Is Thailand Really the Most LGBT-Friendly Country in Asia?

Thailand is widely considered to be one of the most LGBT-friendly countries in Asia.

In fact, the country thrives in pink tourism, and as such has several lgbt-friendly bars, resorts, etc. Bangkok is even called the Gay Capital of Asia.

To an extent, this image is accurate. During my travels, I found a vast number of genderqueer individuals, specifically ladyboys, even in spaces that weren’t essentially queer specific. The vast acceptance and normalization of ladyboys is by no means exaggerated.

Bangkok is even home to the best drag show I’ve ever seen. And it would take an entire gay travel guide to list out all the amazing queer spaces and experiences available in Bangkok.

As such, Thailand’s reputation as Southeast Asia’s gay haven seemed accurate.

It even seemed plausible that it might be one of the most lgbt-friendly countries in the world! In fact, a fellow-traveler, who happened to be a cis-straight woman from Belgium, remarked to me that being gay seemed a lot more acceptable and common in Thailand than it was in Western Europe.

This statement seemed straight up ludicrous to me. But it did awaken me to a crucial yet obvious realization. We were tourists in this land, and everything we experienced was filtered through those goggles.

Visibility doesn’t always equate acceptance. When you’re a tourist you don’t really see a country for what it is.

Take Indonesia for example. Bali can very well be considered Southeast Asia’s gay paradise, but elsewhere in Aceh Province gay men are being publicly caned.

I had to take off my tourist-goggles to determine if Thailand really was as gay-friendly as it was pegged by travel brochures.

So I started talking to LBGT+ locals and I started reading online blogs. What I found was that while Thailand is ideal for gay tourists, the situation isn’t as sunny for locals living in the country.

That doesn’t mean Thailand isn’t gay-friendly. It seems to rather be in a transitory phase between being extremely liberal but still kinda’ conservative.

According to Religion

Thailand doesn’t have any official religion. However, Theravada Buddhism is one of the dominant religions in the country (the other being Consumerism). The ideologies of Buddhism account for both the tolerance and stigma against gay people.

On the one hand, Buddhism is based on tolerance. The keyword “tolerance” here is quite accurate. While LGBT+ individuals may be “tolerated”, they aren’t respected or widely accepted in according to the religion.

In fact, it’s believed that homosexuality occurs as a result of bad karma from a previous life. According to a recent poll, over half the population of Thailand — even amongst people in their 20s — believe that homosexuality is wrong.

According to the Law

Until recently, Thailand hadn’t legislated on homosexuality at all. As far as civil partnership is concerned, a legislation was drafted in 2012. However, it was put on hold, and hasn’t been picked back up since.

Homosexuality was officially recognized as a mental illness until 2002. And it wasn’t until 2006 that LGBT+ individuals could join the ranks of the army in the country, or even seek admission in certain colleges. As such, Thai law definitely had a lot of catching up to.

According to a Time article, there were no legal protections afforded to LGBT individuals. Targeted violence against LGBT+ individuals wasn’t categorized as “hate crime”. It was rather considered a “crime of passion.” As a result of this, there were 15 reported cases of lesbians being murdered between 2006 and 2012.

However, the law does seem to be slowly catching up with the times.

In 2015, a Gender Equality Act was signed which offered protections to individuals with differing gender identities and sexual orientations. The law defined the scope of discrimination as anything that “segregates, obstructs or limits the rights [of an individual based on] sexual expression different from that person’s original sex.”

The Ladyboy Culture

Thailand’s Ladyboy culture is famous the world over. Ladyboy culture is so well integrated into life in the major Thailand cities that it’s a huge part of tourism.

But that’s where it gets problematic.

Ladyboys are often dehumanized and fetishized as spectacle and tourist attractions. Furthermore, ladyboys often have to leave their families in rural regions behind so they can migrate to liberal cities.

While there are certainly a lot of ladyboys involved in Thailand’s sex-tourism industry, a large part of the population is also accepted into mainstream society of regular jobs.

Furthermore, Bangkok University has even prescribed dress codes for transgender students. This widespread visibility means that more and more kids are free to self-express as they please, without fear of stigma.

lgbt-friendly ladyboys drag queens
With Ladyboys and Drag Queens in Ram Bar, Chiang Mai

So How LGBT-Friendly is Thailand?

If you’re asking as a tourist, then Thailand really is the Gay Capital of Asia.

However, if you’re asking in relation to people who lead their lives in the country, it’s a lot more murky. The law still has a lot of catching up to do. Over half the population still doesn’t consider homosexuality to be okay. But the major cities continue to shine as beacons of hope.

Finally, I have to admit that I’m not the most well versed with Thai culture. Everything I’ve written has come from stray bits of conversations with LGBT+ locals, observations, and some research.

If you feel that I’ve misrepresented anything in any way, let me know about it down in the comments section.

lgbt-friendly thailand

Cover Image Source: HuffPost