The Relationships Thailand Forbids
“We never hold hands in public. We walk next to each other but never too close,” said Ms. Araya Engpornsin, a university student in Bangkok.
Araya held her hands tighter and said with a sigh, “It hasn’t been easy for me. We have to act like friends whenever we are together outside.
“It’s frustrating to not be able to say she is my girlfriend.”
Same-sex relationship is not an uncommon thing to see in Thailand. Nonetheless, people tend to keep their relationships under wraps.
Araya has told some of her best friends about her girlfriend and her sexual orientation but she hasn’t told her family yet. She eventually plans to tell her parents when she is successful with her career. However, when it comes to her girlfriend’s family, they never plan to reveal their bond.
A relationship like Araya’s is easy to hide as they appear to be just friends.
Is Thailand really gay-friendly?
To the world, Thailand is believed to be a gay paradise. According to research conducted by the trading arm of Galileo Capital Management Ltd which specializes in LGBT Asset Management and Corporate Advisory, there are approximately 4 million people who identify themselves as LGBT in Thailand.
Thailand seems to tolerate transgender people the most since they can openly express their identities.
In 1988, Thailand’s first transgender pageant ‘Miss Tiffany’s Universe’ was held and now it has become the world’s most popular beauty contest for transgender women. It is held annually and is opened to all Thai transgender women.
One of the most famous tourist attractions in Thailand is ‘Ladyboy cabaret show.’ ‘Ladyboy’ is a common term used to call transgender women in the country.
Thus, many foreigners believe that Thailand is a place where all identities in LGBT community could live freely and express their identities with no worries.
Little do they know, LGBT people in Thailand are still not recognized by law; face discrimination, aren’t able to access social services and don’t have the right to get married. Moreover, many Thais still don’t know of other gender identities than within the common abbreviation known around the world ‘LGBT’. Some Thais do not even know what LGBT stands for.
“Many Thais still aren’t able to differentiate gay from transgender woman. They still call gay as transgender woman,” said Mr. Nikorn Arthit, the director of Bangkok Rainbow Organization, a community based NGO that supports the lives of all LGBT people in Thailand.
This might be due to the fact that some transgender women don’t feel the need to fully change their appearance to look wholly like women however, their personalities and characteristics still follow their feminine ideal. Therefore transgender women can be easily distinguished and recognized.
However, that doesn’t mean they are accepted.
Mr. Nikorn also said that transgender women in Thailand have to do or be something that their parents will appreciate and are able to talk about with other people in order to feel that they are accepted by their family. He explained that it is a common cultural practice among Thai parents to boast about their children with others. Thus, they have to either be stunningly beautiful or successful with their job in order to be accepted.
“That is why many transgender women want to win or at least get to join Miss Tiffany’s Universe,” he added.
However, not all transgender women want this. Panjavich Khodthong, a university student who identifies as transgender woman, has never dressed up nor tried to look like a woman. Her hair is cut short and she is always dressed in men’s clothes.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to have to look like women to be transgender women,” she said with a humble smile on her face.
There are many transgender women who are like Panjavich. Although, they are obviously recognized by their feminine characteristics, some Thais still consider men who are attracted to men as transgender.
“It’s all feelings. I’m just a man feeling attracted to another man. That’s all. I’m not ‘Tood’,” said Jettarin Juangjan, a university student who identifies as gay.
‘Tood’ is a common term Thais used to call transgender women.
Jettarin said that he was often called out and teased with the term ‘Tood’ by his classmates when he was in high school which caused him to feel embarrassed to admit that he is attracted to men, moreover, it made him utterly scared to come out.
However, he has finally come out to his friends in the university but he hasn’t come out to his parents yet. One summer during his last year in high school, Jettarin overheard his mother talking to his relatives. His mother told them that she wouldn’t be able to accept it if he were gay or transgender.
He said that he feels scared and as a result he sees LGBT people as unnatural.
“For me, being gay is not normal. It’s because I grew up in the society where the relationships should only exist between men and women,” Jettarin calmly explained.
How Thai Cultures and Beliefs Affect LGBT People
According to the study ‘Being LGBT in Asia: Thailand Country Report’ conducted by the United Nations Development Programme and the United States Agency for International Development, the biggest challenge that Thai LGBT people have to face is accepted by their parents. Achieving all the parents’ expectations and making the image of the family better are the crucial fundamental part of life for Thai people. Thus, when it comes to LGBT people, living their lives has become harder as being LGBT means they are against the norm and an ideal perfect family.
Thailand’s traditional views are influenced by religious beliefs which have much effect on how society perceive same-sex relationships and family system.
95 percent of Thai people are Theravada Buddhists. Thais believe that having sexual orientation in this life is the result of their bad deeds in the previous life. Nonetheless, due to the Buddhist teachings of being a good person, Thais have become more tolerant with same-sex relationship. They believe that as long as you conduct good deeds, it does not matter if you are LGBT.
However, it isn’t the case for everyone.
The toleration and acceptance varies according to each person’s family setting and environment, and most of Thai families still believe in the patriarchal system. As part of being a good person in Thailand means you have to do well in your position in the family, it puts people who have same-sex relationship into those who decide to conduct bad deeds. Thus, it also means they ruin the reputation and image of the family.
Furthermore, the education is extremely influential. According to a study conducted on more than 2,000 students from every regions in Thailand by UNESCO Bangkok, Plan International Thailand, and Mahidol University, it stated that more than half of the students aged 13-20 years old in the study who identify as LGBT are bullied on their gender identity.
Most importantly, the teachers see that it’s their own fault for getting bullied.
The study also stated that one of the main factors causing LGBT students to get bullied is that the teachers have little knowledge on LGBT issues. Further, many teachers still refer to LGBT people as those who are mentally disordered and sexually deviant.
Therefore, it is essential for schools to build the knowledge and understanding of gender diversity in teachers. This will help better the attitudes of the society toward LGBT people and eventually lead to bettering the law and regulations to cover LGBT people in protecting all of their fundamental rights.
The law will not merely allow the LGBT people to have rights equally to everyone in the society but it will provoke people to have more thoughts on understanding and accepting the sexual diversity.
“For me, I support the law on same-sex marriage not just for the rights that follow but for having it as a symbol.
“It’s a symbol that says the society has accepted and is able to accept LGBT people,” said Araya.