The two faces of Thai tolerance
Tourism authorities are trying to market Thailand as a 'pink' destination, but local gay and transgender activists say the campaign disguises a darker reality _ that beneath the veneer of public tolerance, conservatism and discrimination remain rife
'At home, I could easily lose my job just by acting out as a gay person," says Richard, a 51-year-old gay man.
"I live and work in Singapore, but I can't reveal my true sexual identity there.
"I earn good money and am working at an executive level. I always look professional in my suit and tie back at home, but here in Thailand I can wear a skin-tight shirt. I love it here since I'm allowed to be myself."
Richard is on Silom Soi 4, an area renowned for its gay nightlife, with his partner Li, 43, a bisexual man from Malaysia.
The pair travel to Thailand regularly and eventually plan to retire here.
"We usually come to see each other in Bangkok or sometimes Phuket," Li says. "We come here every other weekend. We plan to make Thailand our retirement home since people here are much friendlier than where I'm from.
"We feel welcome and blessed every time we are in Thailand. If I had a choice, I would prefer to be born here as a gay person."
TICKLING TOURISTS PINK
The concept of the "pink tourism" dollar has reached Asia only recently, with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community now representing a new market niche in the region.
In December, 2011, San Francisco-based firm Community Marketing released its 16th Annual Gay and Lesbian Tourism Report, which analysed a poll of 6,648 people in the US who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
The report found an overall increase in pink travel after two years of recession-induced decline, with gay/bisexual men taking an average of 3.9 trips and lesbian/bisexual women taking an average of 3.3 trips in the previous 12 months.
The largest segment of respondents fell into the mid-range price point for travel, followed by budget and luxury.
Khun May, founder of gay travel website lovepattaya.com, tells Spectrum that no one in Thailand has ever conducted research on the domestic pink tourism industry. However, the popularity of the website has been measured by the number of unique visitors per day _ 500 _ and minimum page views of 1,000-2,000, all large numbers according to Khun May.
"Among our website's members, most are spending money on travel and leisure and the rest spend the money on food and beverages. Most of our members choose to stay in the five-star hotels. That is why our sponsors are all five-star hotels," Khun May says.
The term often used to describe why this group has such high purchasing power is the acronym Dink _ dual income, no kids.
"Since this group of people has no kids, they can double their budget and spend more on themselves. This is why gay couples are usually bigger spenders than straight couples," Khun May says.
Thailand has long been known as a desirable destination for gay and transgender travellers, even though pink tourism has never been officially promoted.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), however, recently changed that, launching the "Go Thai Be Free" campaign with the aim of promoting pink tourism.
But while Thailand is viewed as a tourist haven for same-sex couples, the reality for locals is that the law, and often public sentiment, is not so liberal.
FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE
After eight years of living with her partner, Bee, a 31-year-old lesbian, is ready to commit to a life-long relationship with her partner. While she admits the pair could live together without any problems, Bee thinks she deserves the same rights as any other Thai citizen.
FINDING HAPPINESS: A lesbian couple kiss. Thailand does not allow the registration of same-sex marriages.
"If we were a straight couple, we would be legally married by now," she says. "My partner is a government official and I think I deserve the same government benefits that the married partner in a straight couple would receive. I'm working, so money is not an issue. However, I need security and stability in my life, just like everyone else."
According to research on same-sex marriage conducted by the Foundation for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Rights and Justice on same-sex marriage, 73% gay or transgender couples in Thailand want legal recognition of their relationships.
Despite Thailand's reputation as the most gay-friendly country in Southeast Asia, marriage or even civil union remains impossible for same-sex couples.
Earlier this year, local activists launched a campaign for the passage of a civil partnership law, saying it was a basic human right that everyone should have access to.
Natee Teerarojjanapong, president of the Gay Political Group of Thailand, tells Spectrum he was the first person to try to push for same-sex marriage in Thailand.
In August, 2011, Mr Natee attempted to register a marriage certificate with his male partner, whom he had lived with for 19 years in Chiang Mai's Muang district. His request was rejected, but he didn't mind _ instead, all he asked for was that the official document from the district office specify the reason why they could not get married.
"According to the Article 30 of the constitution, discriminating against sexual identity is against the law," Mr Natee says.
"I brought that document from the district office to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand [NHRC] in Bangkok and gave it to NHRC commissioner Tairjing Siriphanich. My part was done. I am now waiting to hear back whether this [civil partnership] law will be passed."
Anjana Suvarnananda, president of the Anjaree lesbian rights group, tells Spectrum the proposed civil partnership law is essential to safeguarding sexual diversity in Thailand.
"When straight couples get married, there are many laws supporting their lives _ distribution of inheritance, access to medical care for both parties, for example. But for people of the same gender living together, there is no law to support or protect them," Ms Anjana says.
The NHRC helped activists present their proposal to the government Committee on Justice and Human Rights, which reviewed it and decided a new civil partnership law would be preferable to a marriage law amendment.
"Amendment of the marriage law is not easy to do. Many countries solve this problem by creating civil partnerships. The difference between the two is when a couple registers under the marriage law, their status will become 'spouse'. Those who register under the civil partnerships law become 'partners'," Ms Anjana says.
"In the Thai legal system, only the terms 'family' and 'spouse' are recognised. It would be great to be legally accepted with a civil partnership law, but we just feel kind of insecure about our rights and benefits. All we want is to be treated equally."
Jetsada "Note" Taesombat, coordinator of the Thai Transgender Alliance, believes it is crucial for transgender men and women to be legally recognised as part of society. At present, they are legally identified as their sex at birth.
"Transgender men and women also want the civil partnership law to pass, since gender recognition is the most important issue. To legalise same-sex civil partnerships would mean that we, as people with sexual diversity, can finally be recognised legally. The most important thing for me and for everyone is to be accepted as part of society," Note says.
The Civil Partnership Act has been discussed and reviewed five times already, with public hearings have been held in all four regions of Thailand. The latest forum was held by the House Committee on Justice and Human Rights two months ago.
By law, 20 MPs must sign in support of a public bill before it can be presented to parliament for deliberation. This has already been achieved for the Civil Partnership Bill, but the proposal is yet to be added to the House agenda due to a shortage of public support.
By law, the bill must also garner 10,000 signatures from members of the public _ the civil partnership bill has only about 4,000.
"People of different sexual orientations have always been in a grey area. We [society] can accept them at some unofficial level, but when they want to legalise it, that is not easy to do since public opinion might not be in favour," NHRC commissioner Mr Tairjing says.
"Therefore, the public must also sign their names in support of the bill before submitting it to parliament."
The NHRC originally proposed three approaches to legal reform. The first is to amend the existing marriage law by eliminating the words ''male'' and ''female'' as the specified parties in a marriage. Mr Tairjing, however, says doing this would be a complicated process and may take up to a decade to be approved.
The second approach would be to create a new law to support same-sex civil partnerships, which would take only a few years to be approved.
The final approach would take the issue to the Constitution Court and seek a definitive ruling on whether gay marriage would be legal under the existing law.
''We decided to take approach number two. Now it's down to the people in the community to make a move on the issue [and gather 10,000 signatures in support],'' Mr Tairjing says.
''If this bill is approved, it will be good not only for gay and transgender people but for everyone. It would mean Thailand finally recognises human rights as an important issue. There would also be many new laws that would come afterward, such as adoption laws, changing the gender title of transgender people and many more.''
VISIBLE VICTIMS, INVISIBLE VIOLENCE
In the eyes of the outsider, Thailand is a virtual paradise of tolerance. But for gay and transgender people inside the country, the picture is less idyllic.
The Foundation for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Rights and Justice last year interviewed 868 people who identify as gay, lesbian or transgender in Chiang Mai, Nakhon Sawan, Bangkok, Pattaya, Surat Thani, Phuket and Nakhon Ratchasima.
It found that 15% of respondents were not accepted among their own family members, while 8% were only conditionally accepted as part of the family. For nearly 13% of respondents, family members refused to let them live with a gay partner.
More than 14% had been verbally assaulted by family members, 2.5% were kicked out of the family home and 1.3% were forced to undergo psychological treatment. About 2.5% were forced to enter the monkhood, while 2.4% were physically attacked by family members and 3.3% were sexually assaulted by friends.
Naiyana Supapung, coordinator of the Teeranat Kanjanaauksorn Foundation, which works for gender and sexual justice, tells Spectrum that gay and transgender people in Thailand face silent abuse throughout their everyday lives.
She says Thai people have been conditioned to believe that society consists of only males and females. Therefore, the legal system cannot accommodate anyone outside those defined gender roles.
She says many people become frustrated when they see younger people acting in ways that were never seen in their time _ boys acting like girls, girls dressing like boys, or sexual relationships between people of the same gender.
The main issues arising at the moment are because these ideas are all fairly new, Ms Naiyana says. People of previous generations had little or no knowledge of the existence of different gender groups, with the result that today such people are automatically judged as ''freaks of nature''.
''I have a son studying in high school,'' Ms Naiyana says. ''He showed me his health education text book and I was shocked by what I saw. One part of the book specifically warned against any contact with people who act like members of the opposite sex. It advised students to inform their teacher straight away so they can help adjust those kids' behaviour.
''What makes this worse is the illustration in the lesson. The textbook shows images of what the author considers 'abnormal' kids.
''When my son went to boy-scout camp, he said no one wanted to share the tent with one of the boys, who was gay. That made the boy feel very sad because he was alienated by his friends. I feel like this is a form of violence. Even though the boy did not get physically assaulted, he was emotionally damaged by people around him.
Ms Naiyana says she doesn't necessarily blame teachers in this situation _ she acknowledges that they are simply teaching their students what they themselves were taught many years ago. But this doesn't make it right, and she says there is an urgent need for a change in attitude.
''Invisible violence is more harmful than visible violence. At least there are ways to prevent and treat physical violence. But there is no way to prevent invisible violence. Once it wounds the heart, it is difficult to heal,'' she says.
School is supposed to be a place where student learn. But if the schools give such lessons to kids, I would say they unwittingly encourage homophobia and violence.''
Ms Naiyana recalls a case several years ago in which a gay boy attempted to kill himself by drinking insecticide. The boy had been humiliated by a teacher who had ordered him to stop speaking and acting like a girl. The teacher threatened to lower the boy's academic grades if he didn't comply.
When he failed to follow her instruction, the boy was slapped in the face in front of the whole school during the morning flag ceremony.
When he returned home, he attempted suicide.
EQUALITY VERSUS ECONOMY
''I feel like the reason that gay, lesbian and transgender tourists feel more welcome here is because they are here as tourists and of course local people want their money. They are granted certain privileges, the same as when I travel to another country,'' Transgender Alliance coordinator Note says.
She believes tourists feel more free to express their sexual identity in Thailand because it is not their home and they are offered a certain level of anonymity.
''If they actually live or work here and have a same-sex partner, they will begin to understand that there are many things they can't do and may not have access to,'' Note says.
''When they are here as tourists, they see a romantic side of our culture and tradition. But if they get to be part of a community for one year, they will feel different.''
Ms Naiyana from the Teeranat Kanjanaauksorn Foundation believes that focussing on pink tourism misses the real point, which is an understanding of human rights.
''If we look at same-sex marriage as being beneficial to the economy, many more problems will arise because we do not truly understand the nature of sexual diversity. If we still think that gay and transgender people are different from 'normal' people, that means we do not really understand them,'' she says.
''If we think about the civil partnership law as benefiting us economically, that means we do not really understand the issue well.''
HEARTS AND MINDS
The first step towards ratifying a civil partnership law is to change the public attitude towards same-sex couples; changing the law won't change popular sentiment, Ms Anjana says.
''There is a quote from an expert saying that Thai society unofficially accepts, but officially rejects, gay and lesbian people,'' she says.
''I think it's true that Thai people can only accept gay and lesbian people in superficial ways, such as the way they act or dress. But when it comes to the meaningful circumstances, Thai people tend to be biased against them.''
Note says society must recognise that there is more than just male and female _ there are also lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people living together.
''Apart from the legal issue, I think people's attitudes are important. If people still have negative feelings toward gay and transgender people, the law will mean nothing to anyone.''
Ms Naiyana agrees. ''It is time for us to reform our law, culture, and social values to be more open to sexual diversity. For me, civil partnership is the first step for gender recognition.
''If it is approved and enforced, it will be good. But I would still say we do not really understand what human right and gender equality are,'' she says.
''If we can understand those rights, gay and transgender people should not need to have separate laws governing marriage.''