By The Isaan Record

A group of people, many colorfully dressed, stretches out a huge flag between them and starts down the road. At first, the group seems a little unsure. Some of the marchers hesitate when reporters take pictures or ask for comment. This is something unfamiliar about what they’re doing. 

But as they go along, the group comes to life. The chanting becomes louder. Various members break out their dancing moves. Others seem to come out of nowhere, dressed just as colorfully, and eager to join in. 

It’s not clear if those driving by in cars or motorcycles know exactly what’s going on, but many honk and wave in support. They reach the heart of the university, where to one side an area has been prepared for them to speak.

The sky, turning purple as night falls, serves as the background as different people come up to speak. At one point, a highschooler, maybe 14 or 15, eloquently speaks of her struggle against bullying, of being misunderstood, of being thought of as too different.

Finally, the event is over. The group departs in good humor. It was a modest action that didn’t last that long and didn’t involve that many people. 

It would otherwise be unremarkable except for a few things.

It was historic. It was perhaps the first pride parade of its kind to have ever taken place in the Northeast. It was also the first joint action taken by the marchers who had come to Khon Kaen University to form the region’s first LGBT network. 

The Gender Diversity Network of Isaan steps up for the region’s first LGBT Pride Parade on Oct. 24, 2020. Photo by Donlawat Sunsuk

But for some, it was something deeper and more personal: it was a homecoming. The journey common to many LGBT people in Isaan is to go to Bangkok, where the social pressure and family expectations of their past lessen. There, an important part of their journey takes place: they are finally able to fully be themselves, in the gender that they define themselves.

The parade was the vehicle that brought them back home–not as the insecure and scarred person of their youth–but now proudly as the person they want to be. The parade was a kind of declaration of freedom as their new selves.

A 2014 report by the United Nations Development Program points out that the Thai attitude toward LGBT issues is “complex and contradictory.” While there is “the outward appearance of acceptance, and higher visibility of transgender people than in most countries,” there is also “hostility and prejudice towards LGBT people, as well as institutionalized discrimination.”

While tourist authorities are quick to portray Thailand as a “gay paradise,” “discussions of sexuality in society are still taboo and there is limited sex education in schools.”

In addition, LGBT individuals are visible in the modern context of city, mass media, and entertainment. But when moved back into less urban areas, and then into the countryside, LGBT individuals seem to become increasingly invisible, living in the shadows along the margins.

We want to bring some light to the issue, give voice to some of the LGBT community in the Northeast. 

So The Isaan Record, working with the new “Gender Diversity Network of Isaan,” starts our latest series, “LGBTIQ+ in Isaan: on the road to rights and equality.” Where we can (such as this introduction and the following piece), we are engaging members of the network to jointly lay out the framing of the series and asking members to use this opportunity to explain their own journey.

We are also presenting the series in parts with four to six items in each set. So please keep your eyes open for the next part in our series after this first segment concludes.

Global Overview

One organization estimated the number of LGBTIQ+ people in selected Asian countries in 2016. It noted that Thailand ranks number four in Asia in raw numbers (behind China, India, and Japan), but the percentage of the population was remarkably similar. China’s LGBTIQ+ community was estimated to be about 6.3 percent, India, 6.2 percent, Japan 6.5 percent, and Thailand, 6.0 percent.

These numbers are similar to data from elsewhere. In the United States, for instance, Gallup noted in 2018, interestingly, that the percentage of Americans 18 years or older who identified as LGBT increased from 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent from 2012 to 2017. The largest increases were found among Hispanic and Asian Americans. Women were more likely to identify as LGBT (5.1 percent) as compared to men (3.9 percent). Those identifying as LGBT were more present in low income groups with some college education. 

The increase in the percentage of those identifying as LGBT was due almost solely to Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1999). Millennials identifying as LGBT went from 5.8 percent in 2012 to 8.1 percent in 2017. Gallup notes that it may be that these younger LGBT Americans “are feeling increasingly comfortable over time with their sexual orientation, and thus are more likely to identify as such.” 

But this greater comfort may also be the result of the success of the LGBT community as a whole creating its own space within American society, as well as increasing social acceptance achieved by progress in LGBT people attaining legal rights and recognition.

Gender Diversity and Rights

Currently, 69 countries still criminalize same-sex relationships. Transgender individuals are subject to punishment in 26 countries and are at a disproportionate risk of violence. In many other countries, LGBT still face discrimination and are not protected by constitutions or law. The result is that millions of LGBT worldwide are deprived of their right to live openly, safely, and equally. 

Though the global LGBT movement is relatively new, it has made impressive strides. Within a decade of foundational events–such as the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 in New York–individual countries began to respond with new laws and, a few decades later, became visible to international bodies such as the United Nations. 

The first country to legally recognize any sort of union between same-sex persons was the Netherlands in 1979 where also the first same-sex marriage law was passed in 2000. The first state in the US to legalize same-sex marriage was Vermont in 2009. There are currently 29 countries that recognize same-sex marriages and another 18 that have laws allowing civil unions. 

Constitutional measures to guarantee rights of “people regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity” (SOGI) have come more slowly. South Africa was the first to include gender identity into its constitution in 1996. Only Bolivia and Ecuador include both sexual orientation and gender identity in their constitutions. Another seven countries have either “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” in their constitutions: Mexico, Portugal, Sweden, New Zealand, Fiji, Malta, and the United Kingdom.

Without constitional guarantees, observers fear, “LGBT people are at risk of rights violations and discrimination.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council adopted its first resolution on SOGI in 2014, calling for a report on combating discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity (the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam voted for the measure while China and India abstained).

One of the most prominent international efforts aiming to raise awareness of LGBT rights is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. The date of May 17 was chosen to commemorate the day that the World Health Organization removed “homosexuality” from its list of diseases in 1990. First observed in 2005, more than 130 countries observed the day in 2020 under the theme, “Breaking the Silence.”

Until recently, Thailand has paid little attention to LGBT rights. On the international stage, Thailand once voted for a resolution to have research done on discrimination against LGBT when it was on the United Nations Human Rights Council. It did not join the UN LGBT Core Group which sets out to raise consciousness about LGBT issues and engage in “constructive dialogue,” nor has it applied to join the group.

Thailand’s latest constitution omits any reference to gender identity or LGBT in its Section 27 which states, “All persons are equal before the law, and shall have rights and liberties and be protected equally under the law.” Protected against discrimination are issues of “origin, race, language, sex, age, disability, physical or health condition, personal status, economic and social standing, religious belief, education or political views.”

Thailand has no laws that allow LGBT adoption, no anti-discrimination laws, no provisions for parter immigration, no right for those (or anyone else) who have gone through sexual reassignment surgery to change their gender on offiicial documents.

A growing trend–of which Thailand is not part–allows individuals in certain cases to identify their own gender, giving the option of “male,” “female,” or “X.” 

Thailand’s universal conscription law requires all Thai males to serve in the military. LGBT persons were designated as suffering from “Permanent Mental Disorder” and banned from serving. It was only in 2011 that the military reclassified such persons as having “Gender Identity Disorder.”

Thailand’s military government in 2014 flirted with the idea of legalizing same-sex civil unions and the current parliament does have a gender identity law under consideration.

Thai LGBT groups say that civil unions would not provide equal rights to sam-sex couples. Most Southeast Asia countries where public opinion has been surveyed show little support for same-sex marriages (only 34 percent support the idea in Vietnam). In Thailand, though, an opinion poll from 2015 shows that 59 percent of Thais support same-sex marriage. 

Tomorrow please check in the Isaan Record to read the next installment to our series, for a local perspective introducing our series.