BANGKOK, April 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Tanwarin Sukkhapisit’s film about life as a transgender father was banned for “violating the moral values of society”, it spurred the self-taught filmmaker to join politics - and become Thailand’s first transgender member of parliament.
Tanwarin spent five years battling in court before the 2010 film “Insects in the Backyard” - which had been shown widely internationally - was approved for Thai audiences aged 20 and above after a three-second nudity scene was cut.
“This case is one of the reasons I joined politics, so I can have a say in legislation,” said Tanwarin who identifies as non-binary and plans to fight for the amendment of Thailand’s Film and Video Act.
“Film is such an important medium to tell stories such as these, to show LGBT+ people are just normal people,” said Tanwarin, dressed in denim cut-off shorts, a blazer and a bright orange scarf.
Final results of Thailand’s disputed March 24 election - its first since a 2014 military coup - are not due until May 9, but the poll was significant for the number of LGBT+ candidates, including the first transgender contender for prime minister.
The largely conservative Buddhist society has built a reputation as a place with a relaxed attitude towards gender and sexual diversity since homosexuality was decriminalised in 1956.
Yet LGBT+ people face widespread discrimination and are often rejected by their families, activists say.
Transgender people are not allowed to change their gender on identity cards, while transgender women are addressed with the derogatory term of “katoey” and cannot legally marry or adopt children.
Tanwarin did not know just how important the decision to run as a candidate for the progressive new Future Forward Party was until dozens of LGBT+ youth turned up at a campaign rally to hear Tanwarin speak.
“They were very emotional, and told me they did not think they would see someone like them standing for election, and talking about issues that mattered to them,” Tanwarin said in an interview in the party’s Bangkok office.
“That gave me strength and inspiration to push on. We need more people to fight for LGBT rights and I am happy to do that.”
Tanwarin’s youth-orientated party made a surprisingly strong showing, coming in third with 6.2 million votes and joining an opposition alliance that will try to form a government and block junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha from staying in power.
Luke Cassady-Dorion, who hosts a YouTube channel on LGBT+ issues in Thailand, believes Tanwarin’s win heralds change.
“LGBT+ acceptance in Thailand has been limited to a handful of jobs - hair stylists and entertainers, mostly - that are not considered serious or threatening. So Tanwarin’s election victory is really groundbreaking,” he said.
“Having any sort of minority in a position of power is very powerful, because they have been on the receiving end of discrimination themselves, and are able to better fight for the rights of all minorities.”
Another piece of legislation that Tanwarin wants to change is the country’s Civil and Common Law, which describes marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Thailand has drafted a landmark civil partnership bill that would legally recognise same-sex couples as civil partners. But Tanwarin and other LGBT+ activists protest that the bill does not grant marriage equality.
Government officials have said LGBT+ people cannot marry until the country’s Civil and Common Law is amended, and people’s perceptions change.
But two-thirds of Thais have no objection to same-sex unions, according to a survey by the United Nations Development Programme.
“Only amending the law to ‘person’ instead of man or woman will guarantee true LGBT equality,” said Tanwarin, who was born in Thailand’s northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima and has faced discrimination from family members.
“Thailand may seem open and tolerant towards LGBT people, but LGBT people are treated as second-class citizens, and transgender people are the third gender.”
The Future Forward Party is in a limbo after its charismatic leader was charged with sedition after the election.
But Tanwarin will not dwell on negative outcomes.
“Regardless of whether I am in government or in the opposition, I will push for gender equality and LGBT rights, and for full freedom of expression,” Tanwarin said.
"Being elected is just the first step." (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)