Seen with Pride or through pinkwashed lenses? The LGBTQIA+ community in Thailand

Home » Seen with Pride or through pinkwashed lenses? The LGBTQIA+ community in Thailand

In recent years, the global discourse surrounding LGBTQIA+ rights has gained significant momentum as societies strive for greater equality and acceptance, and Thailand is no exception. As Pride Month embraces the celebration of diversity and equality, it is also important to focus on the progress made and challenges faced in advancing LGBTQIA+ rights within the context of Thailand. This article aims to shed light on the evolving legal landscape surrounding LGBTQIA+ rights in Thailand, exploring significant legal developments, cultural considerations, and ongoing advocacy efforts both within legal structures and beyond. By delving into topics such as discrimination, gender recognition, and employment, we aim to provide a brief insight into the legal landscape affecting the LGBTQIA+ community in Thailand.

The LGBTQIA+ Community in the Thai context

Traditional Thai society adheres to strict gender stereotypes that categorize people as either male or female, with specific expectations of their behavior, occupational choices, and societal roles. Despite this, Thailand has a long history of non-heteronormative behaviors, dating back to at least the 14th century and continuing through the present Rattanakosin era. Accounts and depictions of homosexuality among male and female members of the Thai court have been discovered. However, more rigid concepts of gender roles gained prominence following Thailand’s Westernization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to widespread conservative views held by many Thai traditionalists today.

Fast forward to the present day, Thailand has gained a global reputation for tolerance, although the LGBTQIA+ community still faces numerous challenges. Many visitors to Thailand are often surprised by the inadequate legal protections and recognitions available to community members, despite the country’s branding as a popular destination for LGBTQIA+ travelers. This discrepancy between tolerance and acceptance is often accompanied by social stigma, insufficient legal rights, and, in some cases, even violence, with accusations of Thai authorities downplaying these issues. In a country that struggles to address domestic violence, members of the LGBTQIA+ community are especially vulnerable given that law enforcement officers often hesitate to intervene when violence takes place.

According to a survey commissioned by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), non-LGBTQIA+ in Thailand generally support equal rights and equal access to services for the LGBTQIA+ community, though the support drops significantly when it comes to accepting LGBTQIA+ individuals as family members, co-workers, students, and social acquaintances. It also found that LGBTQIA+ individuals continue to face limitations in terms employment opportunities due to stigma and discrimination.

A World Bank survey echoes this, stating that discrimination is prevalent when LGBTQIA+ people apply for jobs, access education, buy or rent properties, and seek legal protection. This predicament is especially noticeable for transgender men and women.

However, as the LGBTQIA+ community continues to gain societal and political representation, there is hope for progress towards improved legal protection and recognition. This hope was evident in Thailand’s 2023 elections, where major parties such as the Move Forward Party and Pheu Thai expressed plans to implement anti-discrimination legislation and recognize marriage equality as part of their campaign. Whether these campaign promises will come to fruition remains to be seen, but LGBTQIA+ voters are hopeful that the government-in-waiting will follow through with them.

The Gender Equality Act B.E. 2558, civil partnership, and other legal developments

As of writing, the only tangible legislation that provides protection for LGBTQIA+ individuals in Thailand is the Gender Equality Act B.E. 2558 (2015). This act criminalizes gender-based discrimination, including discrimination against individuals with a “sexual expression different from that person’s original gender.” It also promotes equal opportunities for all individuals regardless of gender, mandates private and public organizations to implement equality plans, and establishes gender equalities at various levels, such as government agencies, state enterprises, and educational institutions. The act further includes mechanisms for individuals to seek remedies for gender-based discrimination.

However, despite being a landmark law, critics argue that it has done little to effectively address discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people. This is largely due to weak enforcement and its relative obscurity, even among the individuals it is intended to protect. In fact, certain provisions of the act justify discrimination in specific cases, particularly when it is claimed to be for “protecting the welfare and safety of a person,” “following religious rules,” or “ensuring national security.” Additionally, the act requires specific circumstances to be met before individuals can file a complaint. Notably, an act of discrimination must first occur before an individual can file a complaint, which resulted in the denial of a complaint filed by gender equality activists against a school that had refused LGBTQIA+ students in 2016.

Last year, in a move considered to be groundbreaking for LGBTQIA+ couples, the Thai Cabinet approved the Civil Partnership Bill proposed by the Ministry of Justice that would allow same-sex couples to register their partnership. The Bill, which would have introduced amendments to the Civil and Commercial Code, would have allowed same-sex partners to enjoy many of the rights afforded to opposite-sex couples, including co-management of property, healthcare consent, inheritance, and rights to adopt children. Critics within the LGBTQIA+ community, however, criticized the Bill as ‘queer baiting’ given that certain rights, notably personal income tax deductions and entitlements to government pensions, are not covered by the Bill.

Nonetheless, as of writing, the implementation of the Bill, or any other bill proposing marriage equality, has yet to materialize.

The LGBTQIA+ community in business and the workplace

Individual experiences vary among LGBTQIA+ individuals depending on their industry, income level, and the nature of their work. While some businesses in Thailand have inclusive policies, particularly larger Thai or international companies with younger workforces, many either pay mere lip service to their LGBTQIA+ stakeholders for marketing and investment purposes or remain completely oblivious to their challenges. The absence of enforceable legislation compelling workplaces to implement such policies leaves it to the discretion of each individual workplace.

For example, Silk Legal has implemented a human resource policy that focuses on inclusivity and diversity. The firm maintains an open and diverse talent pipeline, welcoming team members from all backgrounds regardless of gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, race, or nationality. The firm ensures that all team members have opportunities for career advancement and strictly adheres to an anti-discrimination policy. We also foster a culture of learning from the experiences of LGBTQIA+ staff members. Unfortunately, this culture of inclusivity is not as widespread among companies based in Thailand.

For many LGBTQIA+ job seekers, having to navigate their companies’ attitudes can be personally and professionally debilitating. A 2018 study by the International Labor Organization found that approximately half of LGBTQIA+ job seekers encountered job advertisements that explicitly excluded them, while another 33% reported being questioned about their sexuality and personal lives during job interviews. LGBTQIA+ employees are also more likely to be overlooked for promotions and higher-paying positions.

What does the future hold? 

With the electoral victory of opposition parties that have promised greater rights for LGBTQIA+ people, as well as the participation of various government representatives during the recent Bangkok Pride march, there are certainly reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the advancement of LGBTQIA+ rights in Thailand. While it may continue to be an uphill struggle, the fact that LGBTQIA+ issues have become integral to Thailand’s political discourse already signals a positive shift.

In the interim, it is crucial to sustain conversations surrounding the experiences faced by LGBTQIA+ individuals and our rights. These discussions serve not only to foster understanding among different stakeholders but also to ensure that well-intentioned policies, whether related to workplace regulations or legislation, effectively address our struggles and concerns.

Regardless of the future direction of the discourse, it is important to remember that Pride is as much a call for equal rights as it is a celebration of LGBTQIA+ identities. While an increasing number of businesses, corporations, and even government agencies are jumping on the bandwagon, Pride should go beyond the superficial pinkwashing that has become endemic during Pride Month. Rather than simply using rainbow logos and rainbow-themed promotional materials, Pride should be about making meaningful changes, whether it is making tangible policies that make LGBTQIA+ feel included in the workplace or advocating for equal rights.

LGBTQIA+ people are more than just superficial ESG tick boxes that corporations use to impress their consumers, shareholders, and investors. We are multifaceted individuals who deserve respect and dignity, and are employees, entrepreneurs, professionals, friends, and family members just like everyone else.

This is the true meaning of Pride.

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