Thai youth calling for freedom of speech

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My name is Best Chitsanupong Nithiwana and I am transgender activist from Chiang Mai, Thailand and founder of Young Pride Club. In 2017, I graduated with a bachelor degree from Chiang Mai University (CMU) in political science where I specialised in international affairs. My academic research on promoting LGBT rights on an international stage during Barack Obama’s presidency, was awarded by the school of international affairs of CMU.

In 2018, I started a master in social science, specialising in gender and women studies at CMU. I also established Young Pride Club—a youth community advocating for gender equality.

Our community has been supported by Women Studies Center of Chiang Mai University, NPOs in Chiang Mai and CSOs for gender equality; and last but not least by Sirisak Chaited—one of the most notable activists in Thailand.

Young Pride Club has provided a safe learning space for young people interested in gender equality and the LGBT+ community. The community provides on-the-ground and online activism activities, aiming to develop leadership and encourage participation and cooperation in gender equality and diversity advocacy.

We have 20,000 followers and have developed over 50 young LGBT+ leaders across 4 regions of Thailand, as well as organised the Chiang Mai Pride 2019-2020 which welcomed more than 1,000 participants.

What was life like before COVID-19 hit your country/home, and service availability for young people in terms of HIV, and LGBTIQ?

Before COVID-19 Young Pride Club implemented ‘Young Trans Club’—a project aiming to create a Thai transgender student group to build cooperation, empower transgender students and solve the case of unfair discrimination in universities in Thailand.

Although Thailand has enacted the Gender Equality Act B.E. 2558, half of the non-LGBT community members are aware of this law. This resulted in the existence of unfair gender discrimination towards transgender people in areas, such as job application processes, workplaces, schools and universities.

Thai LGBT activists have been pushing for more freedom of choice regarding matching gender uniforms in graduation ceremonies. There are several universities that do not allow transgender students holding rights over their body when it comes to wearing matching gender uniforms during class sessions, examination, educational processes and all kinds of welfare related to gender. For example, student cards and graduation certificates are primary legal document used to prove identity, but restricted by Thai law for transgender people. Therefor we successfully created a working group in February 2020.

However, when the COVID-19 started we had to postpone our schedule. Thus, we reformed our activities into virtual meetings and workshops. We gathered more than 100 LGBTQ+ stories from online surveys and local leaders—coming from 4 regions of Thailand—as well as developed capacity to access the problem-solving processes, including the Gender Discrimination Commission.

With the effect of COVID-19 outbreak, how did you respond to this? Can you detail the evolving service needs of young people during lockdown, and how community groups are able to address the issues?

The first stage of the COVID-19 outbreak in Thailand was serious. The government of Thailand implemented lockdown regulations and prohibited organising any activity. There are many Thai populations suffering from loss of income and the economic downward spiral. This shows the inequality as a result from the government’s ruling. It also means that those in power are the ones who make the decisions.

In emergency situations, there is less public hearing. LGBT people are usually marginalised from relief and separated even further whilst facing more problems. For example, many LGBTI people work in the entertainment or tourism field. This has a big impact because the government has delayed the reopening of the city and pushed it back to June.

Some people who cannot live without income for 4 months may decide to return to their hometown. To live in a society that we do not know if they will be accepted or not, makes some young people uncomfortable and depressed during COVID-19. For some of them, the situation got worse, for example when they need to access necessary medicine or medical procedures.

Since the lockdown, these facilities are hard and still expensive to access. As an answer to this, Young Pride Club has collaborated with local LGBTQ+ entertainers in Chiang Mai—the so called ‘Sixcret Show Chiang Mai’—in order to live stream performances and raise money for the people who are suffering from COVID-19. We raised more than 9,000 Thai Baht as an income from selling pride related merchandise. We collaborated with Human Rights Development Foundation to give away 100 relief bags to people located in the mountains in Chiang Mai.

What were the issues that young people in your country/ back home experienced during this time? What are the gaps in terms of addressing the issue?

We have been collaborating with the young community for a long time. Young Pride Club had more than 30 local volunteers. The rights of LGBTQ+ students—especially transgender students—are still violated at school, university or their workplace. This includes the regulations which prohibit them from expressing their gender identity, such as their uniform or important documents, including student cards, transcripts etc. Young people are actively calling for changes regarding these issues. However, there are some people in the policy making process or institutional echelon who are still unaware of these topics. This means that we need more inclusive space for young people to address this, and we need more platforms in order to communicate with policy makers. Further more, we also need to support young people when participating in decision making, because most regulations in Thailand are still ill informed about diversity and inclusion.

How have you, staff, and volunteers working for NGOs been able to stay safe from COVID-19?

The situation of COVID 19 enabled us to organise activities. But then again, most of the content is currently about LGBT issues and social diversity, in need of expanding the variety of use of social media channels, such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

We want this area to be a platform for exchange in order to expand discussions and create understanding. However, most of the people who share information regarding the issue of gender diversity are openly LGBTQ+. Some of their limitations will be about privacy, sexual orientation or about those who have not yet come out. We also aim to have a safe space for those to want to learn about their identity as we want to support them in being who they are.

As your country comes out of the lockdown, what services will young people in your country continue to require, and what would you cease, and what would you add?

The government offers no protection, relief measures or policies for LGBTQ groups, such as telemedicine for psychological needs or medical procedures for people who need hormones or HIV/AIDs medicine. This also include financial remedies. The tourism sector which has been affected due to 4 months lock down does’t have any remedial measures. All groups in society must be helped equally. I would like to suggest that the state accelerates the efforts—made by organisations—to help out LGBT people and grant them the right to access, whether it is to medical universities in this matter.

We wish for direct assistance from the state—in addition to a good economy—to help us financially. The state should be more decentralised when it comes to listening to us and in understanding problems.

How has COVID-19 outbreak changed the way that you/your organisation and other NGOs will be working in the future?

Young Pride Club is a grassroots community of low income members which are university students. Before COVID-19, we aimed for access to educational courses and conferences in order to build our capacity; and develop an internal community structure. However, the pandemic affected those events and workshops and all was cancelled. Thus, this was one of the effects delaying our community development. However, the new “normal” has helped us to enable access to online courses and communicate with donors, funders and supporters. We strongly hope that one day we would create a better society with a better community.

What are the worries from your community about the ‘new normal’?

Nothing is good when it comes to the new “normal”. Some of the community activities need to be done one-on-one or demand physical interaction. There are some people who need emotional, physical and emotional support.

Are there any positive lessons learnt from the effects of COVID-19?

It is better not to have COVID-19, however the upside of the pandemic showed the great and generous hearts of Thai people. During COVID-19 we have been supported by our friends, families and loved ones who reached out.

Anything else you wish to add, please?

LGBTQ young people are still discriminated against in Thailand. However, young people overall are suffering and therefor protesting everywhere in Thailand.

Young Pride Club is a group of young people. We strongly believe in freedom of speech and support young people to have their space in Thai society. We definitely call for a better world!

Contributor:
Best, founder of Young Pride ClubThailand

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