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 mainstage 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 complaint against the Ministry of Defense for labelling transgenders as suffering from “permanent mental disease” in their conscription paper and won the case five years later.
In 2009, after an HIV/AIDS parade 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 for their rights and acceptance in a country often mythicized as “LGBT paradise”.
As global LGBT rights movement gathered strength, Thai LGBT activists in 2011 began to converge on the issue of marriage equality. However, their initial efforts for a Civil Partnership” bill to be passed by Parliament faced years-long delays due to conservative oppositions as well as the government’s aim 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 of 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 increased 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 junta rule, they have built broad alliance with non-LGBT counterparts, especially on the issue of school uniforms and haircuts where draconian gender-segregated codes are 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 haircut rules.
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, FreeYOUTH, a recently founded youth-led pro-democracy body 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 junta-appointed senators, and 3) draft a new constitution to replace the military-favoring charter of 2017.
After a government spokesperson called the protest as 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’s demands.
The August 16 protest – the biggest since the coup – was a historic moment when – among the issues of bloody government crackdowns of past pro-democracy struggles, illegal land grabs, military rule in the southern provinces, and others –marriage equality and employment non-discrimination for LGBTS were raised to large receptive crowd. The spirit of resistance has spread to educational institutions all over the country with students making “The Hunger Games” three-finger salutes, flashing blank paper sheets, and putting on white ribbons as symbols of defiance against dictatorship.
In a period of just one month, Thai students have kindled a new revolution by showing unprecedented courage, commitment to democracy and non-discrimination, and astute insight on the interconnection and intersectionality of all human rights. Despite being arrested on sedition and other charges (and released on bail), they vow to press ahead and reclaim their future with the next mass protest called for September 19. So far there have only been mild backlashes, but in a country that has suffered thirteen successful coups in its 88 years of democracy, no one can predict what will happen next.
But for a youthful movement that has brilliantly borrowed from Harry Potter, Les Misérables and Japanese anime Hamtaro, one thing is certain: time is on their side… As Pablo Neruda beautifully put it: You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.