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IDAHOT – 17 May 2015

IDAHOT – International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Bi-phobia

Today is IDAHOT – International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Bi-phobia. Since it was created in 2004, May 17 has established itself the single most important date for LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bi-Sexual Transgender) communities to mobilise on a worldwide scale. Its objective is to draw the attention of policymakers, opinion leaders, social movements, the public and the media to the violence and discrimination experienced by LGBT people internationally. Read more on the IDAHOT website.

IDAHOT-banner-Jan15

In recognition of IADHOT we take a look at the reality of discrimination and homophobia against LGBT in Thailand which is often mis-perceived by western visitors.

Homophobia and discrimination in Thailand

To the visitor and many ex-pats, especially those in Thailand’s main tourist areas, the environment can seem like the perfect gay paradise. However, Thailand has a complex culture, social hierarchy and a strong moral code. Without an in-depth understanding of the language and the culture it is easy for foreigners to mis-interpret the nuances of Thai behaviour as full acceptance of gay and LGBT people.

By Panupong Roopyai (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Thai Culture is oftern misinterpreted by westerners

In reality, many more subtle forms of Homophobia are deep routed within Thai society. Sure, LGBT people can go out and about in public and are unlikely to run into any overt homophobic responses of the kind they might fear in Western countries, with their so called libertarian values. Thailand is a tolerant country and the people generally shun confrontation; being verbally abused for one’s sexuality is fairly rare. But tolerance is all it is, when one looks under the surface, actual acceptance of gay people in Thailand is not so real.

Discrimination is still rampant within society, especially family and workplace. Openly gay people often find their ability to progress in life is restricted. They cannot move forward in their careers and the failure to marry and produce a family is a significant stigma. This seems especially true in urban Thai Chinese families where the culture is perhaps different to that of rural Thais.

Another oddity in Thailand is the prevalence of Ladyboys, or katoeys which does not exist in many other places and considerably complicates the gender identity and issues of sexuality. Yes, this third gender is accepted in Thailand, but not on equal terms. Ladyboys are an object of ridicule and amusement, just look at the stereotype on Thai TV shows. The third gender are accepted only as third class people. This has led to a minority of Ladyboys living on the margins of society and involved in crime and prostitution. A widely portrayed stereotype which does not reflect the majority. The existence of this strong Ladyboy culture also makes it difficult for other gays who, even if they do not aspire to femininity, risk being labelled as katoeys if they come out.

Ladyboy Contest in Chiang Mai
Ladyboy Contest in Chiang Mai

Another misunderstanding for many western visitors is the relationship between gay culture and prostitution. In the major tourist areas prostitution maybe in your face and no one seems to care, but that is not the reality in Thailand. Moreover in the past, prostitution, despite being widespread, was hidden and not talked about. Now it is becoming increasingly taboo and curtailed, in part by new social norms inspired by social media and easier access to information. This further adds to the lack of acceptance of gay westerners who are often assumed to be sex tourists, especially when seen in the company of younger Thai men.

It is not for western visitors or residents to tell the Thais what is right and wrong. Thailand and its people need to move forward in its own way to tackle issues relating to sexuality, gender identity and discrimination. Attitudes are slowly changing and there are Thai activists who are pushing these changes forwards but Thai society is very conservative so change and education will take time. One proposed improvement is the introduction of Civil unions, with new legislation being prepared, although it unlikely to be placed before parliament until after an elected government is installed. Read more about gay marriage in Thailand in this month’s issue of Thai Puan magazine.

Despite being an apparent gay paradise and being promoted by the tourism authority with the slogan “Go Thai Be Free” Thailand still has a long way to go before Thai gays can live in relative freedom.

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