The LGBTQ+ community has awakened. No official Pride events have ever been held in Isaan. But remarkably, during this month, Pride Month for LGBTQ+ groups around the world, activities have or will be carried out in five provinces: Udon Thani, Buriram, Srisaket, Ubon Ratchathani, and Khon Kaen.

In Udon, gender rights activist groups joined hands to hold the city’s first Pride parade and demand marriage equality and sex workers’ rights. They are calling for the event to be held every year in June as a form of symbolic resistance against gender discrimination. 

Story and photographs by Onnipha Sunarong, Citizen Reporter of The Isaan Record

UDON THANI – A few hundred people jointly organized the city’s first-ever Pride parade on June 18, to celebrate Pride Month, and demand marriage and gender equality and sex workers’ rights. The event was organized by the democracy activist group “Udon’s Had Enough” and an LGBTQ+ rights network and groups, including the Isaan Gender Diversity Network (IGDN) and M Friends.

Parade participants gathered in front of the Siam Commercial Bank branch near Udon Thani’s Clock Tower around 3 p.m. The colors of the LGBTQ+ community “rainbow”–purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red–were on bright display. Some paraders clothed in the colors, some work stickers, while others even spray-painted themselves in colors.

A few hundred people joined the Pride parade in the streets of downtown Udon Thani on June 18, 2022

At 4 p.m., the Pride parade set off and headed toward Thung Sri Mueang Park. The march attracted attention from the public, who showed support for the participants along the route. They also walked by a local skateboard group holding its own event. A loud cheer was heard as the parade passed.

The parade reached its destination at Thung Sri Mueang at 5 p.m., where speakers from each group gave speeches, standing  at the end of a huge rainbow-colored flag spread on the ground and surrounded by the attendees.

Natthanon “Nat” Boonsom, a representative of the members of the LGBTQ+ community with disabilities, talked about how Udon’s Pride parade and how the event was made possible because of fundraising among the public. Unfortunately, the event received no support from the government. If a Pride event was to be held again next year, he said he wanted it to be endorsed by government agencies.

Nat also expressed surprise at the size of the crowd of a few hundred people: “I did not expect to see so many people joining us!”

“Pride is a protest against inequality,” he said. “It cannot happen if everyone tolerates oppression and if no one wants to stand up to protect their rights and the rights of others.”

Udon Thani province is the first place to organize an LGBTQ+ parade in the Northeast. 

Nat said that the draft of the marriage equality bill received a surprising nod of approval when the House of Representatives gave the law a  first parliamentary reading. 

He said that people are still confused between the marriage equality bill and the civil partnership bill. He explained that the marriage equality bill would fulfill the rights of same-sex couples, giving them the same legal status as heterosexual couples. 

But the civil partnership bill, he said, remains discriminatory in some aspects, such as denying same-sex couples the right to assisted reproductive technologies.

“Now, the marriage equality and civil partnership bills just passed their first readings,” he said. “But there is still a chance the Senate will drop them. I would like everyone to pay close attention to what the parliament is going to do next, whether they will choose the civil partnership bill or the marriage equality bill. I think there’s a high possibility the Senate will reject the bills.”

The next speaker was Thanantorn “Film” Ninlaphay, from the Feminist Liberation Group. They said to the crowd that a client hurt a friend who works as a sex worker. As a result, Film’s friend could not go to the police for justice, fearing arrest by law enforcement. 

The “6-Color Pride Flag” was created in 1979, soon after the assassination of San Franciso City Supervisor Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay officials in the United States. Although there is a wide array of flags used by various groups in the LGBTQ+ community, this one has become the most popular. Source: Volvo Group

Film asks why the sex industry has not yet been legalized. “After all,” they said, “it is just another job that earns money without causing trouble to anyone.”

“The government totally disregards sex workers.. I would like the law to be changed to recognize the rights of sex workers.”

Afterward, the moderator, Somkhuan Kengkham, spoke about why this event was being held. Somkhuan said the event’s purpose was to celebrate peoples’ pride in themselves, regardless of their gender or occupation. 

“Everyone living in society should be free to like or love anyone no matter what gender they identify as,” they said. “The audience should be proud of who they are.”

“We would like to push for wider recognition,” Somkhuan said. “We are not demanding rights for any specific gender in particular, but we are demanding equality for all. We should treat every person as equal.”

However, the LGBTQ+ community and other gender groups still face obstacles. “We should not segregate people of the LGBTQ+ community from the rest of society nor discriminate against any gender,” Somkhuan said. “We need to strive to uphold the key principles of the United Nations regarding gender equality.”

“A variety of groups are affected,” Somkhuan said, “especially those who are vulnerable or discriminated against, who have been denied career opportunities for identifying as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Some experienced sexual harassment for simply being a woman or someone who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community in their workplace. Others have been ridiculed or bullied in educational institutions and have been outlawed for simply working as a sex worker.”

The LGBTQ+ community is stereotyped. “Most members of the LGBTQ+ community are seen as clowns,” Somkhuan said. “They are stigmatized and discriminated against in society.”

Somkhuan said they were making four specific demands.

The first demand was to allow members of the LGBTQ+ community the right to marriage registration and give them full marriage rights and equality.

The second demand was for sex work to be legalized, regardless of sex or gender. 

The third demand was to give people with disabilities rights to accessibility. 

The final demand was for news and other media coverage to be covered “in a way that doesn’t stigmatize or stereotype members of the LGBTQ+ community.”

Concluding their speech, Somkhuan declared, “In June of every year, we will show the power of gender diversity and call for gender equality and human rights!”

Following the speeches was an energetic runway show over a rainbow flag by parade participants. Some held signs reading, “Sex work is work,” while others had signs demanding the legalization of sex work and providing sex workers a safe workplace.

The crowd listening to speakers before the Rainbow Flag

Next on the evening’s agenda were dance showsby various members of the LGBTQ+ network, such as QUIZZ, followed by performances of a feminist art group.

The group’s songs and performances shined a light on the many problems faced by some livelihoods of mor lam dancers and sex workers that are overlooked by society.

Concluding the event, a representative from the Udon’s Had Enough group, Sirikan “Dream” Akkharach, thanked everyone for coming. They said the event organizers hoped that people in Udon Thani would change their attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community and see all human beings as equal. Supporting marriage equality is one way that can help highlight the view that everyone is equal as human beings.

“I hope we can send this message to schools and government agencies to help make them realize that the way they force people to wear certain types of clothing or cut their hair in a certain way is a violation of their rights,” they said.

These kinds of practices are “part of the oppressive system that doesn’t see people as equal,” Dream said. “We will not allow that. We will revolt against the way people think about gender diversity.”

“Many people might think gender diversity is a deviation from society. However, no matter how you identify your gender, you all are part of the diversity. May all of us celebrate diversity on this occasion.”

Surin will hold Pride activities on June 28. Khon Kaen University will hold a day-long set of activities, including a seminar, on June 30, and a Pride parade is scheduled in downtown Khon Kaen on July 2.