On Sunday, June 4, Thailand’s capital held the latest iteration of its yearly Pride Parade. The gathering started around 2 p.m. at Siam Square, the heart of Bangkok’s shopping district, which became the theater of the 2020-2021 protests against incumbent Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and ran well into the evening with a celebration and street party along Ratchadamri Road. The event came a week after Chiang Mai Pride, which marked the start of Pride Month in the country. The month-long celebration of the LGBTQ culture and community continuously draws large crowds of local Thais and foreigners across Southeast Asia.
The parade, first held in the capital in 2006, has long served as a space for LGBTQ people in Thailand to gather and celebrate their identity, a much-needed safe space in a region that is witnessing a growing crackdown on queer rights and expression. Additionally, the parade serves as a platform for the community to raise awareness of the many social and political challenges they still face in the country. This year’s iteration, themed “Beyond Gender”, was no exception, and brought into the spotlight issues faced by sex workers and the county’s LGBTQ community at large.
Although prostitution is officially illegal in Thailand under the 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, the country has become a notorious destination for sexual tourism, particularly in the red-light districts and massage parlors of Bangkok, Pattaya, and Phuket island. While there are no official statistics assessing the extent of prostitution in the country, several United Nations reports estimate that the industry generates around $6.4 billion annually, accounting for around 1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Activists denounce the trade-off between the economic weight the industry represents and the lack of provisions for sex workers as a result of the fact that prostitution is criminalized. The legalization movement, which started in 2003, also points to the difficulty of tracking and preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections, mainly HIV/AIDS, among the sex worker population. The issue has become a main point of advocacy for Pride activists, given that gay men and transgender women face higher risks of exposure.
Marriage equality is also among the most pressing issues pushed for by LGBTQ activists in Thailand, and was similarly at the forefront of this year’s Pride Parade. While same-sex activities were never criminalized and get a certain level of mainstream representation in mainstream public discourse and media, especially in comparison to neighboring countries such as Malaysia or Singapore, legal recognition of same-sex couples has lagged behind.
The issue was once again raised in public debate in the country’s general election held last month, which saw a remarkable victory for the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP). In the aftermath of the election, MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat announced that he aimed to legalize same-sex marriage by 2028. However, his ability to do so depends on whether Prayut and the conservative establishment that backs him will allow the MFP to form the next government, which remains highly uncertain at this time.
Nonetheless, Pita’s election and commitment to moving forward with LGBTQ rights fueled a renewed sense of hope among Thais, which reached its effervescence during last weekend’s Pride Parade, which Pita and other leading figures from MFP attended. Shortly after closing the march and reaching the gathering point in front of Central World Mall, Pita was invited to deliver a speech on stage, drawing large crowds of LGBTQ activists and supporters who took part in the Parade earlier in the day.