That the ILGA (International Lesbian and Gay Association) chose to hold its regional conference in Bangkok this weekend is a sign of confidence in Thailand's openness to LGBT - lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender - issues.
After all, ILGA-Asia does not need a repeat of the experience in Indonesia’s Surabaya where its previous conference was attacked by religious fundamentalists and was cancelled before it started.
Hosted by local LGBT organisation Rainbow Sky and lesbian group Anjaree, this conference will certainly be a great success by comparison, and the hundred-plus LGBT activists from across Asia will surely echo the “acceptance” of homosexuality and transgenderism in Thai society. Few, however, will realise the more nuanced reality of Thailand’s attitude towards matters of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).
At last week’s first UN Asia-Pacific Regional Seminar on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Nepal – which the author attended on behalf of the Foundation for SOGI Rights and Justice (FOR-SOGI) – Thailand was cited as one of the few Asian countries with a good voting record in the United Nations when it came to SOGI rights.
However, this has not always been the case. Until just two years ago, it used to be that Thailand would sit on the fence, for fear that a pro-LGBT vote would offend homophobic countries in this region. Malaysia, for example, continues to reject any mention of SOGI issues in the framework of the Asean Economic Community. The Asean Declaration of Human Rights is known for its failure to include the protection and promotion of LGBT rights. It would also be a shock if the issue made any progress this year when Brunei holds the Asean chairmanship. That’s why for a long time Thailand played it safe by abstaining on the issue. As Professor Douglas Sanders, law professor and long-time observer of LGBT issues in Asia, pointed out, Thailand’s vote had never before been publicised at home, so most LGBT activists were not aware of our own country’s dismal record.
But the last straw came when Thailand abstained both when the mention of “sexual orientation” as a ground on which people continued to be killed was removed from the UN Resolution on Extrajudicial Executions – and when an international attempt was made to reinstate it. Suddenly the news entered the long-insulated local LGBT community and proved so outrageous to local LGBT activists that they held press conferences, submitted letters to the prime minister, published articles and editorials online and in print, and staged a protest in front of the Government House which included a mock-hanging.
Finally, a meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was held and on June 17, 2011, Thailand, then chair of the UN Human Rights Council, voted in support of adopting the UN Resolution on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity – the first resolution of any UN body to specifically address LGBT issues.
But, while Thailand’s sitting on its hands and allowing the killing of gays, lesbians and transgenders to happen around the world was enraging local LGBT activists, little did they know the same thing was happening in our own backyard.
On June 28 of the same year, a “tom” (lesbian) was murdered in Trat by her girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend. The mother of the girlfriend engineered the murder of the tom and promised to marry off her daughter to the ex-boyfriend who committed the murder. On January 15, 2009 in Chiang Mai, two 17-year old high-schoolers were found dead after having been stabbed over sixty times, most likely due to their lesbian relationship.
And if these are thought to be isolated incidents, Thai LGBT groups together with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission last year submitted a list of 15 murders of lesbians – all in murky circumstances and many likely to be hate-crimes – in a letter to Thai authorities requesting in-depth investigations to examine the root causes and find a way to address them. The demand, however, was met with deaf ears.
So much for “tolerant” Thailand. Things like this are easy to forget amidst self-congratulatory news about the recent parliamentary move to legalise same-sex civil unions, even though the days when transgenders were labelled as “suffering from permanent psychosis” or when the Chiang Mai Gay Pride march was attacked, are not far behind us.
During Thailand’s Universal Periodic Review process in the UN, Thai LGBT groups submitted a shadow report on the LGBT situation in Thailand with recommendations for action, which was incorporated into the civil society report. This report has also been ignored.
Therefore one must be forgiven for not being thrilled by the proposed bill, because legal recognition of our relationship is but one aspect of our life. Sweet as same-sex union may be, it is at best icing on the cake – which cannot come before the cake itself. What we need to ensure first are basic rights like non-discrimination in health, education and employment. At worst, it is a poor “consolation prize”. After all, how useful are marriage rights when you don’t have the right to life?
Foundation for SOGI Rights and Justice (forsogi.org)