The documentation of homosexuality in Thailand is not a recent development. Apart from being mentioned in the Tipitaka, it also appears in Lanna religious texts and in the ancient Tra Sam Duang legal code. According to Prempreeda Pramoj na Ayutthaya, a transgendered researcher, the ancient Lanna texts mention the creation of the Earth and three genders – puri, itthee, and nuppoongsaka, believed to be men, women and homosexuals, respectively.

This corresponds with the Tipitaka, which categorises people who didn’t readily fall into traditional male or female stereotypes (bandoh) into five sub-divisions, in accordance with their sexual orientation, one of these being nuppoongsaka.

”This means the Tipitaka recognises sexual diversity,” Prempreeda noted.

There is also historical evidence of lesbians and gays. In the old palace, for example, only women were allowed to perform in dance troupes called lakhon nai, with some playing male characters both in plays and in their private lives, leading to lesbian sex being called len peuan (playing with friends). Dance troupes outside the palace, or lakhon nok, only allowed male performers, and some married princes were rumoured to sleep with feminine actors, said Prempreeda. Such sex among men was called len sawaat (playing with lovers).

And while homosexuality is nothing new in Thai history, nor is discrimination.

While the mention of homosexuality in the Tipitaka was aimed at warning monks what not to do, the ancient Kod Montien Barn legal code of the Ayutthaya period targeted homosexual members of the court. It imposed such penalties as being hit on the fingernails and neck tattooing for those engaging in homosexual sex, both len peuan and len sawaat.

Despite such discrimination, Assoc Prof Peter A. Jackson, senior fellow in Thai history of the Australian National University, argued that the situation is gradually improving.

According to him, the broader Thai community admires beautiful katoey, and people who are successful in their careers, and there is an increasing number of successful katoey performers and business people.

However, there is still a lot misunderstanding about different sexual orientations, he noted.

To help redress the problem, Prempreeda has written more than 20 research papers on transgender issues and has also been working as a consultant for researchers on the subject. Among her works are Ladyboys in Cabaret Shows, her master’s thesis for Chiang Mai University, and The Fluidity of Thai Queer Sexuality and Experiences of Accessing Sexual Health Care, her master’s thesis for her degree in health social science from Mahidol University.

‘The more I learned, the less I could turn a blind eye to gender inequality,’ she noted.

Many transsexuals who have faced discrimination have joined Prempreeda’s battle against discrimination. One of them is Suttirat Simsiriwong, or ‘Mod’, a brand manager for a French cosmetics company. She made headlines earlier this year when a famous hotel in Siam Square barred her from entering the hotel’s nightclub as a matter of policy. Her campaign (and pressure from the international gay community) resulted in an apology and the revocation of the hotel’s ban on transsexuals.

But due to misconceived stereotypes of transsexuals as untrustworthy, such bans are still the rule at many hotels and nightspots, especially those in tourist destinations such as Pattaya and Phuket, said Sitthiphan Boonyaphisomparn, an advocate for transsexual rights.

Without legal recognition for transsexuals, they also routinely suffer discrimination. When Prempreeda lost her ATM card, for example, her bank refused to cancel the card over the telephone because her feminine voice did not match the ‘male’ designation in her bank documents.

Another big problem for transsexuals in Thailand is the lack of Thai-language information on the pros and cons of gender reassignment surgery to help them with such important decisions.

“Policies relating to rights and laws for the transgendered are still overlooked in Thai society, even though the Thai transgendered culture is richer here than in many foreign cultures,” Prempreeda said.

First published in the Bangkok Post 5 November 2007