CHIANG RAI – At Wat Kreung Tai Wittaya, a Buddhist temple in Chiang Khong, Thailand, transgender teens are being taught to be “more manly.”
“We cannot change all of them but what we can do is to control their behavior to make them understand that they were born as a man … and cannot act like a woman,” Headmaster Phra Pitsanu Witcharato states.
At the temple, boys between the ages of 11 and 18 undergo strict training to help them shed their “girlishness.”
“They have rules here that novice monks cannot use powder, make-up, or perfume,” one trans teen said. Students are also not allowed to sing, play music or run around.
About 2.5 percent of LGBT teens in Thailand, a Buddhist-majority country, are forced to enter the monkhood to be “cured,” according to the Foundation for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Rights and Justice. Some are pushed into undergoing psychological treatment by their families, while others are kicked out of the home.
LGBT people in Thailand are seen by many as “freaks of nature,” activist Naiyana Supapung told the Bangkok Post in 2013.
To illustrate the point, she recalled a school textbook of her son’s which “specifically warned against any contact with people who act like members of the opposite sex.” The book “advised students to inform their teacher straight away so they can help adjust those kids’ behavior,” she said.
But for most outsiders, this is a side of Thailand — a country sometimes called “the gay capital of Asia” — that is rarely seen.
Thailand has been marketing itself in recent years as a “pink” tourist destination, a country friendly to queer travelers seeking everything from gay go-go bars to beauty pageants featuring trans women (known in Thailand as “kathoey” or “ladyboys”.)
And the strategy seems to be working.
Every year, foreigners descend on Bangkok’s gay bars in droves, and many flock to the country’s clinics to undergo gender confirmation surgery.
But activists say this queer-friendly image is only skin deep.
“There is a quote [that says] that Thai society unofficially accepts, but officially rejects, gay and lesbian people,” Anjana Suvarnananda, president of LGBT rights group Anjaree, told Phuket News in 2013. “I think it’s true that Thai people can only accept gay and lesbian people in superficial ways, such as the way they act or dress. But when it comes to the meaningful circumstances, Thai people tend to be biased against them.”
A recent study conducted by the Khon Thai Foundation found that more than 50 percent of Thais between 15 and 24 believe “homosexuality is wrong.”
LGBT people are widely marginalized and discriminated against in Thailand, according to a 2014 report by USAID and UNDP about the state of LGBT rights in the country. Protective or affirming laws and policies remain largely absent.
“LGBT people in Thailand [may be able to] live their lives openly,” transgender activist Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya tells HuffPost, but she says there is little to “ensure their dignity.”
In September, Thailand enacted a landmark Gender Equality Act, which specifically prohibits discrimination against someone “of a different appearance from his/her own sex by birth.” It’s the first national legislation in Southeast Asia to specifically offer legal protections against discrimination on the grounds of gender expression. Kyle Knight, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, has called the move a “a big step in protecting transgender people.”
LGBT activists say, however, that the new law, though very positive, is but a small step forward for the country.
There are still no laws or policies in place protecting LGBT people on the grounds of sexual orientation in Thailand, which decriminalized homosexuality in the 1950s. There is also no legal recognition or protection for same-sex partnerships.
“It’s a blatant contradiction,” Knight said. “Thailand is quite friendly to LGBT people and it’s a global hub for sexual reassignment surgery, yet the country still lacks policies to protect basic human rights.”
This lack of protection has led to myriad challenges for Thailand’s LGBT community, including discrimination in the workplace and in schools, as well as limited access to health care, according to the USAID/UNDP report.
The report, for instance, includes the story of a Thai government official whose partner almost died following a motorcycle accident after she was denied the right to make medical decisions on her partner’s behalf. The unnamed official said the couple was also unable to access employee benefits available to heterosexual couples, leaving them burdened with hefty medical bills.
Following the accident, she said, “doctors informed me that only relatives bear the right to authorize all forms of medical assistance. What was I to do? I am merely a life partner, non-existent in the eyes of others,” the official is quoted as saying.
She said she had to contact her partner’s relatives, who lived in a different province, and had to pay for their air travel so they’d be able to reach the hospital swiftly. Later, when confronted with the medical bills, the official said she was barred from using her state benefits to help cover the fees.“The Ministry of Finance’s regulations denies this benefit for same-sex couples,” she was told.
LGBT discrimination is also common in schools and in the home.
One-third of Thai students who identify as LGBT have experienced physical abuse in school, according to a 2014 study conducted by Plan International, UNESCO and Mahidol University. Almost 25 percent of the 2,000 students surveyed said they had been sexually harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In comparison, about 17 percent of LGBT students in the U.S. reported being physically assaulted in a 2014 Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network survey.
The Thai study found that bullied LGBT students struggled with anxiety, low self-esteem and social isolation. Seven percent of them said they had attempted suicide in the past year, while 23 percent said they suffered from depression.
Speaking to the Bangkok Post, activist Naiyana Supapung recalled a case of a gay child who tried to kill himself by drinking insecticide after he was “humiliated by a teacher who had ordered him to stop speaking and acting like a girl.”
The teacher, she said, had “threatened to lower the boy’s academic grades if he didn’t comply” and had slapped him in the face during a morning assembly.
In a 2012 study conducted by the Foundation for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Rights and Justice, about 15 percent of LGBT respondents said they had been “verbally assaulted” by family members because of their sexual orientation or gender expression, and 13 percent said they’d been barred from living with a same-sex partner.
Nikorn Chimkong, president of LGBT rights group Bangkok Rainbow, tells the Huffington Post that this marginalization stems from a general lack of “understanding and awareness” about LGBT issues in Thailand.
Activists have expressed hope that the recent passing of the Gender Equality Act is a sign that the tides are beginning to turn in Thailand.
“The progress of the [law], and the momentum that created it, ought to inspire Thailand to proudly take on a leadership role on LGBT rights in the region,” Knight said last month.
Still, given Thailand’s volatile political environment, which most recently saw the army seize power in a 2014 coup, activists say they’re skeptical about the future of LGBT rights in the country.