Sissy That Mob: LGBT youths front and center in Thailand’s democracy movement

OutRight periodically features analysis from our colleagues and partners. We welcome a contribution from Paisarn Likhitpreechakul. Paisarn is a writer and freelance journalist with interests in LGBT+ issues, human rights, Buddhism and Asian history.

They used to be ridiculed and bullied, but LGBT youths have now emerged among the leaders of Thailand’s pro-democracy movement. During the August 16 historic student-led rally at the Democracy Monument, one of the MCs appeared in drag on the main stage overlooking more than 20,000 people and a proudly-waved giant rainbow flag.

Thailand’s LGBT movement began to take shape in 2006 when Sexual Diversity Network activists filed a case against the Ministry of Defense for labeling transgenders as suffering from “permanent mental disease” in their conscription paper and won it five years later.

In 2009, after an HIV/AIDS march in the northern city of Chiangmai was mobbed by a homophobic political group, LGBT activists and allies struck back with a rainbow protest at the Democracy Monument demanding their rights and acceptance in a country once mythicized as “LGBT paradise”.

As the global LGBT rights movement gathered strength, Thai LGBT activists in 2011 began to converge on the issue of marriage equality. However, their initial efforts to draft a Civil Partnership bill faced years-long delays due to conservative opposition as well as government intention to regulate rather than liberate.

Then came the 2014 military coup d’état which dealt a heavy blow on the movement. While many activists saw it as an opportunity to push their agenda without democratic check-and-balance, others in the minority refused to become an organ for a junta-installed government and began to collaborate with like-minded NGOs and political parties to foster a new generation of LGBT activists.

Although widely considered free but unfair, last year’s general elections put four openly LGBT candidates of the Future Forward Party in the House of Parliament. With wider social acceptance, the issue of marriage equality resurfaced to prominence – this time with greater support for the rewriting of the country’s archaic marriage law with gender-neutral language rather than the government’s separate-but-not-so-equal Civil Partnership bill.

But young LGBT activists are no longer alone. During the five years of military rule, they have built broad alliance with non-LGBT counterparts, especially on the issue of school uniforms and haircuts where gender-segregated codes are militantly enforced. Together they marched a “We are not freaks!” banner to the Ministry of Education to demand an end to discrimination against LGBT students, more progressive health and sex education, and a revision of draconian rules.

We are not freaks: students marching to the Ministry of Education to protest against draconian uniform and haircut rules, as well as discrimination and stigmas against LGBTQ students in educational institutions and textbooks. (Photo credit: Prachatai.com)

The disbanding of the Future Forward Party over alleged financial irregularities by the Constitutional Court in February enraged the party’s mainly young support base. Protests began to emerge just before COVID-19 shut down the country, only to come back with a vengeance five months later after the pandemic had been brought under control.

On July 18, the FreeYOUTH group, a recently founded young pro-democracy group with several LGBT members, organized the first post-COVID public protest against alleged government’s corruptions and mismanagement. One of their loudest grievances was the disappearance of the government’s critics and dissents including 38-year-old pro-democracy HIV/AIDS activist Wanchalerm Satsaksit who was abducted in Cambodia two months ago. They demanded that the government 1) stop harassing critics and dissidents, 2) dissolve the parliament currently dominated by 250 junta-appointed senators, and 3) draft a new constitution to replace the military-favoring 2017 charter.

After a government spokesperson called the protest “a cute mob”, student-led rallies mushroomed across the country including one on July 25 organized by LGBT youths. Convinced that equality cannot be achieved without true democracy, they called their gathering a "Not cute… but sissy mob" in which songs, dances and slapstick humor are used to assert LGBT rights and double down on the FreeYOUTH group’s demands.

The August 16 protest – the biggest since the 2014 coup – was a historic moment when marriage equality and employment non-discrimination for LGBTS were raised to large receptive crowd, along with the issues of bloody government crackdowns of past pro-democracy struggles, illegal land grabs, legal abortions, military rule in the southern provinces, and many others. The spirit of resistance has spread to universities and high schools all over the country with students making “The Hunger Games” three-finger salutes, flashing blank paper sheets, and putting on white ribbons as a sign of defiance against dictatorship.

In a period of just two months, Thai students have kindled a new revolution by showing unprecedented courage, commitment to democracy and non-discrimination, and perceptive insight on the interconnection and intersectionality of all human rights. Although dozens have been arrested on sedition and other charges, they vow to press ahead and reclaim their future with the next mass protest called for September 19. Conservative backlashes have so far been limited, but in a country that has suffered thirteen successful coups in 88 years, nobody knows what happens next.

However, one thing is certain: for a youthful movement that has brilliantly borrowed from Harry Potter, Les Misérables and Japanese anime Hamtaro, time is on their side. As Pablo Neruda beautifully put it: You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.