Britain’s consul-general in Shanghai Brian Davidson, left, marries his American boyfriend Scott Chang at the British 
ambassador's residence in Beijing in this 2014 photo. Davidson was appointed UK’s ambassador to Thailand in 2016./AFP
Britain’s consul-general in Shanghai Brian Davidson, left, marries his American boyfriend Scott Chang at the British ambassador's residence in Beijing in this 2014 photo. Davidson was appointed UK’s ambassador to Thailand in 2016./AFP

Social tolerance not a substitute for LGBT rights

opinion August 07, 2017 01:00

By Titipol Phakdeewanich
Special to The Nation

4,860 Viewed

it is time for formal legal recognition of human rights, including LGBT rights and equal marriage 

After US President Donald Trump’s distasteful tweet announcing his intention to ban transgender people from serving in the military, there was a strong reaction. His announcement backfired as people within and outside of the United States called on him to uphold the principles of human rights, namely, equality, dignity and rights.

Trump’s tweet reaffirmed public speculation over his LGBT policy, which is starkly different from former president Barack Obama’s recognition of LGBT rights as human rights.

This is of little public concern in Thailand, since most transgender people are not inclined to serve in the military. Though this illustrates the different national perceptions towards the rights of LGBT people in Thailand and the US, the violation of LGBT rights remains an ongoing challenge for both nations and the rest of the world.

Thailand is neither one of the 72 countries where homosexuality is illegal and people can potentially be arrested, as recently observed in the arrest of 40 Nigerian men for performing homosexual acts, nor those eight countries where homosexuality is punishable by death.

With its famous “ladyboy” performances in Pattaya and elsewhere, Thailand is perceived as a very gay-friendly land, and can hardly be described as an anti-gay or anti-LGBT society, in part because there is a high level of social acceptance and tolerance towards members of these minority groups.

Same-sex marriage occasionally receives mainstream media and social media coverage in Thailand, reinforcing its high public support. A cultural ceremony, a marriage ceremony without the accompanying legally binding status of marriage, misleads some Thai people to believe that our country is one of the 24 nations across the globe in which same-sex marriage is legal. Consequently, people are distracted from discussing LGBT rights in a serious manner, and have entered a social comfort zone in which there is an illusion of rights where they don’t actually exist in law. This illusion continues the poor public awareness of the inequalities between genders and sexual orientation in the country.

For example, there are few formal complaints of job discrimination made by LGBT people, but this does not mean that there is no job discrimination against LGBT people in Thailand. Indeed there are instances of discrimination, but they are not normally considered violations of the rights of LGBT people. Rather, they reflect the Thai job market in general, which is dominated by the problem of personal connection and the belief in luck and destiny. Accordingly, there is little connection made with the concept of rights and equality in the job market. 

In 2011, at the United Nations convention in Geneva, Switzerland, the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasised that LGBT people are no less human than others, and so LGBT rights are human rights and must be protected by the state. In the same year,  Obama signed a presidential memorandum entitled “International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons,” in order “to ensure that US diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons”. 

US commitment

The declaration reaffirmed the US commitment to the promotion of LGBT rights.

To a certain extent, low levels of commitment from the Thai state, and the different values and social practices between Thailand and the West, holds back our country from making progress on LGBT rights. 

A majority of Thais, regardless of their sexual preferences or orientation, are confused by the gulf between the existence of widespread social tolerance and officially recognised rights. This confusion leads to a widespread, but erroneous, belief that social tolerance is a legitimate substitute for legally recognising the rights of minorities.

Thailand is little different from its ASEAN neighbours and the rest of Asia, where minority rights are not normally protected and enshrined by the state because cultural walls are erected in the name of national pride. Consequently, what is considered normal and accepted beyond the continent are not often embraced by Asian countries. This prevents Thailand from fully appreciating the universality of rights as proclaimed by the United Nations: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

In 2015 Singapore announced that the country was not yet ready for same-sex marriage. The same year, in the West, the US legalised same-sex marriage. This summer, Germany became the 15th European country allowing same-sex marriage.

In part, the lack of progress with LGBT rights in Thailand is related to the focus of society and the LGBT community on HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. 

The health issues have attracted resources to support work in that area from international donors such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). 

The country’s leading LGBT NGO, the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand, has also been primarily working on HIV issues rather than the struggle for rights recognition. Also, domestic funding sources focus on HIV because LGBT people and prostitutes are considered to be at a high risk of infection.

However, this year we have observed a shift of support among international donors to a focus on rights and equality. The Embassy of Sweden in Bangkok, in collaboration with USAID and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), have implemented the “Being LGBT in Asia” project to support basic LGBT rights, and address discrimination against LGBT people across the continent.

In Thailand and the rest of Asia, the debate on the promotion of rights is often framed in terms of a clash of values between the East and the West. This is a false argument. LGBT rights are not advanced as Western values. They are an acceptance of fundamental and inalienable human rights and equality for all people of the world. Including the people of the Eastern part of the world.

Appointing envoys

Indeed, one of the most effective Western foreign policy instruments to promote LGBT rights across the globe is the appointment of gay diplomats and ambassadors. They include Ted Osius, appointed as US ambassador to Vietnam in 2014 by Obama, and Brian Davidson, appointed as British ambassador to Thailand in 2016. 

These appointments send a strong message to the rest of the world that being gay does not devalue their humanity, and that they are no less capable of performing such senior roles.

This is a call for Thailand and the rest of Asia to wake up and truly reconsider their support for LGBT rights. After all, they are simply recognition of human rights, which Thailand already claims to promote and respect. Nothing else can substitute for that formal recognition.


TITIPOL PHAKDEEWANICH is dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University.