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There is no heaven for LGBTI here: torture of LGBTI in Thai society and in the world context

“There was once a male student accused of physically assaulting a gay guy he had never known … well, he’s a man you know. Strolling around and spotting something irritating, something unusual, he couldn’t stand it. He had to throw a punch and kick for a round or two, to teach them that it’s not right to live like that in front of us men. … I was one of the committee, I tried to bend the rules looking for loopholes for that boy to get deducted the least number of points, because if it was me, I would probably deal with these gays many times harder than he did.”

 “Gays shouldn’t be allowed to study, they should go and fix themselves first.”

 “As for butches, if they got forced by men a few times I bet they would get addicted, change their ways, and go back to being women.”

A teacher at the Faculty of Education, Chulalongkorn University

Since 16 January 2019, many people have come out to protest against the vindictive ideas towards LGBTI [1] of a lecturer in Educational Psychology and Psychology for Teachers at the Faculty of Education, Chulalongkorn University. The above quotes were taken from a voice clip that was published online, spoken by the said lecturer. The content was mainly about supporting and agreeing to violence, torture, cruel treatment and discrimination towards LGBTI [2]. Students who had previously taken his class came out to confirm on social media that the quotes are true. In addition, a female transgender student revealed that she was once blocked by this teacher from entering the classroom and reprimanded for not wearing the male student uniform, as well as being told right to her face that, “The one who has mental problems isn’t me […] How lucky you are that the psychiatrist didn’t send you to get treatment or get electroshock therapy like in the past. How good is it of the Faculty of Education to still allow you to come study and not send you to the mental hospital.” [3]

If we evaluate this event superficially, many people may think this is a problem of personal opinion, and so solving the problem is limited just to dealing with an individual, such as setting up a committee to investigate the teacher [4]. However, since around 1980, many gender studies academics have used a second wave feminist concept of “The personal is political” to explain that homophobia and transphobia are not just “personal opinions”, but the product of a heteronormative society which is full of inequality between heterosexuals and LGBTI [5]. If we use this concept to evaluate what happened, we can consider what this teacher said not as just a “personal opinion” but like a ‘pass’ that justifies violence towards LGBTI. Not only that, it turns that violence into something normal or amusing.

As a researcher working on torture, I observed that what the teacher supported, whether physical assaults on LGBTI, rape for the sake of changing someone’s gender, or forcing LGBTI to be treated for ‘sexual deviation’, are serious violations of human rights that fit the definition of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment (called ‘cruel treatment’ for short) according to international law. Importantly, these things don’t just exist in the imagination of this teacher, but are the reality that is happening everywhere in Thai society, which is why his words are a mirror that reflects the structural issue of violence that LGBTI in Thailand have to face. Even though setting up mechanisms to investigate the behaviour of this teacher is very important in checking the facts and bringing him to justice if he is guilty, focusing only on individuals may be solving only the symptoms of the problem and makes us overlook the structural problems. Also the opportunity is lost to protest against the various forms of violence towards LGBTI through the frame of torture and cruel treatment, starting from an analysis of international human rights principles related to torturing LGBTI. I will now talk about the context of torture and cruel treatment towards LGBTI in Thailand and the importance of campaigning against torture of LGBTI at the end. 

What is torture and how is it related to LGBTI?

“Torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

Article 1, Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)

International law on torture was written to deal with the problem of the violation of human rights happening mainly to men. Juan Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment from 2010 to 2016, pointed out this problem in his 2017 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The evolution of torture law didn’t take into consideration power relations in a society of patriarchy and heteronormativity, leading to violence towards women and LGBTI. In the past, there were no mechanisms in place to protect people from torture on the basis of their sexuality and gender [6]. Nevertheless, the definition of torture is dynamic and changes all the time. Before, torture was limited to only cruel treatment for obtaining information or confession or punishment. As time passed, the meaning became broader and also included cruel treatment for intimidation or discrimination [7]. This led to the definition provided in the CAT, the main law on this topic at present (a summary of the definition is provided in the graphic below). Even then, the addition of the concept of discrimination was the starting point for experts from the United Nations, academics and activists from all over the world to start paying attention to the violation of human rights of LGBTI in terms of torture and cruel treatment [8].

In 2001, Sir Nigel S. Rodley, then Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, started to observe that the ‘sexual minority’ or LGBTI are often the victims of torture and cruel treatment, especially sexual harassment [9]. Not long after that, in 2008, the UN Committee Against Torture started to see the importance of the torture of LGBTI. They emphasised in General Comment No. 2 the importance of the non-discrimination principles in CAT and confirmed that using violence towards minorities and marginalised persons based on discrimination is considered torture under international human rights law [10]. The Committee also indicated that LGBTI and transgender people are considered marginalised and at risk of torture [11]. In addition, the Committee said that the torturer doesn’t need to be a public official or an individual in an official position; if the state fails to investigate an act of violence based on gender and allows the offender to go free, that would be equal to the state supporting and conniving at torture, and is considered a violation of the obligations of the CAT [12].

After that, the United Nations’ international human rights mechanisms gave increasing importance to torture of LGBTI. For example, the UN Committee Against Torture stated in General Comment No. 4 in 2017 that CAT state parties are prohibited from forcibly returning refugees to their countries of origin, if those persons are in danger and at risk of torture on the basis of discrimination in gender [13]. In addition, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has started to accept complaints through special procedures on torture of LGBTI in various countries and issued letters to those governments, requesting them to explain the violations of human rights that have occurred. For example:     

On 3 April 2019, Brunei announced the enforcement of the Syariah Penal Code Order which allows authorities to whip, imprison or even execute Muslim homosexuals by stoning [14]. The Special Rapporteur on Torture then sent a joint letter with UN experts in other fields of human rights to the Brunei government to warn them that this law is in conflict with Brunei’s obligations under many international laws such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  • On 11 February 2019, the Special Rapporteur sent a similar letter to the Russian government to express his concerns on the illegal detention of 40 lesbians and gays in the Chechen Republic and the cruel torture inflicted on them; beatings, electroshocks, starvation, and forcing men to wear women’s clothes to humiliate them, etc. At least 2 people died in detention. Since 2018, Chechen officials have openly supported the killing of LGBTI family members to protect family honour (honour killings). Detention and torture are only part of ongoing practices long used to deal with LGBTI in the republic. The Special Rapporteur then demanded that the Russian government come out to explain the truth and state what measures they have taken to protect LGBTI that have fallen victim to torture and to punish the offenders [15].

Even though these letters are not legally binding, they are excellent tools that activists in various countries can use to campaign and build diplomatic pressure on governments. An example of a successful case is on 6 May 2019, when the Brunei government, after being pressured from various countries, declared that they will not execute homosexuals [16]. Even though this decision did not happen directly because of the UN letter to the Brunei government, it can be considered as an important part in creating the pressure and encouraging people worldwide to protest against this law until they succeeded. This is an important step in the evolution of international human rights law that started by using the frame of torture and cruel treatment to explain the violations of the human rights of LGBTI.

LGBTI as victims of torture in Thai society

Thailand isn’t “the heaven of LGBTI” as many understand. Human rights activists, academics and the general LGBTI population have come out to challenge the myth that Thailand’s prosperous tourism and entertainment businesses for LGBTI can be an indicator that Thai society is open to sexual diversity [17]. In reality, even though Thailand doesn’t have any law that criminalizes homosexuality like some countries, LGBTI still face structural inequalities that force them into lower economic and social status compared to heterosexuals. In addition, many people have negative stereotypes of LGBTI, especially transgender people, leading to widespread discrimination in Thai society, as can be seen from the case of the Chulalongkorn University teacher mentioned earlier. This kind of discrimination leads to various forms of violence that will eventually fall under torture and cruel treatment towards LGBTI [18].

From these references to the types of violence towards LGBTI which have been certified by the UN as torture (details above) [19], I found that many occur in Thailand. Examples with sufficient supporting information are compiled below.

1. “Lady boy = criminal”: use of violence against transgender women detainees 

Transgender women in Thai society are often stereotyped in a negative way as troublemakers, criminals, or people with higher sexual needs than normal, and they are often the target of illegal threats, arrest and detention. For example, in April 2017, volunteer police in Pattaya were reported to have arrested and physically harmed a transgender woman, accusing her of being a ‘prostitute’ [20]. During the arrest, the transgender woman was also at high risk of sexual harassment since transgender women are seen as people with high sexual needs, and so sexual harassment is justified, something normal or even amusing. In addition, after they are imprisoned, transgender women are often at risk of sexual harassment, torture and cruel treatment [21]. For example, iLaw has presented data on violence toward transgender prisoners, whether sexual harassment by male prisoners or prison guards, forced strip searches, etc. [22]

From its monitoring and observation of torture worldwide since 1977, the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT) revealed that more LGBTI are detained or arrested in proportion to their numbers than heterosexuals [23]. Expressed as a mathematical function for easier understanding, it would be:

“No. of LGBTI imprisoned : All LGBTI > No. of heterosexuals imprisoned : All heterosexuals”

Even though Thailand has no law criminalizing LGBTI, they are still at risk of discrimination, such as getting expelled from home by their family or neglected, being bullied in educational institutions, being refused jobs, etc. These social conditions prevent LGBTI from realising their full potential due to lack of opportunity and material, mental and financial support from their families. They do not have the same educational opportunities as others, are not able to work according to their capabilities and are pushed into illegal occupations such as prostitution for survival. Because of this, the ratio of LGBTI that are arrested and detained is higher than heterosexuals. In addition, news of LGBTI being arrested is often reported with prejudice towards their gender, linking the criminal’s gender to crime, which reinforces hate and discrimination against LGBTI. This will lead to the start of the cycle, putting LGBTI at greater risk of getting detained than usual (see picture above). During detention or imprisonment is when LGBTI, especially transgender women, often fall victim to torture and cruel treatment.    

2. “Mending butches, fixing femmes” “changing butches back to girls”: a discourse of violence that isn’t just words

 “Mending butches, fixing femmes” (Lit: kae thom som di) and “changing butches back to girls” (Lit: plian thom hai pen thoe) are concepts where many people in Thai society, especially heterosexual men, believe that if butches, femmes and lesbians had sexual intercourse with men they would be able to change or “cure” their gender into becoming heterosexuals. These phrases aren’t just for fun but are a discourse with influence in producing and justifying sexual violence towards women with sexual diversity. Even though there are no formal statistics collected or available to the public, the general public can see from news reports that rape and rape-murders often occur in Thai society [24]. This kind of rape as an attempt to change sexual orientation is considered a form of violation of human rights directed specifically at LGBTI, especially at lesbians, butches and femmes and falls under torture [25].

3. Killing with hate: murders of transgender people in Thailand

The hate-motivated murder of transgender people occurs in no small number in Thailand. The Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide project monitors and collects statistics on transgender murders worldwide and shows that between 2008 and June 2016 no less than 14 transgender people were killed [26]. In addition, there was the forced disappearance and horrifying murder of a butch that occurred on 13 December 2016 [27]. I believe that the statistics are only preliminary data. From speaking with LGBTI activists, I found that records of LGBTI murders (not only transgenders) are difficult, since Thailand does not have laws prohibiting hate crimes. This is why investigating officers often don’t include data on gender in the case file, and many cases that have occurred are not recorded. However, if a hate crime can be proven, the UN will consider it torture [28]

4. Ordination, dhamma camps, psychiatric hospitals: forced therapy and treatment to fix gender

Many Buddhist Thais believe that being born LGBTI is the result of bad deeds done in a previous life, causing a number of parents to send their gay or transgender sons into the monkhood or dhamma camps to fix their gender. Statistics from the Foundation for SOGI Rights and Justice in 2012 revealed that more than 2.5% LGBTI teenagers have faced such an experience. In addition, at the end of 2018 there were reports of dhamma camps being used to mentally torture participants to change their gender [29]. From the same data in 2012, the Foundation for SOGI Rights and Justice found that 1.3% of LGBTI teenagers were forced to receive psychiatric treatment. The belief that LGBTI is a mental illness is due to the compulsory education curriculum which still teaches Thai students that LGBTI or ‘sexual deviation problems’ are a disgusting mental problem. Even though the curriculum has been amended, many textbooks still adhere to such beliefs [30].

Forcing LGBTI to get ‘treatment’ in this manner is a kind of violence, since the treatment often involves cruel and brutal physical and mental methods against those receiving treatment, such as electroshocks, physical assaults, forced sexual intercourse with the opposite sex and mental torture. It therefore falls under torture according to international law [31].

Joining a campaign against LGBTI torture

This article is intended to show that the words of the Chulalongkorn University teacher quoted above are only a mirror reflecting the torture and cruel treatment towards LGBTI in Thai society which is widespread but not often mentioned. Even though there are activists and human rights organisations consistently monitoring, keeping watch and collecting data on violations of LGBTI rights, it is unfortunate that the data is not often analysed through the frame of torture and cruel treatment. This means that research data is considerably dispersed and out of date. Analysing the data through a frame of torture and cruel treatment will help increase opportunities for those working to protect LGBTI rights to campaign and oppose violence towards LGBTI. The reasons are:

  1. Although no international convention related directly to LGBTI rights exists, there is a convention on torture. Importantly, Thailand is a party to this convention and has the obligation to (1) investigate allegations of torture when they receive a complaint; (2) enforce measures to provide redress and compensation for victims of torture; (3) start legal procedures against those who commit torture. This is therefore thought to be a good opportunity to use existing mechanisms for benefit.
  2. Many human rights organisations are trying to push forward a law on the prevention and suppression of torture and enforced disappearances. This law can be used as a tool to protect LGBTI from violence and bring offenders to justice.
  3. There are numerous international mechanisms on torture with an interest in gender. Collecting and reporting data to these mechanisms will help increase the efficiency of LGBTI rights campaigns and increase pressure on the government to halt violence against LGBTI. 
  4. Organisations working on LGBTI and those working on torture can cooperate in the shared goal of stopping all forms of violence. Cooperation will strengthen campaigns.

For this reason, I hope that this article will be of help in encouraging LGBTI activists to come out, work and campaign against torture, no matter how big or small.

References

[1] The abbreviation LGBTI stands for ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex’. I understand that this abbreviation is limited and does not cover all genders, which are fluid and diverse. Therefore this article uses LGBTI only to refer to those with diverse sexuality, which has a broader meaning.

[2] View the full clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgDaU7hpV1I&fbclid=IwAR2KmjPEyntyuS2NgBM...

[3] Voice TV, “Overview – Students reveal being gender discrimination by Chula teacher and being chased out of the classroom for ‘being a lady boy’. For further details, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HWc3lfWldw

[4] See for example Chulalongkorn University students’ campaign on change.org “Demanding the Faculty of Education, Chulalongkorn University to examine gender discrimination behaviour in Niran Sangsawat’s class” at http://bit.ly/2WmHqnK 

[5] See further examples of academic works that question homophobia or transphobia as a “personal opinion” at Kitzinger, Celia (1987) The Social Construction of Lesbianism. London: SAGE; Plummer, Ken (1981) ‘Homosexual Categories: Some Research Problems in the Labelling Perspective of Homosexuality’, in the books Ken Plummer (ed.) The Making of the Modern Homosexual, pp. 53–75. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble Books; Vidal-Ortiz, Salvador (2008) ‘Introduction to Retheorizing Homophobias’; and Einarsdóttir, Anna, et al. (2015) “‘It’s Nothing Personal’: Anti-Homosexuality in the British Workplace.”

[6] “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” (A/HRC/31/57), 5 January 2016, paragraph 5, accessible at https://undocs.org/en/A/HRC/31/57. Many international law academics also proposed similar concepts and have started to apply queer theory and feminism to the research question of how heteronormativity affects the evolution of international law and what can they do to change international law to protect the rights of LGBTI. Examples are Hagen, Jamie J., “Queering women, peace and security,” International Affairs 92: 2 (2016) pages 313–332. or “Queering International Law” which collects conversations on this topic, accessible at http://ypinaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Wilde__Ralph__Queering_...

[7] For the evolution of the interpretation of torture and cruel treatment, see Perez-Sales, Paul, Psychological Torture: Definition, Evaluation, and Measurement, 2560, pages 4-7.

[8] There are no clear criteria used to distinguish categories of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, but most academics and experts often use factors such as intentions and goals to indicate whether violence is torture or only cruel treatment. This article mainly uses the term torture since occurrences of LGBTI torture often have a clear goal to discriminate, and so becomes aligned with the definition of torture.

[9] “Question of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (A/56/156), Fifty-sixth session, Item 132 (a) of the preliminary list, 3 July 2001, paragraph 17, accessible at: https://undocs.org/en/A/56/156

[10] Committee Against Torture, “General Comment No. 2,” 24 January 2551, paragraph 20, accessible at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/47ac78ce2.html

[11] Reference in paragraph 21

[12] Committee Against Torture, “General Comment No. 2,” 24 January 2008, paragraph 18

[13] Committee against Torture “General Comment No. 4 (2017) on the implementation of article 3 of the Convention in the context of article 22”, accessible at https://www.refworld.org/docid/5a903dc84.html

[14] The verdict has many details. Further information can be read from the letter to the Brunei government from experts in the UN’s special mechanisms, Reference no. OL BRN 1/2019, accessible at https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicatio...

[15] See more from the letter written by experts from the UN’s special mechanisms to the Russian government, Reference no. UA RUS 1/2019, accessible at https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicatio...

[16] Al Jazeera, “Brunei halts plan to punish gay sex with death by stoning” 6 May 2019, accessible at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/brunei-halts-plan-punish-gay-sex-...

[17] Read more on the myth that Thailand is a “gay paradise” in the article:  Jackson, Peter A. “Tolerant But Unaccepting: The Myth of a Thai ‘Gay Paradise’”.  In the book; Peter A. Jackson and Nerida M. Cook (ed.), Gender and Sexualities in Modern Thailand (1999).  Page 226-242. Article; “Land of lady boys? Thailand is not the LGBTI paradise it appears” published in South China Morning Post accessible at: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/lifestyle-culture/article/2163544/land-la...

[18] This analytical approach originated from the report of Victor Madrigal-Borloz, an independent UN expert on violence and discrimination based on gender and gender identity, which explained that this form of discrimination is an important condition leading to the later torture and cruel treatment of LGBTI . “Report of the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity” (A/HRC/38/43) 11 May 2018, paragraph 49, accessible at https://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/HRC/38/43

[19] I summarised the details on the forms of violence towards LGBTI which falls under torture from many reports issued by the UN which were referenced earlier: A/HRC/38/43, A/56/156, and A/HRC/31/57, including “Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and International Human Rights Law: Practitioner Guide No.4 (2009), manual of the International Commission of Jurists on the application of international law on gender, accessible at: https://www.icj.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/sexual-orientation-intern...

[20] Prachatai, “‘Lady boy rights organisation’ calls on officials-media to stop labelling-discriminating against lady boys and transgenders in Pattaya” [in Thai] at https://prachatai.com/journal/2017/04/71207

[21] See page 54, “Legal gender certification in Thailand: law and policy review” https://www.undp.org/content/dam/rbap/docs/Research%20&%20Publications/h...(Thai).pdf

[22] Read further at iLaw, “Stories of LGBTI in prison (male)” [in Thai], accessible at: https://ilaw.or.th/node/3088?fbclid=IwAR2LBAO2m6MzFNk2W3dLTO4a1LM7cFZt-1...

[23] Association for the Prevention of Torture, “Towards the Effective Protection of LGBTI Persons Deprived of Liberty: A Monitoring Guide” (2018), page 21-22, accessible at: https://www.apt.ch/content/files_res/apt_20181204_towards-the-effective-...

[24] Examples of news reports in 2018 can be found at Sanook, “Butch raped by uncle, 6 months pregnant, rapist says he wanted her to like men again” [in Thai] 11 January 2018, accessible at https://www.sanook.com/news/4940046/; Komchadluk, “"Butch" sues perverted teacher for rape !!!” [in Thai] 19 July 2018, accessible at: http://www.komchadluek.net/news/crime/335437; and Inn News, “Police arrest male for raping butch before murder and hiding the body in Pathum” [in Thai] 19 June 2018, accessible at https://www.innnews.co.th/crime/news_115186/.

[25] “Report of the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity” (A/HRC/31/57), 5 January 2016, paragraph 57, accessible at: https://undocs.org/en/A/HRC/31/57

[26] Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide, “Trans Murder Monitoring Absolute numbers (2008 - June 2016)” accessible at: https://transrespect.org/en/map/trans-murder-monitoring/

[27] Read further at iLaw “‘Butch kidnapped and killed’ a reflection of sexual prejudice to mysterious violence” [in Thai] at https://ilaw.or.th/node/4398

[28] “Discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity” (A/HRC/19/41), 17 November 2011, paragraph 57, accessible at https://undocs.org/A/HRC/19/41

[29] Khaosod, “Man reveals dhamma camp forces participation, terrible psychological health, causes younger brother to see psychiatrist and take medicine his whole life!” [in Thai] at https://www.khaosod.co.th/monitor-news/news_1872421

[30] Posttoday, “Health education textbook content says “Do not make friends with gay-third gender’ ”, [in Thai] accessible at: https://www.posttoday.com/social/general/566501

[31] Previous reference. A/HRC/19/41, paragraph 48