Underneath the Rainbow: The Truth Behind Queer Tourism in Thailand

The Thai capital is seen as one of the most queer- friendly cities to travel to in Asia. But for locals, a different story emerges. Co-founder of Proudly Asian Theatre, Chye-Ling Huang, reports from Bangkok. 

Chye-Ling Huang in Bangkok | Photo: Supplied

As a queer person travelling in an already tumultuous time, Thailand’s reputation as a rainbow-friendly destination felt like cause to relax on one front at least. But a less progressive undercurrent at odds with this image was surprisingly quick to surface - archaic laws are still in place that severely disadvantage queer relationships, families and diverse gender identities. How does the local queer community navigate the juxtapositions of laws and lifestyle, and is what role does rainbow tourism play in this divide?

As well as allowing the same perfunctory rights as heterosexual couples, same-sex marriage has long become symbolic of the acceptance and normalisation of the queer community. In Thailand, same-sex marriage is still not legally recognised. A soft alternative, The Civil Partnership Bill has been put forward as a first step but has been delayed multiple times from passing the bill to the government since it was proposed in 2019, the latest devastating pushback occurring in February 2022. 

Transgender Thais have been able to legally change their names since 2007 - but not their legal gender. The Gender Equality Act, passed in 2015, has been criticised as inadequate by Human Rights Watch - transgender Thais are still targets of discrimination having to reveal their legal gender on forms, in healthcare and social situations that call for ID, and queer couples still can’t adopt.

As a queer person, Huang decided Thailand was a safe option for her travels | Photo: Supplied

Yet, against this backdrop, Bangkok was voted the second-most gay-friendly city in Asia in 2017. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) further pushed its ‘Go Thai, Be Free’ campaign in 2019, whose website and socials boast gay friendly hotels and activities. One feature described a ‘wedding’ in Phuket, captioned, "...a gay wedding in Thailand would be a dream come true for many a same-sex couple, and it’s for good reason the Kingdom continuously ranks among the world’s queer-friendliest destinations."  

The irony stings for Thai locals. But the awareness that tourism makes up 18 percent of Thailand's GDP (now closer to 6 percent since Covid-19) is starkly clear, especially for those working in the sector. ‘Ladyboys’, gay clubs and famous pride events like ‘G Circuit’ and Sofitel’s Pool Partys rake in the ‘pink dollar’ every year. 

Spending three months in Thailand has given Huang the opportunity to reflect on the "real" side of queer life | Photo: Supplied

Hotelier and gay Phuket-born local, Narong*, describes the situation. “Money is king, despite what you feel or your political ideas against that person. It's fine to throw a gay event and call it a ‘fruitcake party’. But on paper, it must not be labelled as something that is directly related to queer identity - it’s still somewhat of a taboo, and you’ll still get the odd casual homophobic comments behind the scenes after checking a couple in.”

TAT reiterate on their site: "As the most LGBTQ / LGBT+ welcoming country in Asia, we’re proud that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans community – and all people – no matter how they identify; and whom they love; feel free when traveling in Thailand on vacation or holiday." TAT falls short of describing the pride Thailand feels towards its own queer population, whose visible transgender presence could particularly be seen to have led the way for rainbow tourism. The rise of drag culture around the world as popular entertainment is certainly leveraged in Thailand’s marketing. But trans people aren’t necessarily more understood because of their visibility in entertainment.

“Transgender people have been made into a show, something we can sell, market, like a product,” says Narong. “But we haven’t come to the part where you know, a ladyboy can be a general manager, a construction worker. It’s hard for people to see it that way, because the only career you see visibly for them is in ‘showbiz’ or sex tourism.”

Queer life in Thailand isn't as easy as the campaigns suggest | Photo: Supplied

A 2018 World Bank report showed damning levels of discrinimation against this group in particular, though transgender people have always been prevalent in Thailand, something unique to Thailand.  A 2019 national survey by the United Nations Development Programme reported overall favourable attitudes towards queer and transgender people in Thailand, but described the situation as ‘tolerance but not inclusion’ - those outside direct family members were more openly accepted, and reports of discrimination and assault were still high. Those in rural areas often escape to central Bangkok, Phuket or other major cities with higher concentrations of queer communities. 

Positive movements include the rise of the "BL" or Boy’s Love genre, queer representation in entertainment and a new generation of internet-savvy young people. Narong, 30, was openly gay in high school, and Madee*, 26 and a queer female in media, recalls gay couples being common at her high school, and  says the rainbow-friendly hype isn’t all hot air. 

It feels safer and more normal being out and active here than in New York, for example, says Madee, who lived in the United States after high school before moving back to Bangkok. 

Madee describes a new era of gay rights in Thailand that has been bubbling for several years - a key example, a protest at the CAT Telecom building in Bangkok on Valentines day calling for same-sex marriage to be legalised.

Safety and basic rights have a flow-on effect for tourism too | Photo: Supplied

“We've all kind of hit a point of no return,” remarks Madee, “people are learning how to protest about things that are important to them, things we previously just accepted, it’s like we’ve ripped that bandage off. As the movement has grown, I’m not scared anymore of being seen at a protest.” 

It’s hard to say whether tourism is helping to drive acceptance and visibility, or works to simply commodify queerness on a surface level. Tourists may have the luxury of feeling safe and welcomed on their holidays, but dangerously lax attitudes toward everyday discrimination are underlined by absent fundamental rights for queer Thai locals, who hope for a progressive attitude shift as bold as the one marketed to the rest of the world. 

"It’s already hard enough to live here for a lot of people, in general," Madee summarises. "When the obstacles are less overt, it’s hard to put on people’s list of priorities. But giving us safety and basic rights will have a flow on effect for tourism as well. It’s a win-win, but I fear it’s going to be a slow process until we reach a tipping point.”

*Names have been changed

- Asia Media Centre