Efforts to stage a gay pride parade in Chiang Mai, the northern capital city of Thailand, this weekend has met with strong opposition from a prominent Bangkok gay activist - a move that has shocked and angered the gay community in both cities.
Natee Teerarojanapong, a well-known advocate of gay rights (left) and Pongthorn Chanleun, head of Chiang Mai Gay Pride Committee and director of Mplus Chiang Mai debated each other on a TV talk show.
The gay pride parade in Chiang Mai is organised by Mplus, Chiang Mai's largest HIV/AIDS group, to be held on Saturday, Feb 21, in a famous tourist district.
Pongthorn Chanleun, a scholar on gender and sexuality and head of Chiang Mai Gay Pride Committee, said he was surprised with Natee's opposition despite the fact that a similar parade was already held last year in Chiang Mai.
"Early last year the parade was held in tandem with a regional conference by the International Gay and Lesbian Association (ILGA) in Chiang Mai and featured gay rights messages promoted by marchers who are gay rights activists from around the region. We're well received," said Pongthorn who is also the director of Mplus Chiang Mai.
Among other accusations Natee made to the local national press are that he is worried the gay pride would undermine the local 'Lanna' tradition of Chiang Mai with inappropriate dress, acts and activities; and might turn Chiang Mai into "a symbol of gays."
"I heard that the parade by a gay group in the area of Night Bazaar would also feature an activity such as a competition to use condoms for decoration as a pre-event before other activities.
"Chiang Mai is a cultural city. I'm concerned that the parade will tarnish the image of Chiang Mai and the country (as) Chiang Mai might be viewed as a symbol of gays," said Natee, head of Gay Politics Group. He had notably marched in a gay pride parade along Silom Road in Bangkok several years ago.
Natee's flamboyance style and outspoken personality drew a lot of attention from local media. On one of the most-watched debate talk shows on TV earlier this week, Natee and Pongthorn were pitted against each other.
After Ponthorn's explanation that the marchers in the gay pride parade will be dressed up with local costumes, unlike those styles of other gay pride marches in certain cities and he stressed that the pride was aimed at promoting tolerance as well as campaigning for HIV/AIDS issues to the local people.
Natee brought up another issue that left many gay activists in disbelief.
"Since the parade will stage a costume contest by transgenders and the parade will have transgendered marchers in colorful dress, I'm afraid such images will appeal to the youngsters and make them want to become transgenders," he said during the televised debate.
He added that any country who has a lot of beauty queens, the youths will be also encouraged to become beauty queens.
The debate became heated when Natee raised another issue that the parade organiser announced to accept applicants as young as 15 years old.
"A youngster aged as young as 15 years old lacks of consciousness. Such contest will encourage him to want to imitate and become transgender," Natee said.
"How can you draw such influence on the young people? The age range is generally accepted in general straight youths contest," Ponthorn said.
"How can you recruit people to become transgender?" Pongthorn rebutted, adding that the costume contest by transgenders was meant as a communication tool and feature sexual diversity and openness of society.
In March last year, Natee led a group of activists and concerned parents to petition Thailand's Medical Council and the government urging stricter controls on private clinics that perform castration on male teenagers who hope for the procedure to stop their bodies from developing masculine characteristics. Castration costs as little as 4,000 baht (S$180), a small fraction of the total cost of gender reassignment surgery. Under current laws, males seeking to undergo castration must be 18 and above.
"I want clinics to stop performing the operations regardless of whether they get parental consent. They are too young, and this procedure could cause side effects later in life," he was quoted as saying.
Ponthorn insisted that the parade will continue to be organised this Saturday and hopes to attract as many participants as they can. "We expect to have more than 500 marchers this Saturday. I do believe that the local Chiang Mai communities will give us support and make differences between facts and illusions," Ponthorn said.
Natee, made himself known back in 1980s as the very first activist who was openly gay when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was on the rise. He received international awards and also donations from many organisations for his efforts against HIV. He maintained a very low profile for years for unknown reasons and resurfaced several years ago as the head of the Gay Political Group of Thailand.
In 2005, he attacked Bangkok's 1st International Conference of Asian Queer Studies which drew participants from more than 20 countries, calling for a ban on the conference since the conference organiser handed out condoms to the participants. About the same time, the 50-year-old activist notably led a campaign which called on the government to amend the military regulations to stop labeling gay and transgender conscripts as suffering from a "severe psychological disorder" before exempting them from duty. He argues that the label has no medical justification and stigmatises gay men and transgender for the rest of their life as military records are required at job interviews and loan applications.
In 2006, Natee ran for a senate seat for Bangkok, but was defeated. In one of TV talk shows, he announced that he wanted to be a prime minister. Earlier this year, he made headlines by raising an issue regarding homosexuals and transgenders in Buddhist monasteries when some temples found having monks and novices having sexual relations with male sex workers, adjusted their monk robes to be more fashionable, and wore make-up.
The 2nd Chiangmai Pride Parade will be held on Saturday, Feb 21, departing Buddhasathan at 7pm towards Tawan Plaza @ Square. The parade will culminate in a party at Tawan Trendy Mall near Pantip Plaza. For more info, click onto http://www.chiangmaigaypride.com.