Thailand’s LGBTQ+ community attracts tourists from China looking to be themselves
BANGKOK (AP) — Xinyu Wen traveled to Thailand in June, planning a two-week vacation around Bangkok’s Pride parade.
Instead, the 28-year-old stayed for a month and a half, where her experience on the show sparked discussions and discoveries in the Thai capital’s thriving LBGTQ+ community.
LGBTQ+ people from China, often disdained and ostracized at home, are coming to Thailand in droves, attracted by the freedom to be themselves. As Wen walked along the parade through the streets of Bangkok, “I felt like I was at a big party or in a huge theme park. We can forget all the annoying things and just have fun,” she said.
Bangkok is only a 5-hour flight from Beijing, and Thailand’s tourism authorities are actively promoting their position as among the most open to the LGBTQ+ community in the region.
Wen became interested in Thailand when her friend sent her a photo of rainbow-colored Pride-themed ice cream sold on the streets.
“I wanted to go to Thailand to have a look,” she said.
Wynn describes herself as queer, which means, she says, that her partners can be of any gender and she can be of any gender. At home, Wen said she regularly faces stares in the street because she keeps her hair short like a man’s, and her barber once asked her: “What happened to your life?”
But at the Bangkok Pride Parade in June, Wen noticed that people confidently wore whatever they wanted. She was excited to be able to express herself publicly and finally let her guard down. Furthermore, she said she was also impressed by the protest element of the event, where people carried signs written in traditional Chinese with slogans such as “China does not have an LGBTQ community” and “Freedom is what we deserve.”
“I felt mixed emotions, affected but sad,” she said.
Before her trip, she read about the situation in Thailand, and found reports that showed there was still widespread discrimination, especially in the workplace. Thailand does not recognize same-sex couples or marriage, which also means they are prohibited from adopting children, and other legal procedures that straight couples can access.
Wen arrived at the show somewhat skeptical. But in the end, she found it empowering.
“Although I initially had a critical attitude toward the show in Bangkok because discrimination against members of the LGBT community has not disappeared, I still feel inspired that neglected groups and repressed feelings matter here.”
LGBTQ+ tourists are considered “high potential” because they tend to spend more and travel more frequently than other visitors, said Apichai Chachalermkit, a Tourism Authority of Thailand official, in an Aug. 9 article in The Nation.
He said: “Using the image of LGBT people in tourism advertisements is considered a warm welcome without discrimination.”
Thailand does not keep numbers on the number of tourists from the LGBTQ+ community. But as of mid-August, the number of Chinese tourists reached 2.2 million out of a total of 16 million.
Many also come to stay, said Owen Chu, a gay real estate agent in Bangkok who sells homes to Chinese clients. He estimates that about two-thirds of his clients are from the LGBTQ+ community, many of whom are purchasing apartments to live in part or full time.
“Among Chinese gays, Thailand is called a gay paradise,” he said, noting that there are many chat groups where gay men from China coordinate trips to Thailand and exchange information about concerts and event tickets.
Being gay is not illegal in China, although other Asian countries have strict laws around homosexuality – such as Malaysia, which announced in August that anyone who owns an LGBTQ+-themed watch could face up to 3 years in prison. But people from China’s LGBTQ+ community face other pressures to conform that can make free expression of their identities difficult.
As a lesbian in her conservative province in central China, Jade Yang was persuaded to marry a gay man at her parents’ request so they could both keep up appearances.
The 28-year-old, who works in the television industry, visited Thailand for the first time four years ago, and remembers being shocked to hear people talking so casually about their gay partners. Yang hated lying to her cousins and friends about marriage, and moved to Thailand in February, saying she wanted to distance herself from her hometown.
She said that now she can date women she likes and focus on her studies and career without worrying about how to act as a straight woman.
“I’ve wasted a lot of time over the last three years,” she said. “After coming here, I feel like the world is too big for me to explore. I’ve also learned that I shouldn’t deny who I am so easily, and love myself better.
At Silver Sand gay bar in Bangkok, owner Adisak Wongwaikankha said about 30% of his customers are LGBTQ+ people from China, and that number is growing.
He runs a bar on the ground floor and a drag show on the second floor.
“Most of our Chinese customers come with enthusiasm and curiosity,” he said.
Another draw for tourists, both inside and outside the LGBTQ+ community, is Thailand’s loose enforcement of prostitution laws and its popular nightclub shows.
Eros Lee first came to Thailand last February to check out the nightlife and massage parlors, many of which offer sexual services. The 42-year-old returned two months later, saying that although there are some spas in China where similar sexual services are offered, they are less difficult to access and there is a risk of arrest.
“The LGBTQ community in Thailand is very vibrant and open. I receive many messages on gay dating apps every day, which makes me happy,” he told me.
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