Chiang Mai Pride 2019 happened! This is probably the most important news of Thursday, February 21st, in the largest city of Northern Thailand. After a decade of silence, following the violent shutdown of the march in 2009, several hundreds of LGBTQIA+ participants joined the parade. To celebrate the differences, to condemn the violence.
The resurrected Pride was the event full of dignity and showed that many aspects of gay life in Thailand could be improved. The land of the ladyboys may resemble a gay paradise from the outside, but as Chiang Mai example shows all these years, there is no freedom where fear rules.
The parade of violence 2009
Exactly ten years ago, everything seemed to be ready for what should have been the second Chiang Mai Pride. But participants were “welcomed” by reportedly a couple of hundred protesters identifying themselves as Rak Chiang Mai 51.
Chiang Mai people will stop the parade by all means, even violencePetchawat Wattanapongsirikul, Rak Chiang Mai 51
Dressed in red shirts, some even masked, these loyalists to the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, had no intention to allow the gay parade to become an annual event in the hometown of the controversial politician. They claimed that the Gay Pride was endangering the reputation of Chiang Mai’s old culture, history, and Lanna heritage. Petchawat Wattanapongsirikul, the leading member of this militant group, said back then: “Chiang Mai people cannot accept this and will stop the parade by all means, even violence.”
The protesters confronted the Pride participants with anti-gay placards and intimidating verbal attacks first. But it certainly did not intend to stop on homophobic intimidation and abusive shouting! The mob surrounded the compound of the assembly. The red-shirted conservatives spat on the Pride participants, threatened them and even attacked them by throwing fruits, rocks, and water containing cactus thorns. Those participants who did not enter the compound were denied entry.
The shutdown of Chiang Mai Pride
While some 150 policemen managed to control the escalation of the conflict, the tension did not show any decline. Threatened by violence, Chiang Mai Pride organizers had to cancel the parade and – apologize by the demand of the bullies. Fearing for the participants’ safe being, they accepted to do so.
At the Tawan Trendy Mall, the intended destination of the parade, the mall owner had also fallen under the threats of the conservatives and asked the Pride organizers to disassemble the stage immediately.
Dozens of gays and lesbians held the silent vigil in front of the Wat Upakhut, peacefully meditating in front of the verbally abusive crowd. After the parade was called off, they lighted the candles in silence.
This is how the funeral of Chiang Mai Pride looked like. The date of February 21st became the day to commemorate the violence against the LGBT community and promote sexual rights and diversity.
A decade of fear and silence
The violent shutdown of the Pride happened just one month after three bar boys brutally murdered British gay expat David Crisp in his Chiang Mai home.
Gay life in Chiang Mai changed beyond retrieve. Bars serving as a façade for prostitution became utterly stigmatized. Thai gays stopped frequenting exclusively gay bars. Combined with police crackdowns, many of these bars closed. Those that remained served mainly gay foreigners who continued to travel to Northern Thailand’s gay capital.
Another attempt to organize Chiang Mai Pride was not on the horizon.
Gays and ladyboys wear revealing clothes in the streets. We had to go out in force to protect our culture against thisDJ Aom, Rak Chiang Mai 51
Rak Chiang Mai 51’s public messages did not help the atmosphere either. DJ Aom Kanypak, one of the founders of the red-shirt movement, said in one interview: “In the past, there were no gays or ladyboys, but today they live together openly, they wear revealing clothes in the streets. We had to go out in force to protect our culture against this. (…) If in the future they wish to have a parade, they can send us their proposal, and if we think that it is polite, then we will allow it, and even promote it. We can’t have half dressed gay people climbing up pagodas and temples and showing disrespect to our culture.“
Gay celebrations in the rest of the world, such as Folsom Europe, are much less “polite”. Are the red-shirts activists afraid of the images coming from the perverted west?
Chiang Mai Pride’s new dawn
The network of LGBT organizations (Young Pride Club, MPlus Foundation and other LGBT groups) decided to mark the jubilee of the 2009 Chiang Mai Pride events memory with – new Pride! “We stand for the right to be safe from violence; we stand for the right to raise our quality of life and reflect on the history of our community”, they said.
On February 21st, 2019, the four-hour event attracted between 500 and 1000 people. The participants assembled at the Chiang Mai Religion Practice Center, and proudly marched through their town until the historical Tha Phae Gate. The program included the opening dance-lipsync extravaganza, some reflective speeches and the candle ceremony forming the sign of peace.
It was a colorful march of locals and some international visitors. From young to old, from disabled to local cabaret stars, it was an event celebrating diversity, without any incident. Nobody wore the red shirt this time.
Can Thailand regain its pride?
While the resurrection of Chiang Mai Gay Pride may give optimism, the situation with other Thai Pride events is still dubious.
The last Bangkok Pride happened in 2006. It had to be reestablished in May 2017, but due to death of the King H.M Bhumibol Adulyadej, it was postponed for November the same year. The Pride Organizing Committee then announced that the Government decided the Pride should be delayed until 2018 so that people of Thailand have enough time to grieve. The Pride in 2018 never happened, and even now the official announcement on its Facebook pages says it is postponed “until further notice”.
The longest lasting Gay Pride in Thailand is Phuket Pride. This southern province hosted it since 1999, but in 2018 even they took a year off, after low turnouts in recent years. They promised the 2019 edition would be bigger and better. Unless it gets “postponed”, I guess.
Is Thailand ready for gay love?
While Thailand likes to project its image as a country accepting all lifestyles, the truth is that it is mainly an “island” among the Asian countries which criminalize homosexuality. Even Thailand was classifying it as an illness until 2002.
“They can still have a parade now, while it’s not big”, one Chiang Mai local tells me. “If it gets larger, people will not allow it again. For LGBT people, it is still hard to get a proper job, especially if they want to be a teacher.”
Chiang Mai events in 2009 were just a gentle version of what gay Thailand goes through daily. Coming out brings a spectrum of problems. So famous people prefer staying in the closet.
Thailand might have the first ever transgender politician, and its hospitals might have the highest rate of sex reassignment surgeries in the world. But Thai law still does not let one legally change their sex.
The law doesn’t recognize hate crimes either, but organizations have reported a lot on the murders committed because of one’s sexuality or gender identity.
Some of the most extreme examples are quite shocking. One father has been raping his daughter for four years, since she was 10, because she was hanging out with tomboys. Another mother ordered the murder of her daughter’s girlfriend. The details of crimes happening in this field are gruesome!
Those who do not get murdered will get abused. One study showed that a third of LGBT students had experienced verbal and physical assault, and one fourth – sexual. This treatment leads to a life of depression, illegal drug use, unprotected sex, sometimes even suicide.
Ladyboy for dinner
Returning from Chiang Mai Pride, I walk through the Nightmarket streets that just a couple of hours ago LGBT participants proudly marched through. From one of the bar stools, a deep voice comes out of a feminine figure: “Where do you go? Come! Sit for a drink?”
“Sorry, I can’t”, I refuse this flirting invitation politely. “I have to eat something; I’m hungry”.
“Wanna eat me?”, (s)he jumps to the point.
The phenomenon of a ladyboy is quite widespread in Thailand. Transgender people, known here as Kathoey, are much more visible than in the West, providing the illusion of acceptance. In reality, even their destinies are subject to cultural homophobia.
I’m aware that even my Chiang Mai Pride photo gallery perpetuates the image of what the LGBT community is. Just because the ladyboy community has an extravagant fashion style, it doesn’t mean that the variety of gender and sexual identities exhausts here.
Disconnected from Chiang Mai nightlife, its infamous ladyboy bars and love hotels, gay spas, saunas, and male massage-and-more parlors, many young Thai gays still need to look for their space of freedom and the ways of expressing it safely.
In the country of welcoming smiles and seemingly non-confrontational culture, widespread homophobia is its best-kept secret.
Check out how Chiang Mai Pride 2019 looked like in our image gallery: