In most developing countries, gay men form LGBT rights groups first, encouraged by HIV and AIDS prevention funding. Thailand is unusual in that the first LGBT rights group, Anjaree, was formed by lesbians in 1987.
Anjana Suvarnananda, one of the founders of Anjaree tells Gay Star News why, when we meet her in Bangkok.
Why did lesbians form the first LGBT rights group in Thaliand?
Many of us were part of the women’s movement and we felt that there was no space for accepting lesbian issues in that group. On women’s rights they were very articulate but they seemed to drop-out when we started talking about sexuality and about how society was controlling women by imposing heterosexuality.
There were even some jokes and comments that made us feel uncomfortable. Many of us didn’t feel that we could be out in those groups.
What was the first campaign you worked on?
When we first formed the group in 1987 many of us didn’t want to be open about it.
But after several years we started to react to a ban at an educational institute that would not enroll students who are ‘sexual deviants’. They were targeting tomboys, people who don’t fit their gender identity, and men who seemed camp. Here we call them Kathoey.
We campaigned against them and demanded that they change their rule. We gained a lot of support from the public. Of course some people didn’t agree but most people were on our side. They thought that no matter what people are they shouldn’t be stopped from getting an education.
This was in the early 1990s. It was a landmark because our group came out more openly. It caused the people to talk about it. And we won because the institute stepped down from their position about it.
I’m impressed that the public were so supportive. Are people generally accepting of LGBT people in Thailand?
No, no, no. It was more this particular angle of stopping people getting an education. There were people who said, ‘they are not totally ok these people, but we shouldn’t stop them from getting an education’. There was a range of positions but the majority were more liberal.
I think that outsiders think that Thai society is very free and gays and lesbians have no problem here. Many people from outside come here and it’s true that they are very free to be gay because there are many businesses supporting gay men. You can walk around and you don’t feel threatened by the way people look at you – that is true.
But the pressure that we Thai LGBT people have is when we are growing-up and not being understood or accepted by our own family. I think for Thai families, like most of the Asian families, parents have a very high and special place over children and even when you are an adult you are still obliged to make them happy and follow how they want you to live your life.
So that’s always the first barrier for everyone growing-up and feeling that they are not heterosexual and they don’t want the life that their parents want for them. They feel they are going to hurt their parents and this is quite a big trauma in everybody’s sense of themselves. Feeling guilty that you are hurting your parents and not upholding your duty as a child.
Are there any moves towards gay marriage in Thailand?
We are moving towards recognition of same-sex marriage. There is now some preparation work within the parliament to draft a new act but we cover more like a couple’s registration or civil partnership, we don’t have a name for it yet.
I have been invited into the committee iwho are drafting legislation for recognition of same-sex marriage for parliament. They want to do with with six weeks, but we’ll see.
It’s just drafting. And then they will send it to a legal department who will iron it out and make it more legal language. And then after that we get approval for sponsorship by the government. And then it needs to get approval from the government. I’m not sure how long it will take.
Has Thai society progressed in its acceptance of LGBT rights since you started your group?
Overall we have changed, I have seen that things have changed for the better. And society has become more liberal, more open, but there’s still I feel a conservative faction of society that is lashing back or trying to attack or hold back the movement.
Even now it seems like women can be openly lesbian or tomboy or lady (lady is the girlfriend of tomboy) but it depends on the family. There’s no real one standard.
When we post a picture of female couples who have had a wedding ceremony with their parents there on our Facebook page everyone comments saying ‘how did you do that? how did you get your parents there? I can’t even bring my girlfriend home!’ So that shows that there’s a big difference between different people.
And some offices don’t mind and don’t care and some offices ridicule LGBT people, or don’t promote them. And we don’t have way of bringing out issues to justice. We don’t have an Anti-discrimination law for anyone.
The whole of society seems to believe that is that person owns a business they can chose to serve or not serve whoever they want. And they don’t have to respect other people.
What other campaigns have you run?
During the campaign about the institute there were some psychologists and counsellors who said they could cure homosexuality. And one particular man said he could ‘correct’ lesbians and he actually meant tomboys. So we had to fight that battle.
We did some public campaigns. We did some academic research. By that time it had been some years since the WHO had ruled out homosexuality from their list of mental illnesses. In the end we won because we got to the Ministry of Health in Thailand to state publicly that they recognize the WHO position and gay people are not mentally ill. That was in 1999.
What are you working on now?
We’re working on preventing young people’s distress and suicide.
Three months ago there was another suicide. This was a girl in province in the northeast. She was 19. She was living with her girlfriend in another town and her mother forced her to come home, saying she was ill and needed her to look after her.
When the girl was home her mother told her she had to end her relationship, stop being a tom, get married and live there. The next morning the mother went out and the girl hung herself in the garage. She wrote a note saying that she can’t live this life and she send an sms to say goodbye to her girlfriend.
There’s a bit of disagreement among our group about how we should do this campaign. Some say we should say to mothers – don’t do what this mother did to her daughter. But others say then that will upset this mother and she is already distraught.
So we want to do it in a more positive way. We want to create a space for young people to talk about it. Early next year we’re launching a letter writing campaign. They write to their parents but they don’t have to send them to their parents, they can write them and send to us.
It will be an exercise for the young people to be more clear with what they are struggling with. We’re going to publish them in a book and online.
Have you ever thought about setting up a hotline for young people to call?
No, we can’t. We don’t want to get into social services. We are campaigning for rights and to create a channel for people to talk to the media. But we don’t want to become an organization that provides services.
We don’t have the funding. We don’t have the expertise in giving services. And we think that other organizations that give services should tailor their services for LGBT people as well. The government already provide a hotline, they should provide one for LGBT people too.
We need to change social services because people are suffering and we’re unable to become a social services point. We have to get the government to do it.
Are there any politicians supportive to LGBT rights in Thailand?
We have some friends who are policy makers, but not politicians.
We don’t have a clear link with a political party. Thai politics have been very tense for many years and there has been polarizing between parties. A lot of time politicians are seen as not genuine and sometimes corrupt. It would be a hard choice if we wanted to ally ourselves with any particular politician.
But we did run a campaign about what politicians are saying about LGBT people when they were running for election. None of them had thought about LGBT issues. We had to ask them, but they weren’t that interested in appealing to LGBT voters.
Has there been any violence against LGBT groups during the unrest in Thailand?
There was a very bad incident at Chiang Mai Pride in 2009. It was the second Pride there.
The first year it went very well. The parade was beautiful and long and the whole town of Chiang Mai came out to watch. It was very nice. There were a few thousand people there.
And then the second year they did it again and they were almost attacked. They were surrounded by protesters against the Pride. That was the first time we experienced this kind of threat of violence from people who oppose us.
The protestors were Redshirts [Thai political pressure group]. Chiang Mai is the stronghold for Redshirts. But I don’t think I don’t think their organizational position is against LGBT people. It’s just that at that time, some people from that circle got together to campaign against us.
It could have been that the Redshirts were looking for something to do to flex their muscles. They thought they were doing something good for the people of Chiang Mai. But it was horrible for us. They had signs saying ‘no gays’ and saying we were a bad omen for Chiang Mai.
How are LGBT people presented in the media in Thailand?
Kathoey are presented in a ridiculous way on TV. They dehumanize them by making them look ridiculous – craving for sex all the time. It’s appalling.
Lesbians don’t exist. It’s a different way of mistreating us. If there is any character who is a little be tomboy, she turns heterosexual when she meets the right man. So it’s used to show how strong heterosexual love is.
Even though you can see lesbians all around town, in the movies we don’t appear – all the women are very proper and feminine.
Are there any films that show lesbians in a positive light?
There have been three lesbian movies now whose main them is lesbian relationships with a happy ending. One is called Yes or No and then Yes or 2. It’s about young women in university and how they became attracted to each other and how they dealt with their own fear inside themselves, and how they dealt with their parents. And there was another called Love Between Her. It was directed by a lesbian director, Swatsawadee.