Singapore & Bangkok; Differences in how ASEAN view the increasingly affluent “Gay” community


A few weeks ago, Singapore erupted into an anti-gay mood, as its prime minister came out against the gay lifestyle and culture. Where after the dust settled, Singapore settled to agree that the issue about gay, is quote:  “An issue all Singapore agreed to disagreed on.”

That Singaporean position, is a long way from Thailand, where for example, the current Bangkok mayoral race, is seeing candidates openly advertising for gay voter support, says a Thai politician:

  • “Our modern world increasingly accepts varied genders… Bangkok must be a city that understands sexual differences, not just accepting different lifestyles … it must be a friend to every difference.”

To Bangkok, the gay community is important for the city’s economy, as gay tourist flock the city, from Taiwan, Hong Kong to Singapore. Only last week, Thailand’s main airport, opened a special quick lane, for gay couples to pass through immigration, when visiting Thailand.

  • And Singapore may be hurting itself. Last week, Hong Kong, that is competing with Singapore to be the financial center of Asia, launched the globe’s first financial institution, that targets affluent gay community, with financial product.

Thailand wise, to catch on to the trend of gay tourism, for example, a local Thai press reports a Thai entertainment establishment owner, plans to turn Bangkok into the ASEAN hub for gay lifestyles and culture, and is kicking off the plan, with investments into a gay entertainment and lifestyle center, with the center being touted as the biggest of its kind in ASEAN.

“Every year, about 500,000 gay from across Asia visits Bangkok…..This a a significant market segment for Bangkok to capture with a dedicated effort to make Bangkok a hub for their travelling…….The segment is in the higher income bracket, single and have a propensity to spend more,” said Thongdej Triratwongsri, head of the Pavilion Group. Thongdej said the center will be the first of its kind in ASEAN, where the gay lifestyle and culture often being a part of the overall culture, will emerge and stand-out to gaining a distinctive “Prominence.”

Thai people are very tolerant and welcoming of the gay crowd and offer a very relaxed and comfortable environment for the gay community and its visitors. Like most of Thailand, Bangkok is generally an extremely gay-friendly city. A wide range of hotels, guesthouses, bars and clubs in the city cater for gay and lesbian clientele from all over the world.

Thailand has a larger than average gay community, which readily embraces people of all orientations. The feminine side of society is celebrated and many Thai boys find it much easier to ‘come out’ in this country, especially in Bangkok. Visiting gay men find it easy to find themselves a partner here, with many attractive young men who are openly gay, well presented and fun. Gay couples also find it a great place to enjoy a holiday.

Then there are the famous ladyboys, who add a fun character to the gay community. Most ladyboys are ‘she males’ who are equally at home with women and men. They often find themselves partners in both gay and straight men and are always ready for a party. These ladyboys can be quite assertive, but generally take good care of themselves.

The lesbian community in Bangkok is much smaller and more discreet, but definitely has a place here. There are several lesbian/mixed establishments on Sukhumvit Road that cater especially to foreigners, and the indifferent attitudes in Thailand makes this a popular place for Western lesbians to come and vacation, live, or meet lovers. An increasing number of women are turning bi’ or lesbian (they are often let down by Thai men), but they are far more discreet.

  • Apart from Thongdej efforts, in the Thai officialdom, catering to the gay community is gaining more predominance. Thailand’s “Inclusive” treatment of those in the gay community, is a mark difference from many in ASEAN, such as Singapore and Malaysia. The following is from Global Post:

Is there a hidden, transgender voting bloc ripe for a political awakening? 

At least one Thai politician seems to think so.

“Our modern world increasingly accepts varied genders… Bangkok must be a city that understands sexual differences, not just accepting different lifestyles … it must be a friend to every difference.”

So goes the latest campaign ad for Pongsapat Pongcharoen, a U.S.-educated police general. Polls suggest he’ll soon become Bangkok’s next governor. 

Slick, minimal and set to a twinkly backbeat, the video showcases a stream of cheerful faces. Many of them belong to “kathoeys,” male-to-female transgender Thais more commonly known by a cheaper term: ladyboys.

Is this the dawn of a new trend: courting the transgender vote?

Even Nok Yollada, Thailand’s first transgender office holder, didn’t pitch herself to this demographic. When I interviewed her last year, prior to her election victory, she said, “I don’t even focus on gender in my campaign. I barely bring it up.”

Feeling unqualified to grade this ad’s effectiveness, I reached out to a politically acute transgender friend.

This was her response to the campaign:

“Great move,” I would say… I do enjoy seeing something like this. Anyway, it’s politics. The main question that comes to my mind is that I would love to see concrete policy to make BKK (Bangkok) a friendly city for LGBT.

Since there’s no mention of policy in the ad, perhaps Pongsapat’s campaign regards this ad as a promotional stunt. (If so, congrats! It worked on me.) Only in recent years has Thailand’s military stopped labelling transgender draftees “insane,” a phenomenon I profiled in a 2010 piece titled “The Lovely Conscripts.”

Or maybe Pongsapat regards himself as a man in touch with modern thinking. After all, he actually named his son “In Touch” and one of his promised policies involves handing out free energy drinks to motorbike taxi crews. 

His ad also runs through a list of Thai-language sexual identities that will prove dizzying to the uninitiated. In addition to “kathoeys,” he’s embracing mainstream gay identities in Thailand such as “toms” (butch lesbians) and “dees” (lipstick lesbians). And he’s also thrown in few highly obscure identifications that drove me to the wilderness of Thai message boards.(A “cherry,” I’ve just learned, is a non-transgendered woman seeking a kathoey.)

What’s the takeaway here?

Perhaps it’s that, in the 21st century, we can finally envision a society in which politicians eager for power practice equal opportunity pandering. 


2 thoughts on “Singapore & Bangkok; Differences in how ASEAN view the increasingly affluent “Gay” community

  1. travel wise many countries/nationalities still doesn’t accept the gay community, but with this trend, these countries will gain more losses than they can ever imagine as the gay community, no not just gays but everyone on the third sex, even those straight people who have friends on the third sex will want respect and to enjoy and if they cant find that on your country other country will most probably gain with this just like what Thailand offers.

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