Talking same-sex in Thailand

Thailand may soon become the first country in Asia to recognise same-sex unions. The civil partnership bill was approved by the cabinet in December, and is set to go before parliament.

Many welcomed the bill as a step forward. For example, it allows same-sex couples to hold joint accounts and loans, receive and give inheritance, engage in legal action, and be a legal guardian. Some activists, however, note that it does not fully provide equal legal rights, such as making medical decisions or couple adoption, and does not recognise same-sex marriage. Advocates argue that a better approach would be to amend Section 1448 of the Civil and Commercial Code, which presently defines marriage as between a man and woman.

In general, Thailand has a reputation for tolerance when it comes to diverse gender and sexual identities. But the reality for people living in Thailand is more of a mixed bag.

Contrary to the impression given by tourist-targeted kathoei (sometimes called ladyboy) shows, LGBT+ discrimination is often aimed at public displays of gender or sexual identity.

Thai attitudes towards gender and sexuality are context-specific. When, where, how, and with whom a person engages in intimacy will determine the degree of social acceptance. Engaging in acts of same-sex intimacy, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that a person or society will view individuals as identifying as LGBT+ or as a member of the community. It’s not uncommon for people to have had same-sex relations, but still view themselves as heterosexual.

Looking at it another way, however, society is more accepting when individuals maintain the public image of gender and sexual normativity. As a result, actions that are seen as private are more often accepted. Unlike many other countries, Thailand has rarely sought to regulate what it considers to be private behaviour through punitive measures, although there are still strong social and economic pressure to conform.

In contrast, demonstration of identity and sexual orientation, such as in the legal system or at the workplace, have been more strictly regulated via legal or societal means. These attitudes and an emphasis on social stability have given Thailand a reputation for being broadly accepting of LGBT+ individuals, even as legal and structural discrimination persists.

There are a huge number of terms in the Thai language to describe sexual and gender identities and relationships. In the online world, users have circulated lists of 18 “identities” and relationship charts to get a grasp on the references.

Here is a list of some LGBT+ terms in the Thai language.

Phet/เพศ - word used to denote sex, gender and sexuality

Phet saphap/เพศสภาพ - gender

Phet withi/เพศวิถี - sexuality

Rak phet diaokan/รักเพศเดียวกัน - same-sex love; literally to love the same sex

Sonjai phet trongkham/สนใจเพศตรงข้าม - heterosexual; literally “interested in the opposite sex”

Khwam laklai thang phet/ความหลากหลายทางเพศ - sexual and gender diversity

Sirung/สีรุ้ง - rainbow; adopted as a symbol of LGBT+ communities

Khon Khamphet/คนข้ามเพศ - a transgender and/or transsexual person

Kathoei/กะเทย - a male-to-female transgender or transsexual

Phuying praphet song/ผู้หญิงประเภทสอง - literally ‘a second type of woman’; used to refer to male-to-female transgender and transsexual individuals; considered more polite than kathoei

Di/ดี้ - a feminine-identifying lesbian; may be in a relationship with a Thom (see below); comes from the English word “lady”

Thom/ทอม - a masculine identifying lesbian; may be in a relationship with a Di

Adam/อดัม - a man who is attracted to Thoms

Cherry/เชอรี่ - a woman who is attracted to kathoei and gay men

- Asia Media Centre