11 July 2024

“I already decided for myself that I have to live a happy life, to prove that, even though I’m an LGBTQ person and a mother, I can still be happy. This is one form of activism for me. Why do I have to allow these societal norms to take control of my life?”

An LGBTQ activist, a professor, a mother and bisexual, meet Anticha Sangchai, as she talks about the underlying challenges for LGBTQ people in Thai society, which eventually pushed her into advocacy for gender diversity.

It all began over 10 years ago, when she realised that she’s bisexual. This happened back when she was a university lecturer at the Prince of Songkhla University, in Thailand’s southernmost province of Pattani.

“When I realised that I can also fall in love with someone of the same sex, not just someone from the opposite sex, I began trying to understand who I really am,” said Anticha.

In those days, the social stigma experienced by LGBTQ people was ingrained in Thai society, as information and stories about gender were not widely available, compared to today. Therefore, many people did not understand how same-sex couples could live their lives or where they could find help and emotional support.

“That was how it started,” she says. “When I was trying to understand who I really am, I realised that I needed a friend, a community, or simply knowing how these people live their lives or what they are doing, so that I could understand myself and how I can continue with my life. That was when I realised what I can do more for society.”

Her first step into advocacy was when she became a volunteer in organisations such as the Anjaree Foundation, which was one of a very few organisations that worked for LGBTQ rights at the time. This eventually developed her into an activist for gender diversity, especially in the deep south.

Although Thailand’s southernmost provinces are dominated by Muslim communities, which strongly oppose same-sex marriage, Anticha says that people in those areas are as gender diverse as in Bangkok, and other cities that have large LGBTQ communities. 

Despite that, LGBTQ people in the deep south are still subject to marginalisation and mistreatment, as well as being condemned for their sexual orientation, as if they are ‘committing a sin’.

This was when she realised that knowledge about gender diversity and equality was desperately lacking, which eventually inspired her to establish a small community for LGBTQ people, to increase awareness of the existence of gender diverse communities in the deep south.

“LGBTQ people there did not have a safe community, or even a space for them to know other LGBTQ people,” Anticha explains. “[What we did] was not just provide a safe space, but a space in which they can seek information and, in those days, information about gender diversity wasn’t widely available in the Thai language. We also raised awareness about LGBTQ communities and how we can help these people.”

Image Courtesy: Anticha Sangchai

Confronting social bias

Being an activist for LGBTQ rights, during times when gender diversity was almost unrecognised in Thai culture, was already a tough challenge. Navigating the social bias, however, was not as complicated as confronting the bias in her own family.

Anticha recalled when she opened up to her family about her sexual orientation and that she decided to divorce her husband, to be with her female partner. Knowing that they were either angry or disappointed, she admitted that explaining to them until they truly understood her was an extremely difficult task.

“At first, my mother could not accept it, but I endured,” Anticha explains as she recounts her struggle. “I also felt that, if I don’t stand up for who I really am inside, I would have to live my life being confined in these gender norms in which society forces me to be, which is not me at all.”

Many questions also popped into her head, especially as Anticha herself also has a daughter. Among her inner fears was how she, as a mother, and also an LGBTQ person, would be perceived, especially by children.

“I was in pain,” she said. “If I’m in pain, how would I be able to take care of someone so they can be happy? Especially because I’m a mother myself. If I’m an unhappy mother, how can I raise my daughter to live happily?”

In a way, her family’s disapproval largely stemmed from the underlying gender bias in Thai culture, mostly rooted in the patriarchy, which is what Anticha believes remains an obstacle for people like her. As she explains, the patriarchy often defines restrictive gender roles for women to follow and women are often expected to become a “good” mother or a “good” housewife, which she thinks is no different from a curse.

“The significant part of the patriarchy is having power over others and there are standards of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, which often says that one gender is right more than the other. This persists in every circle of society, whether it’s politics, education, religion or families, which is intense,” she opines.

In a way, such beliefs have led to how bisexuals were perceived in the past. Among the negative stereotypes that Anticha encountered was that bisexuals are all promiscuous.

“It’s just like how people nowadays do not understand why certain people call themselves non-binary and why can’t they just choose one or the other,” Anticha explains.

“Being bisexual is just a sexual preference. It does not tell you what bisexuals normally look like nor how they dress. People like you or me can be bisexual. They are not like lesbians, gays or transgender people, which you could tell straightaway from their characteristics.”

Luckily, Anticha’s daughter, who is now in her teens, truly understands and accepts her for her chosen gender, which is in line with today’s society, one which is more accepting of gender diversity and equality. This, she says, is a huge relief for her, as she says she can live her life freely, without the need to hide her true self. Anticha thanked her ex-husband’s family, who have raised her daughter “really well”.

“My ex-husband’s family never says bad things about me or judges me,” she said, adding that this allows her to strengthen her bond with her own daughter while being her true self.

“My daughter asked me a lot, and I would be honest with her. I would never say one thing and do the opposite. When she was about 3 or 4 years old, she would often ask me who “that woman” was. So, I would tell her honestly that she’s my partner.”

Image Courtesy: Anticha Sangchai

Marriage equality, but what about LGBTQ families?

Even though Thai society is now much more accepting of gender diversity, what Anticha thinks needs to be clarified is the law related to LGBTQ families. She feels that the marriage equality bill only approves marriage between LGBTQ couples, but does not ensure the right to establish their own families or legally recognise them as parents.

“How the law defines the term ‘mother’ and ‘father’ is a huge limitation for LGBTQ people who want to start a family,” she explains, adding “Those who are non-binary are not mothers or fathers. So, let’s say, this same-sex couple are both women, only one of them can be legally considered a mother.”

Anticha also noted how the current law defines the meaning of ‘parents’, which is currently restricted to only biological mothers and fathers.

“The existing law aims to protect children, but the problem is that it does not always reflect reality. It’s much more complicated than that. How the law only defines parents to be egg or sperm owners is very shallow. If the law only defines parents this way, there will be more and more problems, and children in LGBTQ families will never be protected by law.”

Amid the underlying challenges, but on the brighter side, this gender diversity activist has witnessed significant changes in Thai society over the past decade. For this, she gives huge credit to many senior LGBTQ activists for their continuous fight for their fundamental rights, back when gender equality was barely discussed in the mass media.

“These activists worked very hard for decades to fight against the negative stereotypes [against LGBTQ people]. That was echoed in the media. Now society has improved, so we have to thank those activists, who are now in their 60s or 70s, because it has been a long battle [for the LGBTQ community],” Anticha said.

Listen to your heart

Having gone through a series of struggles, Anticha openly admits that the stress from working as an activist took a toll on her mental health. Eventually, she found her way to self-healing. Now she has become a “spiritual counsellor” and “energy healer” to help her students. At the same time, she is also working as a professor at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Learning Sciences and Education.

In a way, being an LGBTQ activist has given her a better perspective on how oppressive gender roles can impact the way people perceive themselves, and how she can help people heal from their own struggles and pain.

“Having been through these experiences first hand enables me to understand things a lot better, especially how gender plays a role in someone’s life and emotions,” she explains.

The most common issue that the spiritual counsellor found while healing her students is that they don’t realise their own worth and that they deserve to be loved. She noticed that many people are raised to love and take care of others, but not how to take care of themselves, which is the most essential part of living a happy life.

“Many people experience that, especially women who have been raised in a box, which tells women that they should be caregivers, taking good care of their family and others. When you’re also expected to be a good mother, your true identity will completely vanish,” she explains.

“When it comes to LGBTQ people, it is much more complicated. For them, it’s not only about being loved or not. Their parents may love them but hate them for who they are, because they could not live up to their expectations. This has led to them not believing in love or not loving themselves enough.”

As to what she would like to say to help others find their way to self-love, despite having to struggle through difficulties in life, the best way is to listen to your heart, and most importantly, don’t be so hard on yourself.

“As an activist, we have seen [unfair] policies, laws and even violence [against LGBTQ people]. We had to confront the attitudes of our own family members, colleagues and society, but at least we should fight for ourselves,” she advises.

“At least listen to your own heart and be kind to yourself, so that you have time to pause, to breathe and heal yourself, to realise who you really are and the true meaning of you being alive. I believe that everyone can be their own healer. Just listen to yourself, calm yourself down and slow down for a bit, I think this will help a lot.”

By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World