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The truth about tolerance

in THAILAND, 11/03/2012

Thailand is well known for being tolerant towards people of different sexual orientations. After all, hardly a day goes by without one seeing ladyboys and chic lesbian tomboys with their shortly cropped hairstyles and manly attire roam the streets of Bangkok. The most obvious response of bystanders is a mixed bag of raised eyebrows and stares.

On the outside, it might seem that gays, transgenders and lesbians have assimilated well into Thai society. However, in reality this is far from true. While I don't fall into any of the aforementioned sexual orientations, I have an uncle who is gay, a nephew who is showing likely signs of being gay and a handful of gay friends who have become a part of my family through years of friendship. From spending time in their circle of friends, I have deduced a genuine need to campaign against homophobia, which can demonstrate its ugly side through various ways. What I have found is not so much outward hostility towards or fear of gay people, but rather social ideologies which stigmatise homosexuality.

Homophobia is unfortunately far from new in this predominantly Buddhist nation. Despite the Buddha's core teachings of compassion, most people opt to treat such individuals with disdain, often making homosexuals and transgenders objects of ridicule in movies, television commercials and daily conversation. They are often labelled as being promiscuous, self-indulgent and deserving of little respect. The holier-than-thou approach of people who feel they are justified in poking fun at gays and lesbians because of the belief that they have supposedly committed sins, particularly adultery I was told, in their past lives is in my opinion the perfect excuse to have a laugh at the expense of someone who has little means of retaliating.

It is my understanding that Thailand's apparently discreet "tolerance" for gays and transsexuals is in fact the result of our non-confrontational culture. While disapproval of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people is not obvious in public, the internet is another means by which homophobic comments are made in private.

Truth be told, Thai-style "tolerance" is only applicable when you stay put in your place and march to the drum of the cultural pecking order. It is a well-known fact that Gay Pride parades in provinces such as Chiang Mai are often not encouraged on the pretext that it will damage their reputable cultural heritage. Marginalising people due to their sexual orientation is taking the country back to the Stone Age. It is pivotal to address LGBT rights, which is an integral part of human rights. Otherwise cultural jingoism will only threaten our country's lack of integrity and incite further homophobia on home turf that will do more damage than good.

We have to keep in mind that the LGBT segments of our society are an integral part of our community, with talents, skills and achievements like the rest of us. Marginalising them will only serve as a deterrent in making our neighbourhood more wholesome. A step towards genuine tolerance is putting our bias attitudes towards their sexual and lifestyle preferences aside, and recognising them for the people they are.

Studies made on the topic say that there are a multitude of causes that contribute to homophobia_ the most compelling ones according to popular admission include subscribing to strong religious doctrine that object to homosexuality and having minimum to no social contact with people from other sexual orientations. Nevertheless, it is difficult to pinpoint just what causes society to be homophobic as we all grow up exposed to similar doctrine about sexuality but end up forming vastly clashing attitudes towards gay men and women later in life.

I believe the media's role is equally important to rid prejudice attitudes towards LGBT. Homophobic hate crimes do occur, and are promptly splashed over Thai dailies. Rarely, if ever, do we have coverage of incessant harassment and discrimination against ladyboys, whose career options are severely limited to hairdressing, fashion and playing the court jester in television serials and movies.

The ones that have managed to break the stereotype and pursued their dreams to become teachers and air hostesses should be taken as examples to follow. Being in the media, I believe we have to shed light on the discrepancies and injustices that continue to dog our gay and lesbian communities.

No longer can we afford to brush the issue of homophobia under the carpet, especially if the probability of having one of your children fall into the category of LGBT becomes a reality.

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