Thailand

First Queer Theatre Festival Hits Bangkok

First Queer Theatre Festival Hits Bangkok

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Thai actor, director, dancer and choreographer Sun Tawalwongsri has not only launched a new performing arts space on Bangkok’s Silom Road, but he’s also celebrating the badly under-represented voices of local LGBT artists and audiences by introducing Bangkok to its first Queer Theatre Festival.

He’s been wanting to do something along these lines for a while, he explains, but study commitments meant the plans had to be put on hold.

“I started the Sun Dance Theatre in 2008. At the Bangkok Theatre Festival that year, we created dance, theatre as well as Nang Yai performances. The troupe needed to pause while I went to London for my MPhil studies in drama and theatre [at Royal Holloway University of London].

“I came back in July and one evening, while I was relaxing on Silom Society’s roof watching BTS trains go by, I realise I needed to do something there. I used to frequent this cafe when I was at college though in those days it was called Coffee Society. I talked to Carl, the new owner, and pitched the idea of making it a performing arts space, which he liked.

“The original idea was to make it a dance studio but because I’ve been studying both dance and theatre, I decided to launch it with a theatre festival. Later, we’ll start offering classes in performing arts.”

While Sun is pleased to see that more small studios have opened in Bangkok during his absence, among them Creative Industries on the second floor of M Theatre and Thong Lor Art Space, he points out that in comparison to other urban centres, the number is still tiny.

“As Bangkok’s population has grown, the interests of its residents have become more diversified and complicated. These are people of the world, not just Thais. I’m particularly interested in this diversity and how we can promote understanding of the diversity of sexual orientation, nationality, religion as well as culture,” he explains.

“Our location near Silom Soi 2 [opposite Silom Complex] is a prime location for nightlife and the LGBT community. And so the Bangkok Queer Theatre Festival was born naturally. At first, I was thinking of using the word ‘Diversity’ but then decided that ‘Queer’ came straighter to the point, and, let’s face it, it’s more marketable too.”

Sun notes that while Bangkok is known as the gay capital of Asia, no support has been given to this sub-culture and queer tourism has never been officially promoted.

“To the LGBT community, it’s quite surprising that this queer theatre festival is a first for Bangkok,” he says.

“Viewing us as marginal is narrow-minded. In fact, when a group of marginal people become stronger, they become a major marketing force. There’s a large number of queer tourists around the world, and they have strong buying power too.

“I’d like the festival audiences to realise that this diversity is not fixed and that ‘queer’ is not gay only’. There are many other gender issues that we’re dealing with and hence the term LGBTIQ, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning. Human beings change and evolve everyday and it’s truly outdated that our gender, nationality, social class or political inclination need to be clearly specified.”

Sun says that in curating this festival he started from looking for dance and theatre artists working on this issue and has invited five directors to present six works.

“While we’re promoting true understanding in the diversity of sexual orientation, it naturally relates to other social, cultural and political issues as well.”

Sun Dance Theatre is holding an open house for the public this Thursday at 7pm. Then starting from Saturday, Bhanbhassa Dhubthien, winner of IATC Thailand’s best directing award last year, will stage “4 Sisters+1″, a reworking of Shogo Tanikawa’s “4 Sisters” seen in early 2010.

Also coming up in the first Bangkok Queer Theatre Festival are 18 Monkeys Dance Theatre’s double-bill, site-specific performances “My Betrayal Is Beautiful” and “Le Funambule”; Sangsan Santimaneerat’s solo performance “TARO: The Little Poodle” and Panuwat Inthawat’s “Drunk”. The festival will close with the highly anticipated return of award-winning actor Wannasak “Kuck” Sirilar in “I Shall Pass”.

The first Bangkok Queer Theatre Festival runs from Thursday to December 15 at Sun Dance Theatre at Silom Society, opposite Silom Complex (BTS: Sala Daeng, MRT: Silom). Performance times vary, contact 088 018 5966 or check https://www.Facebook.com/SunDanceTheatre.

Tickets are Bt600 with one drink.

(The Nation)

UN Report Slams Lack Of LGBT Rights In Thailand

UN Report Slams Lack Of LGBT Rights In Thailand

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Thailand’s first report assessing the challenges of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities in the country concludes that LGBT people report they face widespread social stigma and are afforded few job opportunities.

The “Being LGBT in Asia” Thailand Country Report – a joint analysis by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – highlights a contradiction between Thailand’s public face of tolerance toward LGBT communities and the reality of discrimination toward them. The report found that while the tourism authority actively promotes Thailand as a gay tourist destination, acceptance of non-traditional sexualities in Thai society is still perceived to be low.

“There’s no room for stigma and discrimination in today’s world,” said U.S. Ambassador Kristie A. Kenney. “Truly sustainable development requires everyone’s contribution and participation, including the LGBT community.”

The landmark report is the first comprehensive review and analysis of Thailand’s legal and social environment encompassing in-depth research on LGBT issues in Thailand.

“Thai LGBT activists and organizations have been working very hard to ensure that people of different gender identities and sexual orientations can live their lives openly and be supported by the Thai legal frameworks,” said Midnight Poonkasetwattana, Executive Director of the Asia-Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCOM), a Bangkok-based regional nongovernmental organization. “I hope that recommendations from this report will be implemented and look forward to the day that Thailand becomes the leader in ASEAN for LGBT rights.”

According to the report, there is limited education about LGBT issues in schools and LGBT people live in a society where there is strong pressure to be a “good citizen” and put family concerns or interests before their own. This is compounded by the notion that one’s sexuality or gender must not go against accepted norms and should not bring shame to oneself or one’s family. Many of Thailand’s LGBT people remain in the closet, fearful of social stigma and discrimination.

“Thailand is one of the few countries in the Asia-Pacific region where the LGBT community has high visibility. But visibility does not always translate to equality.

The United Nations in Thailand is working with the Government, civil society, and development partners to ensure that LGBT people have equal rights and are free from any form of discrimination,” said UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative for Thailand, Luc Stevens.

The report also highlights that Thai transgender individuals cannot change their gender on identity papers, and male-to-female transgender people are often forced into military service. Thailand’s LGBT people face workplace discrimination, including being denied promotions or fired from their jobs after disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity. Transgender people are often limited in workplace options. School bullying against LGBT people is very common. While the country’s constitution prohibits discrimination against citizens on any grounds, there are no laws that recognize LGBT relationships or parenthood and laws on marriage apply only to heterosexual couples.

The Thailand country report was produced as part of the ‘Being LGBT in Asia” initiative launched on Human Rights Day in December 2012. It seeks to promote understanding of the fundamental challenges faced by LGBT people and to document the progress being made in anti-discrimination efforts. It also makes a series of recommendations that are designed to complement the findings in different topical areas.

‘Being LGBT in Asia” is a regional collaboration between USAID, UNDP and the LGBT civil society. Other UN agencies such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and USAID country missions have also partnered with the initiative in individual countries. It is currently being implemented in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, the Philippines and Vietnam.

HARP Initiative Launched In Phuket

HARP Initiative Launched In Phuket

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After 3 successful years of organizing Phuket Pride, and raising over 600,000 baht for HIV related charities, the Phuket Loves You Club is launching its next major initiative – HARP – HIV and Aids Related Programme.

The objective of the programme is to increase awareness of HIV / AIDS and safer sex, provide free testing, information, free condoms, and lubricant to stop the spread of HIV / AIDS within the gay area in Patong town, Phuket.

With the help of Patong Hospital and the Sabaidee Clinic, PLU Club held a series of focus groups designed to gather information from various groups of people within the LGBT community of Phuket. This information has been invaluable in helping set the strategy and objectives for the HARP Project.

At present, Sabaidee clinic only has funding to carry out one free HIV test series a year in Soi Paradise. The PLU Club has committed money, from its HARP budget, to the clinic to carry out a further 3 test sseries, which means all workers in Paradise can now have a free HIV test every 3 months for the next year starting in October.

Partnering with the Director of Patong Hospital, they have secured a memorandum of understanding (MOU) from Phuket’s Governor – Maitree Intrusud. This MOU will enable them to receive a large number of condoms from outside of Thailand and have already received 50,000 Carex condoms and lube from Karex Burhad; a Thai company. The PLU are packaging these into individual packs, which also carry safe sex messaging in Thai, as well as contact details for the Sabaidee Clinic.

With the information gathered from a series of focus groups, the PLU have utilized the services of Bon Tong Productions in Chiang Mai, and together they have created a series of 6 informative posters which messages safe sex, testing and what to do if you test positive. These posters will form an 8 month campaign. Bon Tong have not only been sponsoring and designing the PLU Club’s Phuket Pride web site for the past three years, but have a wealth of experience in the creative designing of this style of posters.

To accompany the posters the PLU Club have produced custom-made condom boxes, these have a changeable header, so that the messaging with the free condoms mirrors that of the changing messaging of the monthly posters. These boxes will contain the FREE condoms and lubrication packs and will be placed in gay friendly locations throughout Patong, ensuring that cost is not a barrier to safer sex.

The Chairman of the PLU Community project Team Kenneth Miller said “I am delighted that after so much planning and information gathering, that we have finally been able to deliver to the Gay venues of Patong meaningful posters and free condoms and lube. These venues have been so supportive in the prominence they have given to the posters and condom boxes, with a real commitment to all working together in increasing HIV awareness and reducing HIV infection in our community.”
Ian Phillips the PLU Chairman said: “I would like to thank everyone who has supported our last three Phuket Pride weeks, those who worked tirelessly to organise the week’s events, those who attended and donated and to all of our highly valued sponsors, including Karex Burhad, without whom none of what we are now delivering to our community would be possible. I look forward to us all raising more money for these important projects during Phuket Pride week 2015 this coming April.”

Young Gay Thais Spreading HIV

Young Gay Thais Spreading HIV

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An estimated 70 per cent of new sexually transmitted infections cases are occurring among young people, especially among men who have sex with men, those involved in sex work and those who inject drugs in Thailand, where “social media, online dating websites and mobile application make it much easier for young people to meet others in order to engage in casual sex,” says a new United Nations report.

Compiled by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the new study – “Situational Analysis of Young People at High Risk of HIV Exposure in Thailand” – collected data from some 2,000 young people, including men who have sex with men, transgender persons, females who exchange sex for money, migrant workers and people who inject drugs in four provinces.

The highest number of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancies in Thailand are among 15-24 years old, suggesting that safe sex messages are not reaching this age group.

Robert Gass, Chief of HIV for UNICEF Thailand, was quoted in a press release as saying: “A lack of life skills to control risky situations, together with the use of alcohol and drugs, often puts young people at higher risk of getting HIV and other STIs. In addition, social media, online dating websites and mobile application make it much easier for young people to meet others in order to engage in casual sex.”

While Thailand is considered an early achiever of Millennium Development Goal 6 – halting the spread of HIV – there has not been a consistent decline in HIV incidence across all segments of the population in recent years, the study says.

The study showed a new rise in HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STI) cases, especially among young people, with 70 per cent of all STI cases occurring in this age group and that around 41 per cent of new HIV infections in Thailand are among men who have sex with men.

In contrast, among venue-based female sex workers in Thailand, HIV prevalence decreased from 2.8 per cent in 2008 to 1.8 per cent in 2011. However, the study pointed out that sex workers are more likely to use condoms with clients than with their regular partners.

The study found that migrant workers are among the most vulnerable groups in terms of lacking knowledge about HIV and STI prevention. They also often find it difficult to access free services and essential HIV prevention information due to language and financial barriers.

UNICEF says it believes that Thailand urgently needs more effective protection measures and appropriate testing and treatment programmes for young people in order to curb rising infection rates for HIV and STI. These programs, however, will need to be designed at the community level, with the involvement of young people themselves, so that they meet their specific needs.

“Among several recommendations from the study, we are calling for the age of consent for HIV testing and counselling to be reduced from the current age of 18 years,” Mr. Gass said. “If a young person feels that they have engaged in an activity that puts them at risk of HIV, they should be entitled to have a test without needing parental consent.”

Conducted by Thammasat University with UNICEF support, the study conducted in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Songkhla and Ubon Ratchathani, used focus groups and face-to-face interviews to identify and better understand specific risk behaviours and reviewed and proposed policy and programmatic responses for particular at-risk group.

Bangkok Hotel Refuses HIV Group Booking

A NETWORK of people living with HIV/Aids and their advocates yesterday asked the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to investigate alleged rights violations and discriminatory practices after a Bangkok-based hotel reportedly denied HIV/Aids NGOs’ requests to host events at the hotel.

Aids Access Foundation director Nimit Tienudom said there were still problems such as the hotel’s refusal to accommodate the HIV/Aids NGOs.

“We don’t know exactly what caused [the hotel ban] but [we] think, as a service provider, it should respect others and not discriminate against people living with HIV/Aids, because that is a very bad vision,” he added.

He praised as good policy the NHRC’s July 25 announcement that a job application requirement of an HIV-blood test was a rights violation.

Nimit said his foundation had used the hotel’s services on at least 10 occasions a year without problems over the past four years. But the Path2health Foundation’s planned event was turned down in July.

His foundation’s request to use the facility for 1663 Aids’ hotline volunteers’ training on July 14 was also denied, he said.

They were told by hotel staff that it was a new policy to refrain from taking Aids or anti-drug organisations following customers’ complaints, he added.

Nimit said the request for an NHRC probe was to find out if the decision was discriminatory – as well as urging hotel executives to get correct information about HIV/Aids, to improve services, and to refrain from discrimination or rights violation.

“If we simply accept the hotels’ conditions and find another hotel, it means we confirm to society that we cannot live together. We have to inform society that this is a bias, a wrongdoing, a rights violation and a discrimination that stemmed from misunderstanding,” he said.

Thai Network of People Living With HIV/Aids president Apiwat Kwangkaew said such discrimination stemmed from misunderstanding about the virus and they wanted the NHRC to probe them.

“We hoped this would lead to talks for better understanding and public awareness that Aids is not a disgusting thing, while the hotel would learn to see it in a new perspective,” he said.

He added that the network’s mission was to continuously campaign against HIV/Aids-related stigma so people could live together without rights violations.

NHRC member Taejing Siripanich, who took up the complaint, said the agency had no duty to judge who was right or wrong, but to determine if the action was a rights violation.

The NHRC would investigate and summon the hotel for explanation.

“I believe this kind of discrimination [exists] in society – due to lack of information or ignorance. Sometimes we accept it because we don’t want to cause trouble… If Thailand still has this kind of thinking, how can people living with HIV/Aids live? Where else will they go?” he added.
(The Nation)

Bangkok Barebacking Leads To HIV

Bangkok Barebacking Leads To HIV

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A survey of young gay men and transgender women (MSM) in Bangkok has found that HIV incidence amongst them is running at 9% a year in those who don’t used condoms consistently – and 2% a year in ones who say they do.

The survey also found higher-than-average incidence in MSM who lived alone or with flatmates rather than their family, and who had paid-for sex or sex in saunas.

In common with at least one other study, the researchers found that MSM who exclusively took the insertive role in sex – regardless of condom use – were less likely to become HIV-positive than MSM who said they used condoms all the time.

Presenter Presenter Tarika Pattanasin of the Thai Ministry of Public Health told the 20th International AIDS Conference that a previous analysis of the Bangkok MSM Cohort Study had shown that HIV incidence in young gay men and transgender women aged 18-21 was 8.8% a year, compared with 3.7% a year in MSM aged over 30.

A new analysis concentrated exclusively on young MSM who had been 18-24 at their time of enrolment into the cohort between 2006 and 2010. This allows for between three and five years of follow-up.

Criteria for entry into this study other than age included residence in Bangkok, having had sex (oral or anal) with another man in the last six months and being available for thrice-yearly HIV testing and behavioural questionnaires. The cohort recruited 494 men through gay venues, the internet, a gay men’s sexual health clinic, outreach workers and friends.

The study found that 47% of the young men/transgender women lived with their family while 44% lived alone or with a flatmate and just 10% lived with a partner.

Forty per cent said that they had used condoms 100% of the time for anal sex since their last clinic visit four months ago, 51% had had condomless anal sex and been ‘versatile’ (took both roles) or ‘bottom’ (receptive only); 8.5% said they had had condomless sex but only as the insertive partner.

Twenty-four per cent said they had had paid-for sex in the last four months and 28% casual sex in a sauna; 33% had Had sex with casual partner at home.

The results were expressed as the cumulative number of HIV infections over a specific time period or ‘incidence density’. A large number of longer-term participants was tested around the five-year anniversary of their entry into the cohort, so this provides a useful cumulative incidence measure.

The overall annual incidence rate in the cohort was 7.5% a year and 118 people have acquired HIV so far in this study; nearly a quarter of the cohort.

By the five-year mark, roughly 39% of those who lived alone or with a flatmate had become HIV positive compared with 19% who was living with their family at this point (NB these categories all apply to the four months preceding each follow-up visit – they are not baseline criteria. So if someone reported living alone for one four-month period, but living with family the next, for example, they would be sorted into different risk groups for those two separate time periods.)

About 45% of those who reported paid-for sex was HIV-positive by this time compared with 22% who did not. And the same proportion – 45% – who reported casual sex, either in a sauna or at home, had HIV compared with 21% who did not have casual sex.

In terms of sexual behaviour, men who reported condomless anal sex, either as the receptive partner or as ‘versatile’, had a 46% chance of HIV infection by five years; men who reported 100% consistent condom use had a 21% chance of having HIV by this time; and men who reported condomless sex, but only as the insertive partner, had a 14% chance of being HIV positive by this time.

Thus, in unadjusted analysis, self-reported 100% condom use was 54% effective as a preventative strategy against HIV in this cohort, and not taking the receptive role 70% effective.

In multivariate analysis people who lived alone or with a flatmate were 50% more likely to acquire HIV than those who lived with their family; those who did not or only inconsistently used condoms and who took the receptive role at least sometimes were 180% (2.8 times) more likely to acquire HIV than those who maintained condom use 100% of the time; those who only took the insertive role, regardless of condom use, were 20% less likely than those who used condoms 100% of the time but were not always ‘top’, though in multivariate analysis, controlling for factors like number of partners, this difference became statistically non-significant.

Also in multivariate analysis, having paid-for sex increased the risk of HIV 120%, having casual sex in a sauna 90%, and having casual sex 60% more risky for HIV than not paying for sex or not having casual sex.

It’s important to remember that the MSM at highest risk in this study – the receptive or versatile inconsistent condom users – actually formed the majority of the men in the cohort.

What can we do to prevent HIV in such a relentlessly accumulating epidemic, which is by no means unique to Thailand?

Luis Lloures of UNAIDS, who was chairing the session, commented: “It is a huge problem that young gay men today are coming out into a population where already a much higher proportion of their contemporaries has HIV than was the case 20 years ago.”

No one single measure would probably contain HIV in such a situation. The Thai Red Cross, who run the largest HIV clinic in Bangkok, are setting their sights on trying to get MSM to test as frequently as possible in the hope of catching early infections; this is the inspiration behind the ‘Suck. Fuck. Test. Repeat.’ campaign which has garnered praise for its videos but also criticism for not including condom use in its text.

Dr Sarika said that a campaign helping young MSM not to engage in commercial sex was also being considered. She acknowledged that this was a population that PrEP might be considered for.

Gays, Dharma, & Society

Gays, Dharma, & Society

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

The Pink Baht

The Pink Baht

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“Travel broadens the mind.” This truism applies not only to the tourist, but also the host country.

Visitors naturally feel most comfortable where their hosts are welcoming and tolerant. Few nations have been as historically open to others as the Thais. That’s why in a polarising world, easy-going Thailand proves so popular with both Arabs and Israelis, traditionalists and hedonists, straights and gays. Thailand got its huge gay visitor-base without even trying, through word-of-mouth, private enterprise and by just being itself.

For over a decade, wised-up Asian websites have pioneered the promotion of Thailand to gays, who number ten per cent of any population, yet 15% per cent of all tourists. Now there’s more need for Thailand to cultivate the custom of this trend-setting sector, which prizes high value holidays from spas to eco adventure.

Corporations and world cities no longer find it prudent to be prudish; they risk losing market share to those that liberalise. Tourist boards hype Sydney’s Mardi Gras, ‘Gayfriendly Germany’ or Manchester’s ‘Home of Queer As Folk’. One official UK booklet asks, “Isn’t it time you came out… to Britain?”

LOYAL LONG-STAY VISITORS
Market research reveals that gays express preference and loyalty to brands that publicly associate with them, whether airlines, cars or countries. “What might seem a very brave step to make isn’t that brave, really,” says London ad agency Quiet Storm as quoted by Time magazine. It notes that compared to straights, gays are on average “more affluent, more interested in style and brands, and travel more.” And with same-sex marriage growing, a new honeymoon niche will benefit resorts that let two men or two women book a bridal suite.

In the past, social taboos had inhibited tourism policy from marketing gay attractions. Now an official rethinking of this issue sees it as a global trend that creates tangible benefits for countries that embrace it.

The country’s reputation results in many gays becoming repeat and long-stay visitors. Gay-friendliness also over-rides factors that deter others, like SARS, bird flu or unrest. “Gays are more willing to part with their last baht here than a family is,” argues a Bangkok hotelier. “Even if they can’t really afford it, they will still come on a budget, just so they can come.”

GAY DOLLAR OUTSTRIPS MOST NATIONAL ECONOMIES
With their generally higher income, education and tastes for luxuries repeatedly proven in research, gays represent a grade-A consumer category. Same-sex couples earn proportionately even more, and without children cramping their disposable income.

At a staggering $610 billion, earnings by US gays and lesbians are more than three times greater than Thailand’s entire GDP. As Time noted, the UK fits a widespread pattern in that on average, gays earn 40% more and lesbians 25% more than straights. Of their total $130 billion earnings, gay Britons alone spend $5.6 billion a year on travel. That’s a lot of room service, facials and champagne brunches.

PINK BUSINESS
“Who actually pays for the deluxe suites at top hotels? It’s the gays!” exclaims the general manager of a Bangkok hotel seventy per cent frequented by followers of the rainbow-flag. Apply ‘gaydar’ to Bangkok’s five-star lobbies and you can see his point. Beyond room, restaurant and spa bookings, gays always mean business. Needless to say, Thailand’s fashion and design industries would wilt without gay sway over both production and purchasing.

Insiders admit that some buyers would skip Thai furnishing fairs were it not for the country’s R&R appeal to décor queens. And just count the clutches of pretty boys from elsewhere in Asia spending liberated weekends in Bangkok’s bars and boutiques. Many a gay Westerner exports Thai goods just so they can spend chunks of the year here, sourcing products and feeling sabai (relaxed).

PRIVATE FREEDOM, PUBLIC DISCRETION
“There’s not much of a gay movement in Thailand because there’s basically nothing to move against,” cooed the PlanetOut Gay Travel Awards in which Bangkok was the 2006 runner-up as Best International Destination. But foreigners wowed by the politeness, exoticism and diverse gay infrastructure often mistake tolerance for full acceptance. Like any personal matter in Thai society, private freedom comes at the cost of public discretion. Families often won’t discuss sexuality even if they suspect an offspring’s orientation, yet would never disown them. Thanks to that discretion, gays can rise high in society.

BANGKOK’S SOPHISTICATED SCENE
Just as Thailand has officially been shy about its gay appeal, queer venues tend to fringe fashionable locales so closets can enter unnoticed. Online portals like Utopia, Dreaded Ned’s and Fridae carry listings, as do free bilingual maps and magazines like Variety, Max, Sticky Rice, Thai Puen and PluGuide.

In downtown Silom Road, Sois 2, 2/1 and 4 brim with international style bars, restaurants, cafés, galleries, spas, clubs and shops, both male and mixed. Upmarket venues like Bed Supperclub have chic Pink Sunday parties and hosts Gyent, an elite gay club that runs trips, parties and other activities. Royal City Avenue now has a women-only club, Zeta. Asian visitors also find camaraderie in trendy Thai-Thai gay bar areas at Soi Sarasin, Kamphaengphet Road, Lad Prao and Ramkhamhaeng. As with their straight equivalents, host bars, escort services and massage parlours cater far more for locals, but are hidden in the suburbs, unlike the minority for tourists visible around Patpong and Sukhumvit.

CAMPING UPCOUNTRY
Sophisticated gay venues are also flourishing in the provinces. These include male-oriented hotels and tours, spas and bars. Pattaya is known for katoey (transvestite/’ladyboy’) cabarets, bars at Pattayaland Soi 3 and a stretch of Jomtien Beach favoured by gays. Phuket’s gay enclave centres on the Paradise Centre in Patong, while a new scene is developing at Chaweng on Ko Samui. Chiang Mai’s venues lag behind the city’s popularity among aesthetes appreciating the gentle Lanna culture.

REDEFINING GAY TOURISM
Capitalising further on gay tourism requires deeper consideration. Terms like homosexual (and its Thai equivalents) lead many to wrongly classify gayness solely by sexuality. Successful gay destinations recognise a broader definition that encompasses a camp sensibility, discerning tastes, community solidarity, and an outsider’s acute alertness to injustice.

Thailand is open to such values, albeit passively. Countries with the longest chapters in the Spartacus global guidebook cater to these needs proactively through help lines, sexual health provision, police training, anti-discrimination laws and hosting pride festivals.

Despite the genuine welcome to people of all kinds, taboos and unfamiliarity can spur false presumptions. Thais largely accept katoeys, but there’s less understanding of butch toms (women partnering ladylike dees) or straight-acting men-who-like-men. Some confuse saunas with prostitution despite them being the opposite: cheap yet opulent refuges where men can socialise specifically without buying a partner. Most problematic is inaccurate equating of tourism for gays with the bogeyword ‘sex tourism’.

LOVE, ACTUALLY
The catch-all term ‘sex tourism’ unleashes defensive emotions that can fuel a hysterical conflation of innocuous holiday romance with disturbing but marginal instances of exploitation. Most criticism seems reserved for the many elderly tourists finding Thai hospitality preferable to the ageism back home. As one Pattaya restaurateur remarks, “Thais are very nice to the older generation, whereas in Europe and America they think old people at nightclubs are almost immoral.” The nascent global trend in health-assisted housing for gay retirees will surely boom in Thailand.

Of course, travel has always led to cross-cultural relationships, proven by how few degrees of genetic separation relate all humanity. Provincial governors in Isaan encourage the economic benefits of non-Thai spouses. Inward investment from Thai-foreign gay partnerships is just as profound. Travel agents report high visitation to Isaan by gay tourists and long-term support of families there.

INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS
Fortunately, reputable gay travel operators observe professional ethics, avoid sleaze, and earn endorsement from organizations like ILGTA (International Lesbian & Gay Travel Association). By the same token, destinations not meeting globalised gay standards can lose income overnight.

When Singapore liberalized its laws to tempt the lucrative new niche of nightlife tourism – which overlaps gay tourism – it lured custom from Bangkok during its social order crackdown. But when Singapore banned the massive gay Nation festival, post-tsunami Phuket welcomed Nation partygoers. According to Nation organizers Fridae.com, the last Singapore party generated US$5.8 million. Now Thailand gets that revenue. “We were 100 percent full,” Phuket’s Crowne Plaza hotel spokesman told Bloomberg News. “There are a lot of high-end gay tourists, and I think Asia-Pacific slowly but surely is discovering this.”

ONE GAY DAY
In growing its gay market share, Thailand doesn’t need to institute attractions, rather to facilitate conducive conditions, so that unwary organizations don’t inadvertently alienate the market. Nightlife rules and police briefings are two examples, festivals another. Gay magnets from Sydney and San Francisco to Berlin and Brighton base marketing around pride parades, which the wider public can enjoy. Pattaya and Patong officially support their gay parades with big success. However, Bangkok Pride is perennially hampered by lack of consensus, so organisers baulk at investing more in floats and festivities.

A delicate balance must be struck. Inappropriate promotion could ironically endanger qualities that gays prize in Thailand: privacy and sensitivity. Gays delight in the alternative character of their subculture, a cachet lost in even positive media glare. Constantly singled out at home – whether for oppression or commercialization – gays relish time spent in Thailand without intrusion or labelling, ensuring a more liberating and carefree holiday than the majority population would imagine.

If Thailand’s deserves its fame as a “gay paradise”, it’s because to many gays “paradise” is being treated normally.

Reproduced by courtesy of and copyright by Tourism Authority of Thailand

First Impressions

First Impressions

Mark Kiakai Writes: No, that’s not my first impression, but just too good not to post. More about that a bit later.

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As Asiaout’s new editor, I thought it might be interesting to tell you guys about my impressions of returning home to Thailand after spending many years in the UK, where I went to school and uni, and more recently worked for a while in the back room of a media company – that’s a back room, not a dark room :-)

I’ve only been back a few days and I guess its a mix of culture shock and enjoyment; the culture shock is not about traditional things Thai, but about how tatty and grubby things look after London (although that fair city has its issues too), how bad the traffic is, and how much litter gets thrown onto the streets. The enjoyment is being back with friends and family, and feeling comfortable in my environment; even after living in London for so long and getting a cockney accent (so I’ve been told), I was still sometimes made to feel out of place there.

Even if its not always genuine, you can get a ready smile and easy chat with anyone in Bangkok, unlike London where they think you must be up to no good if you break a smile on the Tube (MRT) or on the street – except of course when the other party is a handsome hunk!

One of my main impressions on getting home, surprisingly, was Facebook. Yes, I know Facebook has billions of members and yes its big in the UK too, but for some reason I’ve never joined, until I got back home a couple or so days ago.

Its been an education; lots of friendly guys, both Asian and western, all happy to interact, all happy to be friends. Initially it seems that my Thai FB friends are more willing or more likely to reveal their inner feelings of the moment, while the westerners are generally a bit more concerned with day to day life, trivia, and politics. Of course, this is an early impression taken from a small group.

What amazes me is that some guys have many thousands of FB friends – it must be impossible to interact with even half of them, and some of these guys seem to want to build big numbers of friends just to show off. Others are a bit more selective allowing only ‘real’ friends to add them. My other shock about Facebook is the amount of nudity and even porn you can see openly, which I thought was against the rules.

Now back to the vid at the top of the page. I couldn’t resist this silly but fun lipsinc vid from a very cute guy on Facebook, the title of which roughly translates as “White Legged Dancing Girl”. If I didn’t have a boyfriend I’d happily want to date him, “dancing girl” or not!

While it happens everywhere, it can be a shock sometimes to return to a place you haven’t seen for a while and find that it has changed so much. I come from Nonthaburi province, just outside Bangkok, and while some places look just the same, other places have changed so much they are almost unrecognisable, with new skytrain lines running above many of our local main roads, and tower blocks of offices and shopping malls where there used to be rice fields. And, and, the cost of living is much higher than before. In some cases I think some things are about the same price as in the UK!

Of course arriving home in the middle of the rainy season might not be the best idea but, for me at least, the rain is refreshing in the heat I’m not used to.

I have to get a driving license, and unlike the UK where it can take a couple of weeks or more, I can get one at my local Land Transport office in an hour or less, and I can update my ID card in about the same time or less. I’ve already got a local SIM for 3G service, and a new smart phone.

So now, my job is to post and edit news stories for myasiaout and prepare some features for the main Asiaout site right here. If anyone reading this thinks they have an interesting story to tell, about their lives or anything else, then please contact me.

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