“THAIS are always tolerant if it’s not too much,” says LGBT activist and researcher Prempreeda Pramoj.
She speaks of the Thai sentiment towards LGBT tourists. Amid a tolerant climate especially in Thailand’s bigger cities, LGBT conversations are still cloaked in taboo. Overt displays of affection are still frowned upon.
Despite this “masked” conservatism, Thailand is largely reputed as Asia’s gay capital – a haven for gay and transgender nightlife and entertainment.
And in light of “pink tourism”, LGBT tourists visit in droves.
‘Friendly, not welcoming’
LGBT tours are commonplace in the Kingdom, and one of the agencies responsible for that is OUT Adventures, an outfit based in Toronto.
Owner Rob Sharp told Travel Wire Asia LGBT tourists have been welcomed in Thailand for decades. “It is certainly more ‘friendly’ in tourist destinations where the locals have been more exposed to LGBT tourists,” he said.
His company organizes “LGBT-friendly” tours for tourists the world over, or what he described as tours that understand the needs of an LGBT group, has a guide that either identifies as LGBT or is up-to-date on LGBT rights in a destination and uses hotels, tours, and guides that support the community.
Miles Mitchinson, adventure director at Detours Travel based in Calgary, sings a different tune about Thailand as a “welcoming” LGBT destination. While he regularly runs group tours in Thailand, he acknowledges there’s a fine distinction between an LGBT-friendly destination and an LGBT-welcoming one.
“I would consider an LGBT-friendly destination one where LGBT travelers can [visit] with a high level of safety and comfort, knowing that while they may not be outwardly celebrated by locals, they will be treated with respect,” he said.
“A LGBT-welcoming destination, in my opinion, is a destination that has actively put protections in place for its LGBT population and puts social and political efforts into creating an atmosphere that makes LGBT travelers feel not just tolerated, but welcomed.”
In the case of Thailand, it’s perceived as LGBT-friendly without necessarily championing rights for the marginalized group. However, he sings praises about how local Thais have treated him and his tour groups – they have felt comfortable speaking openly to everyone they meet without being vilified. This skin-deep acceptance, perhaps, is the reason LGBT tourism thrives in the Kingdom.
“I’ve found Thai people genuinely have an ingrained sense of acceptance for all different types of people, not just LGBT people,” he said.
He stops short when speaking about public displays of affection (PDA).
“Thai people are not ones to publicly display affection with their partners, as some places in the world are known for.”
While one can argue PDA is frowned upon in Thailand among heterosexual couples just as well, Asia is known to practice a sense of “modesty” when it comes to displaying emotions. “I feel whether it’s affection being shown for a same-sex partner, or an opposite sex partner, the same level of surprise or interest would be perceived,” Mitchinson said.
It’s no secret tourists are often captivated by Thailand’s many cabaret and transgender shows known as “ladyboy” shows. In fact, cabaret shows by transwomen are considered a One Tambon, One Product (OTOP) product of the tourist district of Pattaya. OTOP is a stimulus program that supports one unique locally made product or service in a local Thai area.
“In Pattaya, tourists can enjoy water sports and beach activities in the daytime and be entertained by showgirls at night,” LGBT activist Prempreeda said.
The shows are not exclusive to Pattaya; Bangkok and Phuket are active supporters of cabarets, and occasionally, transgender pageant shows.
While these shows use LGBT talents to pull in tourist dollars including those of LGBT tourists, gay pride parades and political movements championing gay rights would not be well-received. Prempreeda recalled parades that have taken place in the Silom area in the past, but said the general public and taxi drivers have associated these events with traffic jam and police raids.
This year, Bangkok will host its first gay pride parade in 11 years with the aim to promote awareness about gender and marriage equality. The six-day event will feature a series of workshops, film festivals, social events and a pride march.
Foreigners vs locals
Some argue beyond the smiles and boozy nights is an “ugly side” that discriminates against local LBGTs. There seems a sense Thais are tolerant when it comes to the way LGBT tourists might act or dress, but fall short of addressing the harsh realities and lack of rights of local LGBT communities.
As Prempreeda said, “Thailand is always showing hospitality to ‘farang’.” (‘Farang’ is a colloquial term used by locals to describe a white person.)
OUT Adventures’ Sharp said, “Thailand is a bit strange in the sense it is known to be LGBT-welcoming, so tourists often overlook the fact there is still not equality in Thailand for local people.”
For instance, the state-run Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has executed multiple marketing campaigns that target LGBT tourists including GoThaiBeFree, a state-sanctioned platform.
There’s a section on the site called “Gay Life in Thailand” where the general Thai stance on LGBT tourism is explained in a sentence: “This question can be answered by a simple but profound statement which is very common among Thai people – “Mai Pen Rai” which simply translated means “no problem.” This is the philosophy with which Thai people go through daily life.”
The passage on LGBT acceptance continues with “it is not Thai custom to draw attention to oneself – especially in public. Therefore, we always suggest any traveler to Thailand be aware of this and act accordingly. We continuously reinforce a strong level of respect for Thai culture and way of life.”
On top of that, a minute-long video was released by TAT to highlight the county’s LGBT-friendly destinations, complete with footage that features same-sex couples holding hands while partaking in local attractions.
“For gay travelers, knowing a destination has enacted LGBT rights for their people is a way of gauging how welcome they may feel, so it can definitely be a factor when determining a destination,” Mitchinson said.
“However, this should not be used as a definitive barometer of public perception or safety. Some of the most comfortable places we’ve visited in the world fall behind others in a legal sense for LGBT rights, but not a social reality.”
The sentiment in the video is in contrary to the Buddhist-majority nation being known to “force” young transgender men to enter the monkhood to be “cured”. Young transgenders are believed to be adulterers in their past lives and are therefore receiving punishment in their bodies to make up for it.
But hope is not lost. Marriage and gender equality are still on the table, and Prempreeda believes it could be materialized in a future Thailand.
In 2015, the Gender Equality Act came into motion, which legalized homosexual relationships, and separately, “persons of diverse sexualities” were recognized as needing assistance in the Social Welfare Promotion Act in 2012.
“Thai activists and allies work so hard for marriage equality, hopefully it will happen soon. I think this is possible,” Prempreeda said.