It's Time for Thailand to End State Homophobia

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The country's refusal to support UN resolution on non-discrimination regardless of sexual orientation leaves us rooted in the dark ages

Today is the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day set for recalling the loss of transgender lives due to prejudice and hatred. Although physical violence against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBTs) in Thailand is rare, the Thai state has not exactly been kind to them either.

In 1997, Rajabhat Institute announced a plan to reject students with "sexual deviancy". In 1999, the Department of Public Relations sent a memo to television channels instructing a ban on "sexual deviants". In 2004, a top official at the Ministry of Culture proposed getting rid of homosexuals from the media and government posts. In 2006, the Ministry of Defence branded transgender draftees as suffering from "permanent psychosis" in their military exemption documents known as Sor Dor 43.

Deputy Prime Minister Trairong Suwankhiri, therefore, followed a long tradition of state homophobia when he said approvingly in an interview about Thai-Chinese cultural cooperation that the Chinese government takes "special precautions" on its state-controlled media with the presence of homosexuals and transgenders, lest they be taken as examples by Chinese citizens. It would surprise no one if that particular meeting had actually endorsed a ban against gays and katoeys to satisfy the superpower.

It is understandable why Thailand wants to tap into China's financial reserves and its huge market. However, collaboration must not come at the expense of values we hold high as a sovereign democratic country. Lowering Thailand's human rights standard to suit a foreign nation's palate smacks of a lack of integrity at best and cultural wholesale at worst.

Banning homosexuals and transgenders is against Article 45 of the Constitution of Thailand, which guarantees freedom of expression including media freedom. More importantly, it runs counter to Article 30's prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex, which includes differences in sexual identity or gender or sexual diversity, as explained in the Intentions of the Constitution.

State homophobia, as expressed by high-ranking politicians like Mr. Trairong, creates an atmosphere in which local governments and non-state actors feel that oppression against LGBTs is acceptable. In 2008, when protesters shut down the Chiang Mai Gay Pride parade and threatened marchers with violence, the government failed to take action against government offices whose opposition to the event was used by protesters to justify violence. Now Chiang Mai's local authority feels so brazen as to arbitrarily ban transgenders from the processions during important government-sponsored festivities.

Internationally, Thailand has fared miserably in respect of LGBT rights. Hinting at appeasement of the Muslim world, Thailand in 2008 chose not to endorse a statement affirming the human rights principle of universality and non-discrimination regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity at the United Nations General Assembly, the UN's most important body. This week, when 79 countries voted to remove a reference to sexual orientation as a ground of protection in a UN resolution condemning extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Thailand again chose to sit on its hands rather than joining the 70 countries that opposed such a homophobic initiative. This is the only UN resolution with an explicit reference to sexual orientation.

Apart from clarifying its human rights position in the context of collaboration with China - cultural or otherwise - the Thai government must immediately end state homophobia and transphobia. As the LGBT community will be commemorating Human Rights Day for Sexual Diversity next week, the government should take this opportunity to make known its commitment on equal rights for Thai LGBTs, along the lines that PM Abhisit Vejjajiva promised during his campaign before the general election.

Thailand must adopt the Yogyakarta Principles on the application of international human rights standards in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, as a guideline on how to implement human rights for Thai LGBTs. It should also take an example from Brazil's outgoing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who in 2008 convened a national LGBT conference with attendance by representatives from all levels and branches of government, as well as the legislature.

If Thailand is ever to outgrow its prejudice against gays and transgenders, the government must start by ending the homophobia and transphobia it perpetrates itself.