The water surface ripples, then stirs into a frenzy of feeding catfish. Arisa Thanommek and Pacharee Hungsabut dip their fingers into a bag of pellets and toss two more handfuls into the artificial lake at which they like to spend their weekends.
“We knew people would react when we got married,” says Arisa, thinking of the hurtful slurs that arrived when pictures of the two women’s wedding were published in May. “But it was horrible when strangers wrote that our families should be ashamed.”
Thailand likes to project itself as an oasis of tolerance in a continent where roughly half of the countries outlaw homosexuality. It is one of only seven Asian signatories of the U.N.’s declaration of LGBT rights, and its tourism authority reaches out to gay travelers with websites like this, boasting that “Thailand embraces all lifestyles.”
The country could also become the first Asian country to introduce a same-sex-partnership law. Many gay and lesbian couples already arrange symbolic ceremonies but “if everything goes our way,” legal unions “could happen within six months,” says Anjana Suvarnananda, founder of leading LGBT-rights organization Anjaree Foundation, which is behind the legislative campaign.
Yet as Arisa and Pacharee — and many in the LGBT community — have discovered, much of this tolerance is a facade. After all, it wasn’t until 2002 that the Thai government stopped classifying homosexuality as an illness. It took four more years before the military and some conservative colleges permitted LGBT people to join their ranks. Even more alarmingly, hostility toward the LGBT community can take horribly violent forms.
In 2012, a 14-year-old girl reported to police that her father had been raping her for four years because she was hanging out with “toms,” the Thai word for lesbians who dress and act like men. Eight months earlier, a tom was murdered by her girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend. The killing was commissioned by the girlfriend’s mother. In between those two cases, another tom had been bludgeoned to death, yet another raped and murdered, and a third had been strangled, slashed in the face with a machete and dumped into an irrigation channel.
In total, 15 lesbians were murdered from 2006 to 2012, according to a report put together by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). The number of lesbians who’ve been attacked since, or the number of gay and transgender people that have been assaulted or killed, is difficult to say. Thai law doesn’t include the designation “hate crime,” and the government has dismissed the cases reported by IGLHRC as “crimes of passion,” or “love gone sour.”
“Sometimes law enforcement is less interested when a gay or lesbian person is killed — they may think that it’s a case of jealousy,” says Tairjing Siripanich, the commissioner in charge of LGBT issues at Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)
Systemic discrimination is evident. A collaborative UNESCO, Plan International and Mahidol University study from November found that a third of 2,000 surveyed LGBT students had been physically harassed, a fourth sexually. Only a minority had previously told anyone about the bullying, even though it had caused many of them to be depressed and 7% to attempt suicide.
“The Human Rights Commission needs to be more proactive and visibilize violence and denounce stigma,” says IGLHRC regional program coordinator Grace Poore. “And local NGOs need to press the government to eradicate violence against LGBT people.”
“In Thailand, we always smile and save face, but we close our eyes to all bullies out there,” says Kaona Saowakun, a trans man whose struggle to come to terms with society and his gender identity has been dogged by petty discrimination. When he was barred from taking exams at his university in trousers, he filed a complaint to the NHRC and was able to force the university to amend its rules. But then the university began requiring everyone who wanted to be exempt from the dress codes to file an application ahead of every new semester.
The LGBT people who do well in Thailand tend to keep their sexual orientation hidden. “If Thailand had been really tolerant, people would come out. But they don’t,” says Douglas Sanders, a Canadian professor emeritus specializing in Asian LGBT issues. “No prominent celebrity or political figure has come out, so there are no role models.”
Those who openly express their sexual orientation risk being lumped together with the country’s ubiquitous “lady boys,” who doubtless titillate many a foreign visitor but occupy an often ridiculed role in local society. And while pride parades and other public displays of LGBT culture are visible in tourist havens such as Phuket and Pattaya, the situation is very different elsewhere. A parade in the northern city of Chiang Mai in 2009 stirred such hostility that it had to be canceled. As paradegoers were preparing to march, a local political group surrounded the compound where they had gathered, yelling insults through megaphones and pummeling the building with fruit and rocks.
“To avoid clashes and attacks we decided not to come out,” says Anjana. Pride parades haven’t taken place since then in either Chiang Mai or Bangkok.
Still, the activist of 28 years finds that some progress is being made — along with compromises. The proposed same-sex-marriage legislation doesn’t include custody for children and raises the age limit to 20 years from 17 in the cases of same-sex unions, but at least it is being considered.
“Before, some gay and lesbian people felt threatened by those of us who started speaking openly about it, they felt that they were losing the quiet little space they already had for themselves in the society,” she says. “People are more aware of their rights now. They show their affection more openly, and increasingly come out to their parents.”
Arisa and Pacharee were lucky to have their parents’ blessing for their wedding. Now they long for a time when they can also get legal recognition. “I want to be able to take care of [Pacharee] if something happens to her,” says Arisa, who is currently not allowed to sign off on medical operations for her wife.
Their May ceremony did lead to more than public indignation, though. Today, they have a loyal Facebook following of over 23,000. “Most of our fans are teenagers who are afraid to come out,” Arisa says. “We try to be good role models for them. We are never afraid of holding hands or kissing in public.”