The Bangkok Gay Festival, the first event of its kind in Thailand and one of the few in Asia, attracted thousands of gay men and a few lesbians from across the region—including from Cambodia—for a parade and party on Oct 31.
“It was only the first time so I think it was a just a little bit successful,” Pen Samnang, owner of Phnom Penh’s Heart of Darkness bar, said. “But I had a good time. The drag queens were perfect, very funny.”
The event, modeled on gay and lesbian pride events around the world that occur annually in the Philippines, Japan, Australia, most European nations, the US and Canada, featured a parade, an exhibition of work by gay artists, a panel discussion on gay rights around the world and, of course, a huge party.
The parade included seven floats sporting numerous dancers—most in drag—and blaring disco music.
The one contingent on foot, a group of gay men from Hong Kong, marched with trepidation, desperately trying to avoid traffic which had not been halted for the event. The thousands of supporters who lined Silom and Rama 4 roads cheered as each float passed in between the endless taxis and motorcycles.
“It started as just a small party for some friends,” said Lukas Habersaat, the Swiss boyfriend and spokesman for organizer Pakorn Pimthon. “It grew to be something much bigger.”
Pakorn Pimthon called it a festival rather than a pride event because of the complete lack of a political angle. Pride events, particularly in the US, are frequent targets of protesters, and gay men and lesbians in both North America and Europe have been fighting for the elimination of sodomy laws, equalization of the age of consent, acceptance into the military and legal recognition for same-sex marriage.
There is no mention of homosexuality in Thai law.
“In Thailand gays are completely accepted as normal so there is no need for a big coming out. It’s a non-issue,” said Habersaat. “What do we want to fight for?…Our aim was a big party.”
Organization was lax. Numbers were not available for the amount of people in attendance, and the number of floats in the parade was unknown until the last minute.
“Everything was done a bit backwards,” said John Goss, owner of the Bangkok-based gay travel agent Utopia, one of the event’s sponsors. “The press conference was 8 months ago, but we only got the permit from the city and police three days ago.”
Many people who joined the event from outside Thailand said they were there because it just wasn’t possible back home.
“It would never happen. You can’t,” said one gay man from Singapore.
Aung Myo Min, director of the Bangkok-based Campaign for Lesbigay Rights in Burma, said that being gay in his home country was potentially deadly. A pro-democracy activist, he has been living in exile in Thailand for the past 11 years because his life was in danger both because of his political activities and his sexual orientation.
“You don’t have freedom of expression. There is no freedom of association. If you talk about anyone’s rights, you are against the state,” he said.
Several dozen lesbians led off the parade but were otherwise absent from all festivities. Anjaree, the lesbian social and political group, has their own party organized for this Sunday.
“We’re not going to the [Festival] party. It’s all boys and too expensive,” said one member of the organization complaining about the 700 baht ($18.50) tickets. “We’re having our own party next weekend.”