Closet of glass, closet of steel
The differences between being LGBT in Thailand and Mexico.
My mother was sobbing when I walked down the stairs.
My mind immediately panicked.
Who died? My grandmother? Someone younger, closer to me?
I was so unprepared for what she said next, I had no time to mask it, to pour out a string of made-up sentences and stories like how I had always pictured in my mind for the moment we had this conversation.
“You and her, you’re sitting a little too close, don’t you think?” she blurted out in between tears.
I broke down sobbing, and that was all the confirmation she needed, and her biggest fears came true.
Holding hands became a crime in my own home.
Our stares had to be calculated, rehearsed, and timed. If we looked into each other’s eyes for too long, my mom would notice my friends and I never lock our glances like that.
A gentle touch of fingers was enough for my mother to realize that the girl sitting beside me at our dinner table wasn’t just my best friend.
Our hands caressing for two seconds broke her whole idea of me: carrying a child, a white dress on a summer day, my father taking me to the altar to give me to another man. Strong shoulders, masculine gaze, taller than me.
When my mother figured out I liked girls, she wept as if someone died.
For many Mexican parents, their worst fears come true when their child comes out of the closet. Mexico is a country with over 130 million people in 2021 according to the World Data Bank. Around 70% of the population identifies as catholic. Their belief in one God, the creation of the world through Adam and Eve, man and woman created for each other, and the seven original sins is so strong that it influences the politics, culture, and traditions of the country.
The official government may be “free of religion”, but the reality is way more complicated than that.
How catholicism views homosexuality
Catholicism believes that God created men and women to complement each other, love each other, and create a strong bond through marriage to carry the lineage of the world’s population by procreating.
Therefore, most believers and priests are against the union of “unholy” couples that don’t fit into this boxset category: two men, two women, non-binary people, etc.
A priest from a Latin American organization who will remain anonymous throughout this article due to ideological differences explained that in order to live a holy life that can later lead to Heaven after you pass away you must follow the steps God left behind in the Bible, a book between 1200 and 165 BC.
The book mentions the main deadly sins all humans should avoid in order to live a fulfilling life that will lead to the correct devotion to God.
“It is just not natural. You look at a man and a woman, and you can see how they can love each other wholly. A man and a man, a woman and a woman, they will never be able to love their partner completely and properly because they do not fit. It can only lead to unsuccessful and sad unions.”
Religion is often the deal breaker in whether a parent will be accepting of their queer child or not. How devoted your family is to Catholicism usually dictates how safe it is for you to come out. Sin is the main thing to avoid as a Catholic, so what do you do if your own kid’s identity is a sin itself?
Luisa is a 21-year-old student in Guadalajara, Mexico, who identifies as queer and non-binary. But her family is extremely religious and has led her to keep her identity secret at least until she doesn’t depend financially on them.
“If I were to tell my mom or my aunt, they would not only kick me out of the house. My life would be in danger. I learned a lot of years ago that they just can’t know for my own safety.”
Her family is one devoted to God. Church every Sunday morning, regular confession visits with the priest, crosses hung on her bedroom walls, living room, and kitchen. This God meant to give connection and love was what made her a threat to her own family.
“I definitely believe that religion made my understanding of gender and sexuality so much harder. I had to get over guilt, over prejudices. One of my cousins came out as a lesbian a few years ago and I had to listen to my family give her death threats. It was a very hard journey”.
Many children in Mexico grow up with Catholic influence, whether it is from their family, their school, or their peers. With homosexuality and exploration in gender expression or sexuality seen as sins that need to be corrected, purified, and regretted, it’s no wonder many queer kids grow up with internalized homophobia, guilt, and hatred toward their own identity.
For Luisa, meeting new people in high school and access to outside resources on the internet, along with her overall questioning of religion, was what allowed her to become at peace with her own identity, even if it means hiding such an important part of herself from her family for her own safety.
Affections in culture
In a country where 70% of people identify with catholicism, churches are everywhere, crosses are seen on living rooms and bedroom walls, and often schools are funded by religious groups, it is a part of the culture whether you’re a believer or not.
One in four kids is in danger of being kicked out of their homes if they come out as part of the LGBT community to their parents. This means many have to find help from their friends or organizations dedicated to helping LGBT youth.
Catholic ideals are instilled in Mexican society, even if you identify as an atheist. The core values of chastity, monogamy, and the role of the strong man and caregiver woman as well as the concept of gender are what people aspire to. If you fall out of any of these boxes, you’re an outsider.
Parents believe that if their child is gay, trans, or anything other than heterosexual, they are wasting their lives. And it is seen in the way they express themselves when they see a gay couple in public, or there is a homosexual kiss scene in a movie.
“I remember one time when I was a child my mother scoffed after seeing two men kiss on TV and saying ‘what a waste. After all these years I remember those words clearly and I think I interiorized that idea.”
Homosexuality in Thailand
“Can’t you try to change?”
When Tanatcha Prakobwanitchakun, a 21-year-old old student in Bangkok who identifies as bisexual, came out of the closet to her family, the first thing they begged was for her to try to change. Couldn’t she try to date boys, to suppress the attraction she felt for girls?
Growing up she did not know there was something different about her. She had a crush on a girl in elementary school, but the suburban area she lived in had little masculine presenting women. She was the only one wearing traditionally “boyish” clothes.
It wasn’t until she moved to Bangkok, with her aunt and her boyfriend, that she met other girls like her in her new school. She felt more comfortable, and fully realized she liked girls too.
As she grew confident in her identity, pictures on her social media garnered comments that caught her parents’ attention.
Girls were calling her handsome, saying she was really cool (a typically masculine compliment in Thai). Finally, they confronted her about it.
“Are you a tomboy? Please don’t.”
She was able to make up an excuse and get herself off the hook. It was incredible to hear how different the atmosphere from her suburban origins changed in the big city. People were in general more accepting, they cared little about how you chose to dress or who you chose to date. So when she got a girlfriend, she was elated.
It was until later that her aunt found out about her relationship. It was a big issue in her home for a few days. Her aunt and she had long talks about it, where they expressed their concern and pleaded with her to try and change. In her aunt’s mind, she was trying to help her and make her life easier, but the idea of your closest family members begging you to change the way you experience love was extremely painful.
Her aunt’s boyfriend also talked to her and expressed his concerns about Tanatcha’s style. She had to be more girly, people would talk or think badly of her if she kept dressing as she did (flannel shirts, pants, and a lack of skirts or dresses). But after a few difficult days of talking, they told her they accepted her as she was.
“Just don’t tell your parents or your granny. That would kill them. It needs to stay a secret.”
Her aunt has expressed again and again that she is just worried for her, and that she doesn’t want her to be discriminated against for being bisexual. She may accept that she has a girlfriend right now, but she still thinks it is not something to flaunt in public.
How Buddhism views homosexuality
Buddhism is a set of beliefs implemented by the teachings of Gautama Buddha. They believe that Gautama Buddha was the five-hundredth incarnation of a single being and the stories of these 500 lives are collectively known as the Jataka. According to a 2022 Stanford University article on religious studies in Asia, this religion spread and changed as it moved from India to Thailand, to China.
Information from the latest population census in 2014 provided by the National Statistical Office of Thailand state that “85 to 95 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and 5 to 10 percent Muslim.”
This religion is based not necessarily on a god, but on a teacher with a set of rules that will help people. According to Buddhist monk Samuhaworakun Suhadcho (พระครูสมุห์วรขันธ์ สุหชฺโช) from the Bung Thong Lang temple in Bangkok,
“Buddhism is a religion that is concerned about having a reason which is you get what you do (karma). You do good, you get good. You do bad, you get bad.”
The teacher, Buddha, does not expect people to fully trust his words or do exactly as he says. Rather it is in the hope that through dharma, they will find their own way to do the right thing. Buddhism lies in the fact that suffering is part of human nature and one must do as many good actions as one can.
In this sense, Samuhaworakun Suhadcho mentions that it is stated that people who like the same gender are not normal. Since they believe in reincarnation, some often believe that these people were sinners in their past lives.
Despite this, he also says:
“However, there is no restriction for those who are unconventional couples. It is between two. It is not wrong if they are together. It is their karma that built up to make them together from their past life”.
So, even if it is frowned upon by Buddhism authorities, it is also seen as a private matter. You can decide to live your life as you wish, and you decide which kind of karma you accumulate. In that sense it is not the monks’ or the temple’s responsibility to manage people’s sexuality or private affairs, just to mention what causes good karma and what causes bad karma.
Comparison between sins in Catholicism and Buddhism
A parent’s worry
For Mexican parent that firmly believes in God, the worst nightmare they could encounter with their child can be that they will not be able to get married by the church because they are not heterosexual.
Many believe that this sets a precedent for the rest of their life: if they can’t get married, they won’t have a fulfilling life, and they won’t provide grandchildren that carry the family name.
The worst thing is that for most Catholics being involved in a non-heterosexual relationship is considered a sin that goes against God’s original plan (man and woman, united in holy matrimony, who engage in sexual life after their union to create offspring) means that they believe their son or daughter will end up in hell.
“I just could not be okay with it. If my kid came out and told me he won’t marry a woman, I’d be disappointed and angry. It goes against all we taught him,” José Ávalos, a 40-year-old man from Guadalajara that has two children said.
Catholics believe that if human sins throughout their life, but never repent their sins or begs forgiveness via confession, once they die they will be denied entrance to Heaven and will be sent to Hell, to suffer for eternity.
So many parents become mortified at the thought that their child will end up in Hell, and accepting their reality will also be to go against everything they previously believed in, to question the set of morals they have been given since they were born. In order for them to be okay with their children being gay, they would have to accept they are not going to Hell when they die, which most parents struggle to do.
“My son would have to man up. It’s in the Bible, and it’s what real men have to do. I did not raise a coward or a sissy,” Ávalos added.
For Thai society, it might mean that your child will not only be looked down upon by society but that they won’t be able to find a partner that takes care of them. In the case of women, it means that they won’t have a man that works and provides financially for them. In the case of men, they won’t be able to live out the role of manly provider that brings food to the table and has children.
“I get really protective over my children. One of my daughters dresses more masculine, and if anyone discriminates against her or gives her trouble, they’ll see what I do,” Tanawat Wasusatiannon, a 55-year-old entrepreneur from Bangkok.
It is tough to fight misconceptions that come from cultural backgrounds that are extremely complicated to untangle. The parents may have the best intentions for their children at heart, with no way of comprehending how much they’re hurting them by negating their identity or sexuality.
Like many Asian countries, Thai families put a lot of pressure on their children to excel academically and be economically successful. This can also translate into having a perfect, stable family. Having a gay kid comes with the fear that they won’t be able to adapt to society or find a good job. They fear the judgment their kids will face if they are their authentic selves.
Living beyond the gender spectrum
“Some people absolutely perceive me as female. But a lot look at me as a ladyboy. In worse cases, they see me as a freak or a monster in society.”
Prikkang is a 21-year-old transgender model in Bangkok. Ever since she was young, she noticed that she preferred playing with toys traditionally marketed toward girls, adored the color pink, dresses, and makeup. Boy stuff was too “brutal”. But she had no vocabulary or knowledge to express what she felt.
It wasn’t until later that she had access to the internet and to different people that she realized that all along she had been a girl. There was no doubt, and her transition started shortly after. The only problem was how to tell her family.
Coming from a family with a history of serving the government, telling her parents was the beginning of a rocky road. They struggled to understand what she meant when she explained to them that she never felt like a boy and that all the expectations they had placed on her will probably never happen.
“I am not okay with them expecting me to follow the path they chose for me, so I had to tell them my truth so they understood why I wouldn’t follow their steps.”
Prikkang mentioned that of course, their parents had noticed since she was a child that something was different, but they had never expected her to speak out about it. It was a shock.
She found refuge in her friends and her working environment. She is a freelance model, and despite the obstacles that come with being openly trans she hopes that the industry slowly opens up the stage for more diverse women.
On the other hand, 21-year-old Luisa from Mexico may identify as non-binary but has trouble finding safe spaces in her city to express and come to terms with her gender expression. It became a reality that most people see her as a woman and only her close friends know how she really feels.
“Many people in Mexico, because they are conservative or religious, are not open to new or different realities. They are stuck with what they were taught in their Catholic families. These are things unknown to them, and the unknown can feel threatening or scary.”
According to a 2021 study done by Letra Ese, a Mexican non-profit organization dedicated to providing healthcare aid to LGBT youth in the country, Mexico is in second place worldwide just behind Brazil on annual transgender murders, with 270 of the 461 murders towards the LGBT population in 2021 being transgender women.
Slow but steady change
Despite the difficulties in both countries, there are different efforts from diverse groups whose aim is to better the quality of life and access to health care for LGBTQ youth in Mexico and in Thailand.
There are efforts like Casa Frida, an organization based in Mexico City (the country’s capital), dedicated to helping kids and young adults that are kicked out of their houses or lost their jobs for being part of the community. They offer temporary shelter, aid to find economic support and job opportunities, as well as facilitate health care access to people with AIDS or that are looking to transition medically.
There are also religious groups that are accepting of more diverse communities and try to spread the message of God as one of love and acceptance. According to a 2014 academic study done by Mexican sociologist Karina Berenice Bárcenas Barajas about these churches, which continue to rise in popularity:
“Churches and spiritual groups for sexual and gender diversity have conquered a space within the religious field and at the same time have become a response to the exclusion of heteronormative morality that predominates in some hegemonic religions,” mentions Bárcenas in her case study.
In Thailand, same-sex couples can’t marry yet, although recent years have brought legislation pressure on the government. As lately as June 2022, the country took one tiny step towards the possibility of legalizing equal marriage: the lower house approved two bills that would increase the rights of the LGBT population considerably.
The bills have yet to be passed by the upper committee, and the demand has been stumped. Yet just the fact that it became a topic of discussion for the higher levels of government is a sign that maybe next time actual action will be taken.
This also happened a few days after the very first Pride Parade in Bangkok. This was a historical event where people could get together and celebrate diversity. It was also the perfect opportunity to demand equal rights from the government and respect from society.
What’s the takeaway?
You can have two countries with similar religious dominance, albeit different religions altogether, and see a significant change in how they view a typically controversial topic like homosexuality or gender diversity.
Both countries have issues with providing safe environments for queer youth, but while in Mexico coming out is a dramatic, loud, and often dangerous thing, Thai society prefers to keep it a secret, an elephant in the room everyone knows about but never actually acknowledges.
Mexico’s treatment of LGBT people stems largely from catholic values and beliefs that typically view their mere existence as a sin. This ends up with kids feeling immense guilt, and parents disowning their own children in fear of repercussions of God and ending up in hell.
Thailand, a country with a large majority of believers in Theravada Buddhism, has a different approach. The teachings, although claiming that homosexual relationships are not holy, also allow some liberty for the people to choose. It is not other people’s business, not even a monk’s, to tell someone how to live their life. They believe karma will get them in the end.
What is the problem is the parents’ fear for their kids’ life and stability. Getting a good job, having a successful academic career, marrying, and having kids means success. If anyone dares stride away from that path it’s considered dangerous and reckless. Out of that fear, many parents don’t want their kids to be anything other than the norm.
Either way, queer people exist and have always existed. Despite their surroundings, the country they were born in, or the language they speak, they have existed and resisted throughout the centuries.
Fighting for equal rights in a complex world, where many screams that who you are is a sin or something that should stay hidden, is admirable. Those who share their truth are the ones that continue to shape the path for the next generations.
Article written by Ana Paula Carbonell Díaz
Infographics by Phisanu Nanklang
Photography by Apirak Aekthanakij
Video by Yanisara Wasusatiannon
- Yanisara Wasusatiannon
- Apirak Aekthanakij
- Attawat Lerdsangsuwan
- Tapanun Jitjingjai
- Phisanu Nanklang
- Ana Paula Carbonell