Coming out with love

Famous the world over for such major transgender events as Miss Tiffany's Universe and Miss International Queen and known for its lack of barriers to LGBT singers and actors appearing on stage and on the small screen, Thailand is, on the surface at least, a gay-friendly country.

But scratch the surface even slightly and look more closely at a micro unit like family and it becomes evident that LGBT individuals are still struggling to make their parents and their loved ones understand and accept their sexual orientation.

In an attempt to help these often depressed individuals find acceptance from those they love the most, Thai LGBT activist group Anjaree Foundation is collaborating with the Women's Health Advocacy Foundation in launching the "Letter to Mother and Loved Ones" project.

The programme is designed as a channel for LGBT to express their feelings and thoughts about their sexual orientation, their hopes and even their fears to their loved ones in a way that is considerably less threatening than speaking out face-to-face.

Anjana Suvarnananda, Thai LGBT Activist and founder of the Anjaree Foundation, is a firsthand witness to the negative aspects of a family's non- acceptance of sexual diversity.

"The family of my high-school girlfriend was against our relationship. She was devastated and finally ran away. Being cut off from the family, she lost both educational opportunities and financial support.

She would have enjoyed a better chance in life had her family accepted her as she was. Unfortunately, she is far from the only one to go through this experience. At Anjaree, we receive literally tons of letters and calls from LGBT teenagers and grown-ups asking for advice on coming out to parents and family."

In Thailand, as in many other societies, society tends to dictate gender-role stereotypes. These include opinions on how boys and girls should act, what they should look like, what clothes they should wear and what constitutes "normal" behaviour.

An Anjaree member, female-born transgender Parit Chomchuen says he's been struggling with his identity since primary school.

"I was not comfortable wearing skirts, even the school uniform. T-shirts, shorts and trousers were always my choice. When I was three, I thought that when I grew up I would be a man. I even thought that if I prayed hard enough I would be a man faster.

"When my divorced mother and her new husband came to pick me up for a day out, I wore my best T-shirt and shorts not the dress that her new husband had bought for me. He got angry and drove away from the house. My mum was furious and gave me a slap. I was confused and emotionally hurt.

From then on, I forced myself to wear a skirt every time my mother came to see me.

"In high school, I had a crush on my friend and felt ashamed of myself for liking her. Throughout my teenage years, I lived in fear - fear of being exposed, fear of being different - and that fear drove me into a depression.

I lived with my father and my two brothers so gender issues were never a topic of discussion in the house. I really had no idea what was going on with me. I had no one to turn to until I found Anjaree group and learned that I was not a freak and being a transgender was okay."

Jetsada Taesombat, a representative of Thai Transgender Alliance - Thai TGA and Foundation for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Rights and Justice - said that when her family found out that she preferred being a woman, the whole family went to see a psychiatrist.

"After a long, awkward and agonising discussion, the psychiatrist concluded that my father was not a role model for a boy so 'the son' would like to be a woman. My father was upset and walked out of the consulting room.

My sexual orientation was nobody's fault, but in that room, I felt I was 'a problem child'. The psychiatrist even tried to persuade me to live as a man, and, of course, I refused.

"Most parents are concerned for the welfare of their children. They recognise the difficulties posed by being a member of a stigmatised group so try their best to sweep the issue under the rug. Most Thais are tolerant of sexual diversity as long as those LGBT are not members of their own families. They tolerate sexual diversity but don't really accept it.

"I was lucky that my parents gradually accepted my sexual orientation. Family support is very important. Love and support made me able to come out and stand tall in society."

Areerat Poti, leader of the Chiang Mai-based Parents: Happiness Within Reach project, admits that she has a hard time accepting her son's homosexuality.

"We were taking part in a community's activity 'Jod Mai Gom' ('Short Letter') in which family members were asked to write letters to one another. In the letter, my son asked, 'Mum, would it acceptable to you if I am gay?' I was heartbroken but at the same time happy that he confided his secret to me. We cried and hugged then, together, we went to tell his father.

"Being gay is acceptable. It is not a crime and there is nothing to be ashamed of. But talking about some tough issues is hard while writing helps us to better express our thoughts and feelings. Reading my son's letter made me understand him better. Now we are closer as a mother and a daughter."

Areerat's son, Noppon, adds, "Before coming out, I was depressed. When I was home, I always had something to hide. I couldn't totally be myself. After my mother read my letter, I felt nothing but relief."

Nada Chaiyajit, a transgender activist, was born intersex, an individual who cannot be distinctly identified as male or female. Her mother and her doctor put her gender down as male.

"My family never talked about gender or sex. Everybody treated me as a boy because I had male genitals. I had to wear a male uniform at school even though I felt that it was not right. When I reached puberty, I had breasts and things became more complicated. At the age of 27, my family sold the house and moved to Chiang Rai, without me.

"I was traumatised. It was really hurt to be abandoned like that. I hadn't seen my family for seven years. Finally, I gathered up sufficient strength to catch a bus to Chiang Rai. When I first met my father, he turned to me and smiled. He didn't recognise me as he had never seen me looking feminine and with long hair.

I embraced him and cried. He was shocked and exchanged looks with my mother. When I looked at him straight in the eye, he remembered me. The first thing he said was, 'You've come back home'.

"That night was the first time I had talked to my parents about my gender and my physical condition. It was the first time in my life that I really communicated with my family. Their acceptance filled the void in my heart."

But as Anjana explains, the ending is often far from happy.

"Some LGBT end their lives leaving suicide notes that reveal their struggles with their family's non acceptance. I think it is far better to let their loved ones knows their feelings through a letter while they are alive and not through a suicide note when everything is too late."