign for promoting the rights of its LGBTQIA community. While Thailand may not yet be the LGBTQIA safe haven it promotes itself to be (and with the current political situation legislative changes are unlikely in the near future), it is clear that the country is nevertheless going in the right direction to increase both acceptance and tolerance of its LGBTQIA community.

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