In fact, the opposite is true here. Homophobia and transphobia is the rule in Thai politics. When his interior minister, Purachai Piamsomboon, mulled about legalising gay marriage some years ago, then PM Thaksin Shinawatra quickly dismissed it as a “Western idea”. Just two weeks ago, a Pheu Thai MP mocked a Democrat MP for being “taew taek” (“over-the-top queen”). The latter denied that he’s not one and said the Pheu Thai Party harboured many more “people of that kind”.
The use of alleged homosexuality for political attacks clearly shows how Thai society views gays and transgenders: deranged, immoral and, therefore, undeserving of respect.
This is to be expected in a country where the medical profession still categorises transgenderism as a form of mental disorder, where the predominantly “Buddhist” population believes that LGBTs are immoral and guilty of past-life sins, where all junior high-school students are instructed by government-approved textbooks that homosexuality is a kind of sexual deviancy, and where the media like the popular TV programme “Tee Sib” regularly reinforces negative images by portraying LGBTs as morally defective, promiscuous, and spreaders of HIV/Aids.
It’s no surprise then that Thailand has no openly LGBT public figures, despite the known secret that some of our past and present leaders are homosexuals. Even straight officials unafraid of gay rumours are reluctant to support LGBT rights, not wanting to be seen as having “low moral standards”.
Thailand is usually perceived by foreigners as tolerant towards LGBTs because transgenders are more visible than in the West. But this myth is based on the wrong assumption that visibility comes with equality. Few foreigners would notice that the transgenders are visible only in lower-rung careers. The sight of many local men enjoying a thriving gay scene also hides the fact that few are “out” to their families. Even fewer are “out” at work, especially if they are in the formal sectors.
It’s true that in general Thai LGBTs don’t get their heads kicked in. But that’s only because the culture has already done an excellent job of kicking our heads in, convincing most LGBTs that we are somehow lesser human beings. We are normally left alone as long as we mind our place and stay within the cultural fence.
But if we try to cross into more formal space, society is ready to rein us in – sometimes violently. The shutdown of the Chiang Mai Gay Pride parade three years ago and the overwhelming public support for Chiang Mai’s banning of transgenders from decorative floats during public festivities are examples of cultural resistance against equal treatment for LGBTs.
The public sphere is not the only place where Thai LGBTs must tread carefully. Some people find it too close for comfort when LGBTs are perceived to be entering their personal space. Many people object to a proposed law to recognise gender change because they claim that men would be duped into marrying a transgender. (On the contrary, same-sex marriage seems less threatening, as it only involves “those people”.)
Things can get violent, when the “intrusion” is no longer hypothetical. Last June, a tomboy was killed and her body dumped in a reservoir in Trat. The main suspect, the mother of the victim’s girlfriend, readily divulged that the reason for the murder was her preference to see her daughter date a man than a “tom”. This is clearly a case where a person is killed because of her sexual orientation and gender identity. It would be categorised as “hate crime” in countries with a law – such as the Matthew Shepard Act in the US – to curb crimes motivated in whole or in part by the offender’s bias against the victim’s identity.
One would hope that this is just an isolated case. But a disturbing pattern is emerging. In 2009, two 17-year-old girls in a same-sex relationship were found dead with more than sixty stab wounds in Chiang Mai. Police suggested they were killed by a man who was attracted to one of them and disdainful of their relationship. This case was an exception in that there were no other obvious causes for the crime, so the police quickly zeroed in on jealously and bias as the motive.
But the idea of “hate crime” doesn’t exist in Thailand’s law enforcement, and the police usually account for similar cases as crimes of passion or love affairs turned sour. In at least five other murder cases over the past six years, the police hypothesised that the tom or lesbian victims were killed solely because they had become involved with married women or someone’s girlfriends.
This assumption legitimises the murders as the victims’ own fault, as though a murder is an appropriate reaction if the alleged affairs are true. It also blinds society to the fact that a man in a similar love triangle would unlikely meet the same fate. As the Trat case clearly shows, the victim would not have been killed if she were a man.
And yet, murders are not the only kind of violence against toms and lesbians. In February, a 14-year-old girl in Loei reported to police that her father had been raping her continuously for four years. The father excused his behaviour by saying that he did it because she “liked to hang out with toms” and wouldn’t listen to his instructions to stay away from them. Corrective rapes “to cure lesbians” are known to be far from rare, although until now overlooked by the state.
This can only be the tip of an iceberg. The question is how many unreported cases of violence are infused with homophobia? These cases of gruesome violence against toms and lesbians prompted local LGBT groups in collaboration with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission to send a letter to Thai officials, demanding investigation and action, along with other measures to combat homophobia and transphobia and discrimination against LGBTs. The government has yet to respond.
In its 2011 report, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights identified murder, beatings, kidnappings, rape and sexual assault against LGBT people as homophobic and transphobic violence that “constitute a form of gender-based violence, driven by a desire to punish those seen as defying gender norms”, and that violence against LGBT people “tends to be especially vicious compared to other bias-motivated crimes”.
The pretense of acceptance has long blinded Thai society from its deep-rooted homophobia and transphobia, allowing such horrendous crimes to happen. It’s true that male-to-female transgenders are rarely targets of violence, as they have been a familiar, if ridiculed, part of the Thai culture. However, these cases of violence against toms and lesbians shows that the crossing of gender lines by females into male territory is more threatening for some Thais, especially when it’s felt to be invading one’s personal life.
To mark today’s International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said “Homophobia and transphobia are no different to sexism, misogyny, racism or xenophobia. But whereas these last forms of prejudice are universally condemned by governments, homophobia and transphobia are too often overlooked. History shows us the terrible human price of discrimination and prejudice. No one is entitled to treat a group of people as less valuable, less deserving or less worthy of respect. Each and every one of us is entitled to the same rights, to the same respect and ethical treatment, regardless of our sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Although Thailand has made a significant foreign policy shift last year by supporting LGBT rights internationally for the first time, it did not support the inclusion of “sexual orientation” as a ground for protection in the UN resolution to condemn extrajudicial killings. Now that evidence has emerged to indicate the existence of such violence in our own backyard, it’s time the government did something to eliminate the root causes of the subtle, yet ever-present homophobia and transphobia in Thai society.
Paisarn Likhitpreechakul is co-founder of FOR-SOGI.org for the promotion and protection of LGBT rights in Thailand.