Thailand is consistently hailed as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in the world. It holds international transgender beauty pageants, offers quality gender reassignment surgery, and was the first in the region to criminalize gender-based discrimination. The government has leaned into this queer-friendly image in tourism campaigns, but members of the local LGBTQ community say the reality is very different.
“You might have heard that Thailand, especially Bangkok, is a hub for LGBT people around the world, but that’s [just] for tourism. As an insider, I feel like [Thai society] allows LGBT people to express their identity, but they [do not support it] by policy or by law. Stigma and discrimination [still exists against] the LGBT [community],” Kathawut Khangpiboon, co-founder of the Thai Transgender Alliance and lecturer at Thammasat University, told VICE World News.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has not been shy about its ambitions to tap “pink money” through its LGBTQ travel symposiums and gender freedom campaigns. In 2019, the TAT even sent a contingent to join the World Pride event in New York to shepherd the good news that LGBTQ people are welcome in Thailand. But according to a 2018 World Bank survey, those in the community experience a lot of discrimination in everyday life. It’s reportedly most prevalent when accessing education and healthcare services, buying or renting properties, seeking legal protection, and looking for a job. There are accounts of job applicants who identify as gay, being asked whether they would “dress as a girl to work,” and job advertisements with disclaimers like “men only.” Among all the respondents, it’s the transgender men and women who reported the most frequent and severe forms of discrimination.
Kathawut Khangpiboon, also known as Kath, identifies as a woman, although it reads “Mr.” in all of her government identification cards. In 2015, she was denied a position as a lecturer in Thammasat University, despite passing the qualification screening. The reason, the university said, was her “impolite words and inappropriate pictures on social media.” Kath had posted a lipstick shaped like a penis from Japan.
Believing that the rejection was rooted in discrimination, Kath sued the university in a highly-publicized case. After three years, Thailand’s Central Administrative Court ordered Thammasat University to hire Kath as a lecturer and sign an employment contract with her within 60 days. Kath said this was a win for trans people as it “opened an opportunity for trans teachers who are interested [in being] lecturers at a university level.”
In Thailand, LGBTQ teachers are not considered good role models and are thought to have a negative influence on students, so very few are open about their sexuality. Kath was the first openly transgender lecturer in Thammasat University. That was in 2018. Since then, the university has hired two more trans lecturers, she said.
Although Thailand has made headlines for its progressive policies, like the Gender Equality Act, its gender laws are not as liberal as they seem. Up until 2002, homosexuality was considered a mental illness. The Ministry of Health has since denounced this, but some school textbooks still describe homosexuality as an illness or abnormality. There is also no gender recognition law in Thailand, meaning trans individuals cannot change their gender on identity papers.
“Thailand is still conservative, so most people don’t understand diversity or [multiculturalism], and that’s why they stick to a gender box and the binary system solely,” Kath said.
The country’s Gender Equality Act was enacted in 2015 and made discrimination based on gender illegal in the country. It covers people who are “male, female, or have expressions that differ from their birth sex.” It was heralded as a landmark law as the first in Thailand to address discrimination, not only for cisgender women, but for those with different gender expressions, too. However, critics say it’s “disappointingly underused.”
They say that the law has had very little impact due, in part, to low public awareness. A 2019 survey by the United Nations Development Programme reported that only 44 percent of LGBTQ people knew about the Gender Equality Act. It also noted that while the law was intended to protect people from unjust gender-based discrimination, actual implementation of the law remains to be seen.
Making a claim under the law is also very difficult. In an English translation, section 17 of the Gender Equality Act states that gender discrimination is allowed if it is “for protecting the welfare and safety of a person or for following religious rules, or for the security of the nation.” This, essentially, justifies discrimination in certain cases. In 2020, a trans woman filed a complaint against a restaurant that barred her from using the restroom for women, only for the case to be dismissed after the restaurant claimed that trans women are more likely to commit crimes.
The law also requires certain conditions in order for individuals to file a complaint, which has allowed other forms of discrimination to persist. An act of discrimination must have first occured against a victim or “aggrieved party.” In 2016, one gender equality activist tried to file a complaint about a school that refused LGBTQ students, but was denied because no “aggrieved parties'' were identified.
According to Kath, the process of filing a complaint under the Gender Equality Act is complex and complicated, especially since complainants have to take the issue to court. This, coupled with the loopholes and conditions, makes it difficult to implement the law.
At the moment, Thailand is making headlines once again for talks of a Civil Partnership Bill that would make same-sex unions legal in the country. It was approved by the cabinet in June 2020 and is now being reviewed by parliament. If passed, Thailand would become the first country in Southeast Asia to do this.
However, members of the LGBTQ community are divided on the Civil Partnership Bill. Some see it as a step in the right direction and want to see the bill become law, but activists view it as “fake equality” because the bill does not give same-sex couples the same rights as straight ones. Civil partners would be able to adopt children and inherit each other’s properties in the absence of a will, but they won’t be entitled to personal income tax deductions and government pensions given to straight couples. To some, this bill is just another form of queerbaiting. In fact, while the government has yet to pass the Civil Partnership Bill, the tourism industry has been quick to use this news to promote Thailand even more as an LGBTQ-friendly destination.
This is why advocates like Kath have been actively pushing for policies that are truly inclusive. They are now drafting amendments to the Civil Partnership Bill, as well as proposals for gender recognition that they aim to present to parliament members this year. “The LGBT community is still a vulnerable group, a marginal group,” she said.