Transsexuals in Thailand are often pigeonholed to the sex and entertainment industries. Pic: AP.

Thailand is one of the more liberal countries in Southeast Asia, and may even be the first to legalize same-sex marriage. The government even promotes the country as a destination friendly to travelers of all backgrounds and sexual orientations. The website Go Thai. Be Free. promotes Thailand as a place that is welcoming to gay tourists, and features testimonials from previous visitors praising the country as an accepting place.

But discrimination against LGBT groups still occurs regularly in the country, as TIME reported earlier this week. That article profiled a same-sex female couple who described receiving hateful messages and slurs, including cruel remarks that their family should be ashamed over their union. That same article reported that a teenage girl was repeatedly raped by her father because she was hanging out with lesbians who dress like men (referred to as “toms”). A lesbian woman was murdered by her partner’s ex-boyfriend – a horrific act commissioned by her girlfriend’s mother, according to TIME.

Reports of LGBT students being bullied also highlight an ongoing problem of abuse and discrimination. UNESCO reported that “nearly one-third (30.9%) of self-identified LGBT students reported having experienced physical abuse, 29.3% reported verbal abuse, and 24.4% reported being victims of sexual harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.” Additionally, “around two-thirds of victims said they did not report these incidents or even talk about them with anyone.” According to UNESCO, seven percent of the students who reported having been bullied said they had attempted suicide within the past year. The trauma of bullying also causes anxiety, stress, and depression among these students.

Despite its relatively liberal attitude toward gay couples and travelers, Thailand still lacks legal protection for same-sex couples and transgender people. Activists have introduced a draft of legislation that would give same-sex couples the right to marry. But as Reuters reported in 2013, that law would still discriminate against gay couples because it would raise the legal marriage age for homosexual partners from 17 to 20 (the age for heterosexual couples is 17). That same article reported that the proposed law would force transgender people to register their birth gender on marriage certificates, and Thai law forbids people from changing their genders on national identification documents. A professor quoted in that report said that there needs to be better training for teachers and administrators to address bullying and support LGBT students, as well as more resources – such as hotlines and web forums – for those who are being bullied to seek help.

A report from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association indicated that most Thais would not come out to their doctors as gay, and that trans people are still discriminated against, particularly when it comes to professional positions and university graduate rates. The report also indicated that insulting stereotypes are often perpetuated through the entertainment industry.

The Fund for Global Human Rights reported that despite the appearance of acceptance of transgender people, particularly due to the visibility of “lady boys,” known as kathoey, violence and dangers still run deep for this community in Thailand.

“Transgender people may be targeted for violence and severe discrimination, including being prevented from seeking employment in education, medicine, law, and the government. Instead, they are pigeonholed mainly to the entertainment and sex work industries,” the Fund reported. “Moreover, transgender women remain vulnerable to violence from the police and have limited avenues of protection and support when they have been assaulted.”

The Thomson Reuters Foundation reported that transgender people in Asia also face discrimination when it comes to securing health insurance. This was a top priority for activists who gathered for a regional meeting recently, following the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s biennial symposium. The Thomson Reuters article raised the issue that people often conflate sexual orientation with gender identity, and frequently associate high HIV rates with the transgender community. This may be because research often focuses on transgender people working in the sex industry, and there needs to be a fundamental understanding that being a trans person does not equate to having HIV.

Though Thailand is more tolerant toward LGBT people than many other countries, at least at a surface level, there is clearly still a long way to go. While legalizing same-sex marriage would be a big step forward, incidences like those mentioned above demonstrate that there must be a shift in the larger mindset toward tolerance and acceptance. Even if the law grants full equal rights, real change comes when people stop discriminating against one another based on gender and sexual orientation.