Since the outbreak of the pro-democracy protests in Bangkok this year, the drag queen known as Masala Bold has made an intense call for gender equality, becoming a visible symbol of the LGBT community in Thailand.
Behind Masala Bold is Siraphob Attohi, a 21-year-old student at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, and a theater schoolboy. He decided to join this historic moment by calling for gender equality.
“Thailand is said to be the most gay-friendly country in the world, but it really isn’t!” he claims, arguing that in the democracy movement, there is not much room for women and LGBT people to protest or speak openly.
He says that many people believe that the collective must first demand democracy to achieve more rights at the social level. But Siraphob does not agree. That’s why he created the Free Gender TH group, to add LGBT demands to the historic moment that Thailand is experiencing.
The Free Gender TH activists constitute a dozen LGBT activists and allies. By wearing colorful wigs and outfits, and carrying rainbow-colored flags, they distinguish themselves from the rest of the young protesters, who tend to favor black clothes.
“We don’t entertain people and empower them in the protests because we’re clowns or entertainers. We believe anger is not enough and it destroys your mind and spirit. We need to be joyful and empowered to hope, to dream, and to create our own future,” Siraphob said.
He has been acting since the beginning of the university protest, but he started to perform in public as a drag queen starting in July. For Siraphob, this is a political art form itself, because it liberates him from his traditional gender role.
“You can be a feminine drag queen, a masculine drag king, or whatever you want to be, just putting on makeup and a costume. When state and society teach and tell you what to do or how to be, acting as a drag says: Fuck it! I do and I am what I want,” he said.
The goal of Free Gender TH is mainly political. One of its main demands is the legalization of same-sex marriage, based on the model of Taiwan, where it was authorized last year.
Thailand’s cabinet approved a bill in July that would recognize same-sex unions, granting them almost the same legal rights as married couples, but the project hasn’t moved forward in the current Parliament.
There are a few reasons for that. According to Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his administration “underestimated some of the very conservative voices that exist in the Parliament.” That includes the unelected Senate, which is full of former military and senior civil servants of the National Council for Peace and Order, the governing body created in the wake of the 2014 coup.
The push for same-sex marriage has also encountered opposition from Muslim organizations that the Ministry of Justice may not have expected, Robertson said.
If the project had gone ahead, Thailand would have become the second country in Asia to legalize same-sex civil unions. But, Robertson explained, his group “has so far not seen the kind of determination the government needs to pass a progressive LGBT rights bill that offers meaningful legal protection for their marriages or civil partnerships.”
The same obstacles are impeding bills to improve the conditions of the transgender community. Thailand currently does not have a legal gender recognition law that allows transgender people to change their title to match their gender identity. This is vitally important so that they can participate meaningfully in society and prevent discrimination.
Thailand famously holds beauty pageants for transgender women, known as Miss Tiffany. Held annually since 1984 in the coastal tourist city of Pattaya, the pageants are followed by millions of viewers. But behind this apparent integration, trans people are often rejected by their families, have a hard time finding a job, and are boxed into the sex work industry.
In 2016, members of a commission charged with writing Thailand’s new constitution after the 2014 coup said they had proposed the inclusion of “third gender” people in the constitution’s non-discrimination clause and that the proposal was “being studied.”
Kath Khangpiboon, one of the most active activists in the Thai trans community, said this change “is still in process” as well, because there are disagreements between members of the responsible ministry.
Thailand has experienced 12 coups since the abolition of the absolute monarchy in 1932. The country suffers from frequent political violence and a lack of freedom of expression.
In the opinion of Siraphob, the actor and activist, democracy will allow Thailand’s LGBT community to advance gender equality by being able to elect representatives who listen to and value their requests.
Via his Free Gender TH group, Siraphob supports the protesters’ main demands: the resignation of Prayut and the establishment of a more democratic constitution that limits the current powers of the monarchy.
The monarchy is a virtually untouchable institution in Thailand, defended by the military and considered by many the basis of national identity. The crime of lese-majeste carries penalties of up to 15 years in prison for criticizing the royal family. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016, was widely beloved in Thailand, but his son Maha Vajiralongkorn has drawn criticism on a range of issues, including his lifestyle and the time he spent in Germany during the pandemic.
Siraphob said the government is trying many mechanisms to stop the protests, and many protesters have been harassed by the lese-majeste law. He hopes this will not happen to he and his fellow activists; Siraphob said they are just demanding democracy and are not carrying out a real revolution. They simply want to be heard and claim their rights.
Overall, the pro-democracy movement has been very inclusive and encouraged LGBT groups to play an important, leading role in the protests.
According to Robertson, “one of the things that has become clear is that the youth are much more open minded about gender identity and sexual orientation than older generations, and the issue of rights for all and discrimination against none really has come to the fore.”
He expects if the protesters are successful in their demands for reform, and a rewrite of the Constitution, there will be significant and far-reaching reforms that significantly advance LGBT rights in Thailand.