The Buddhist belief in karma and reincarnation makes Thai society more tolerant of differences and, as a result, the country is very gay-friendly. Sadly though the key phrase is “tolerance“ not “acceptance“. There remain many social taboos against homosexuality, especially in areas outside the major urban centers.
The so-called "ladyboys" or Sao Pra-phed Song (transwoman) have often left behind their families in rural areas from a young age and moved to the cities where there is greater tolerance and acceptance. Despite their high profile in the entertainment industry, they are generally among the lowest paid workers. Many ladyboys, particularly those of a young age are forced to work in poor conditions including the sex industry.
Although Sao Pra-phed Song is mostly accepted in Thai society, there is still much more work to do in terms of equal rights such as recognition of sexual identities, as transgender people cannot legally change their gender on official forms and identification.
It's estimated now there are more than a million Sao Pra-phed Song in Thailand, and Bangkok is the main center for the LGBTQ community in Thailand. Each year, Thailand hosts the Miss International Queen pageant, which is the largest transgender beauty contest in the world. Miss Tiffany's Universe is also another transgender beauty pageant held annually in Pattaya, with a focus on promoting equality and equal rights for members of the Thai transgender community. Aside from being a celebration of the transgender community, taking part in these pageants is life-changing for many contestants, and is an opportunity to show their talents in a safe and inclusive space.
In Thailand, homosexuality wasn't decriminalized until 1956, and in 2005, the Thai Defence Force lifted its ban on LGBTQ people serving in the military.
The type of tolerance afforded to sao praphet song is also afforded to gay men, creating an appearance of openness and wide acceptance. But many ordinary (straight) Thais consider it a “necessary evil“. However, you're unlikely to encounter hostility and homophobia.
Thailand has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world, so use safe sex practices.
Lesbians and transgender women are somewhat less tolerated, perhaps because of gender stereotyping that demands women (despite Thailand‘s infamous bar girls and misunderstood sexual liberalism) should be modest and remain chaste until marriage. Consequently, lesbians adopt a less open attitude, however, it's common to see women (straight or gay) holding hands or linking arms in public.
You might want to read these tips on safe travels for women in Thailand.
The major safety issues affecting gay travelers are the same as those affecting all travelers: petty crime, unsafe roads, and those crazy bucket drinks… with one exception: the HIV rate in Thailand is one of the highest in the world. There is a low and erratic take-up of safe sex practices among men who have sex with men (MSM), injecting drug users, prostitutes, and the general Thai population. The HIV infection rate is especially high among Sao Pra-phed Song sex workers.
In the major urban centers, especially those places frequented by tourists, and in entertainment districts, visiting LGBTQ travelers should have no trouble with being open about their sexuality. There are many gay-friendly hotels, nightclubs, and resorts.
The same is not always true outside of urban areas and it‘s a good idea to be more discrete about your sexuality to avoid unwanted attention and unintended offense. This applies equally to all public displays of affection, no matter what your sexuality.
Homosexuality is legal, and the law is moving slowly towards official recognition of same-sex unions. It really is the land of smiles.
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