Bright lights, alcohol, ladyboys, party lifestyle, an exuberant atmosphere and sex offers from anywhere and anyone. Thailand has become one of the main tourist destinations for westerners who view this destination as an open paradise for all kinds of genders, sexual preferences and practices. But does that speak the truth for Thailand? Is the myth of an all-accepting cultural Nirvana true in reality? Or are these values and belief systems merely a delusion to attract more tourism? A deeper look into the LGBTQ practices in Thailand reveals how and why our perception is not quite accurate.
Where does the myth come from?
For those walking through the streets of Bangkok, many things may become apparent. The smell of the delicious street food, the views of awe-inspiring temples and you may even ask yourself if the person that stands before you classifies as a boy or girl or perhaps something else. Progressing into the night, in certain places, it is not uncommon to be surrounded by numerous gay, lesbian, or Kathoys (Ladyboys).
As a tourist, it could be considered logical to assume that the previously described scene is a consequence of a long tradition of acceptance and celebration of the LGBTQ community. And why wouldn’t you? The official government slogan on the billboards around the city boldly claims, “Go Thai. Be Free”. Yet here is where the problem starts.
Reality of the myth
According to the Bangkok post, the biggest English based newspaper, Thailand’s tourism sector accounts for 20% of the country’s GDP. The plan is to raise this number to 30% by 2030.
In knowing the importance of the tourism sector to the Thai economy, we can explore any underlying motives that the Thai government might have, encouraging them to start such an initiative. The campaign has already been criticised as it depicts ordinary people displaying gay affection in public. This, in reality, is not particularly true and appears to have been exaggerated to attract gay and lesbian tourists, further fuelling the myth of the all-tolerating country of Thailand.
The money that is being made in the gay, lesbian and transgender industry in Asia is called “pink money”. While Thailand is trying to promote the pink money business, selling the country as the LGBTQ paradise, Thai gays, lesbians and transgender are labeling these kinds of campaigns as a disguise to cover a darker reality.
Thai notion of the LGBTQ
The Thai ministry of tourism appears to be pushing a certain image of their country in order to attract tourists. Though that is not necessarily unique and can be found in many places over the world. Now it is important to consider what other factors contribute to the western perception of the Thai tolerance in regards to the LGBTQ community? In order to find that out, it is necessary to analyse Thai notion on the origin of homosexuality as well as Thai behavior, norms and values.
The origins of homosexuality
Western researchers tend to have two main perspectives on the topic of homosexuality. Freudian scholars would argue that being attracted to the same sex is an intrinsic state that stems from a relatively un-active sexual drive. On the opposite side of the coin are the social constructionists who argue for homosexuality to be a result of constant negotiation with your surroundings, social structures, sexual meanings and patterns. (Week, 1985)
Thai views on gay people are majorly influenced by the practice of Buddhism. Loose associations in the west on Buddhism might be the inner peace through meditation, striving for nirvana and, most importantly, behaving in an all-accepting manner. These assumptions can easily lead to the notion that a Buddhist country therefore must represent a very tolerating environment.
The role of religion
Around 95% of the Thai population identify as Buddhist. Yet Buddhism itself has multiple forms and subgroups. From a very traditional Buddhist perspective, the concept of gender, in general, is questioned, since reaching nirvana is achieved through the absence of any kind of desire.
In Thailand, the dominant branch of this religion is Theravada Buddhism. Peter Jackson (1995) an Australian scholar of sexual politics and Buddhism, analysed the perception of homosexuality in the Thai Buddhist tradition and had this to say:
“The key factor differentiating the divergent stances is the author’s conceptualisation of the origin of homosexuality; those who, taking a liberal stance, maintain that it is a condition which is outside the conscious control of homosexual men and women and has its origins in past misdeeds, whereas those who maintain that homosexuality is a willful violation of ethical and natural principles takes an antagonistic position.”
Whereas homosexuality is being taught to be a sinful act in Theravada Buddhism, transsexualism is surprisingly well defined in such religious and spiritual stories. It aligns with Jackson’s liberal stance on homosexuality where it is seen as a fixed condition. In their eyes, transgenders, or so-called kathoys, were born in the wrong body, ie a woman born in a man’s body or vice versa. In the Buddhist tradition of reincarnation, this is viewed as a punishment for sins the person has committed in their previous lives. Therefore, some Thais confront kathoeys with pity rather than hatred.
So Buddhism in Thailand is only partly accepting the LGBTQ community. But western tourists will most likely not be too familiar, or eager, to inform themselves about the Thai Buddhist tradition. So, what further factors are building the myth of the ‘gay paradise’? It is necessary to explore further into the social hierarchies, norms and values of the Thai people and compare them with our own.
A perfect show. In front of the curtains…
Freedom, self-expression and individual fulfillment. For Western people, these are all common values to strive for in life and are deeply embedded in our culture. Putting these aside for a moment can be challenging, and probably nothing the regular tourist would do.
This is also the case in Thailand. Thailand can be perceived as a fascinating, exotic country that features a very modern capital city and friendly people who epitomize Thailand’s “land of smile” reputation (Kongprasert & Virutmasen 2015). But in order to understand the link to the gay paradise, it vital to understand the norms and values that govern the country.
Thai norms and values are different. (Storer, 1999). For Thai people, social harmony, politeness and conformity are paramount and are seen as more important than individual desires. A practice that is often difficult to embed as the norm in the life of a western tourist due to a greater value being placed on freedom of expression and democracy leading to conflicting opinions. Thai people will also try to avoid hostility as much as possible. For instance, if there is a public display of affection between two people of the same sex, it is unlikely to witness any head-turning by Thai people. For this reason, Thai people often appear to be very amicable on the exterior, keeping their thoughts to themselves. In addition, it is common for people to make a clear separation between their private and public life. A trait that will have greater transparency in the proceedings of this blog.
What we don’t see
As westerners, we would expect visible sanctions or actions against homosexuality if it was a criminal offense. But as Storer (1999), notes.
“In general, outward discrimination against homosexual behaviour is not prevalent in Thailand. Nevertheless, the fear of public reproach remains[…]”
The Bangkok post (1995) adds this to the discussion.
“Although Thai people aren’t violent or hostile towards homosexuals in a way that some countries’ societies are, there is another kind of control mechanism at work here that’s just as traumatic for those on the receiving end. … [Thai] society doesn’t see lesbian relationships as legitimate or meaningful.” (p.29)
The final sentence of this quote could though be labeled as ‘outdated’. As recently as June 2020, there has been a draft for the official legitimisation of gay couples.
In contrast to other Asian countries such as Singapore or Malaysia, where gay sex is a criminal offense, the legitimisation highlights signs of progression in Thailands approach to the LGBTQ community. In comparison to western liberal countries, there is still a great sense of disparity.
The Kathoy case
If you ask someone from the west what their initial thoughts are on Thailand, the chances are quite high that, at some point, he or she will mention the permanent presence of the Kathoys or Ladyboys.
This is not too surprising. As previously mentioned, the Thai government is actively promoting its apparent LGBTQ openness. In Bangkok newspapers, it is not uncommon to witness advertisements for sex arrangements or Kathoy specific hotels. Once entering Bangkok of nighttime it is clear that there is a large contingency of Kathoys. Pink business, as the Kathoys are being used as the poster child for the Thai sex industry.
So Kathoys are apparently being encouraged? Looking deeper into the personal stories and fates of some Kathoys, it becomes clear that Thailand is far from an all tolerating place.
There are multiple reasons that are not visible for foreigners on why so many Kathoys need to work in the sex industry and cannot simply work “normal” jobs.
Rejection by family
Going back to the aforementioned “control mechanisms” that are constantly lurking underneath the surface, homosexuals and especially Kathoys are often being rejected by their families. This is more prominent in rural areas of the country where the rejected, by then usually young adults, are forced to move closer to a bigger city in order to earn money in the sex industry.
The “Being LGBT in Asia: Thailand Country Report (UNPD, 2014)” summarises the main problem of family rejection as:
“Arguably, the greatest and often most important struggle that a Thai LGBT individual faces is that of family acceptance. Being respectful to the wishes of one’s parents and upholding a family reputation is fundamental to how a Thai individual conducts their life, which can run counter to those with sexual orientation or gender identity that do not conform to social norms.” (p.7)
Once rejected, some Kathoys are trying their whole life to restore the respect of their parents. Others try to make a career in other areas of work, but discrimination and unfairness in job search is another mechanism that prevents Kathoys (and homosexuals) from equal participation in Thai society.
They often need to work in the sex industry to either compensate for the lack of parental support or because they have trouble fighting discrimination to find another job. It is very hard for a Kathoy to find a job in other areas than sex, entertainment, beauty or fashion. Additionally, the medical process to become a woman takes time and a lot of money.
There are exceptions to the rule of course. Most notably maybe Thai boxing hero Parinya Charoenphol who even received her own movie about her life, overcoming the odds to establish herself in an extreme masculine domain.
Another, not as prominent as Charoenphol exception is Tanwarin Sukkhapisit who is the first-ever parliamentarian from the transgender scene and one of only four members from the LGBTQ community.
The last building brick for the myth of the gay paradise goes back to the Thai tradition of separating private and public life. This kind of strict separation is uncommon for people from the west and interferes with some default expectations about how homosexuality is actively lived.
“The other part is: Be Thai. Not so free.” – Tanwarin Sukkhapisit
Western long history of liberation against oppression does not only hold itself to the sphere of LGBTQ but had and still has a huge prominence. Depending on the country in the west; gays, lesbians, and other sexual identities are still openly fighting discrimination and oppression. Because of this, westerners would expect the same to be true when visiting Thailand.
But as discussed earlier in this article, Thai’s emphasis on social harmony hides many of the underlying issues. Therefore, from the outside, it can be argued that there is no oppression (Stoerer, 1999) towards the LGBTQ. Jackson and Sullivan (2000) explain this phenomenon as:
“So long as a Thai homosexual ‘man’ or ‘woman’ maintains a public face of conforming to normative patterns of masculinity or femininity, respectively, he or she will largely escape sanctions.”
The process of adaptation is more visible in the case of the Kathoys. Male Kathoys are expected to clearly perform femininity. For example, they need to adopt the traditional form of address usually reserved for women. This means that they have to use the first person pronoun “chan” instead of “phom”, or politely ending their sentences with kha instead of the masculine khrap. It should be mentioned that many Kathoys actually want to perform femininity as this is one of the main reasons they want to change gender in the first place.
However, this still shows a prevalence of traditional gender roles rather than an all-accepting environment. Parliamentarian kathoy Tanwarin Sukkhapisit defines herself as non-binary, rejecting the division in gender categories. This rejection of gender roles is more present in the west, hence Thai people still let themselves be guided by them, Tanwarin says.
The article has analysed the myth of paradise from many different angles. It has been shown that the Thai government actively tries to promote a positive image of tolerance and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Through campaigns such as “Go Thai. Be Free” and the permanent presence of Kathoys, the pink business is continually growing. However, the analysis of the Thai cultural values as well as their notion of Buddhism has shown the facade that many westerners perceive to be the reality. The LGBTQ community in Thailand is still majorly disadvantaged in terms of job search, social inclusion, and especially the rejection by their families. Western ideas of liberation are not yet established in Thailand. Still, Thailand shows greater progression in comparison to other Asian countries with their recent legitimisation of same-sex unions and Kathoy Tanwarin Sukkhapist as part of the parliament.
Ellen Wilson & Janosch Krüger
Bangkok Post. (1995). July 21, p.29
Jackson, P. A. (1995). Thai Buddhist Accounts of Male Homosexuality and AIDS in the 1980s. The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 6(1-2), 140-153. doi:10.1111/j.1835-9310.1995.tb00133.x
Kongprasert, N., & Virutamasen, P. (2015). Tourist Perceptions to Cultural Identity: The Case of Thai Experience. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 195, 167-174. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.06.428
Storer, G. (1999). Performing Sexual Identity: Naming and Resisting ‘Gayness’ in Modern Thailand. Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific.
Sullivan, G., & Jackson, P. A. (2000). Lady boys, tom boys, rent boys: Male and female homosexualities in contemporary Thailand. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.
UNDP, USAID (2014). Being LGBT in Asia: Thailand Country Report. Bangkok
Weeks, J. (1985). Sexualities and its Discontents: Meanings, Myths and Modern Sexualities. London: Routledge and Keagan Paul.