After 11 years of wait, Bangkok is hosting a Pride parade at the end of this year in order to promote visibility and acceptance for the LGBTQ community. While it is safe to say that Thailand offers a much more accepting public perception compared to other countries' draconian laws surrounding LGBTQ rights, the current Thai legislation still does not recognise same sex marriage and civil union.
As we celebrate the month of love, we decided to ask three couples whose enduring romance aren't just a testament to #couplegoals, but their struggles with society and even one another. Bryant Olson, Brenton Mauriello, and Apicha Laohapongchana share their views on love, family, and most important of all, acceptance.
Bryant Olson & Chalong Tonklongchan
When Bryant Olson appeared at the apartment lobby in the morning, he was wearing dark shades, hiding his dark circles. “Last night my partner and I were binge-watching Stranger Things until very late,” he says with a giggle. “Hence the shades,” Olson laments on his and partner Chalong Tonklongchan’s shared love for a Netflix binge.
“Despite the modernisation and growth over the last 20 years, not having a Gay Pride Parade in around 11 years in an international city like Bangkok seems like an anomaly to me,” says the distributor of luxury shampoo Philip B. “I think it’s good to have one, especially for the youth. For me, as a 40-something-year-old adult, I went through that phase. I had such a fear of coming out to my family that I needed that camaraderie with other people, in case my parents weren’t so accepting. Thankfully, they were and that’s why I think it’s very important to have that support.”
Olson met his boyfriend through mutual friends at a wine bar on Chong Nonsi. “Initially, Chalong never had a boyfriend before, so it was very new for him. For me, I was seasoned, so there were some communication issues at first, but for the most part, he is always so happy and eager to have fun and enjoy life and that’s what attracted me to him,” explains Olson. “We love travelling and in fact just came back from our holiday in the United States.”
The couple recently visited Olson’s family in Chicago. “My parents are quite conservative. They are born-again Christians, but are still accepting of gay marriages and partnerships. My mother has said specifically to me that nobody should be left alone and if God is the creator of all, he is the creator of this. Therefore, if two people want to be together, it’s their right.”
Even though Olson and his partner have yet to walk down the aisle, he sees the importance of the legalisation of same sex marriages. “Some might argue that it doesn’t need to be there, but in terms of long-term relationship, if one is to get sick you aren’t guaranteed rights for the hospital. If something were to happen to your partner, it doesn’t guarantee right of ownership,” explains Olson.
When asked about the discrimination he faces in Thailand regarding his sexuality, Olson could not recall specific instances, but mentions that it is still there within the framework. “Thailand has parallels for everything. If you’re too extreme with anything in Thailand, you’re going to stand out and not necessarily be fully accepted but it also doesn’t mean that you’ll be bullied,” says Olson, who has been in Thailand for eight years. “We meet Westerners who even judge, not just Thais. However for us, we live life normally. We tread in the middle, not on the extreme ends, so even people who are somewhat opinionated towards gay people, are to a point accepting of us.”
Olson thinks it is imperative that the LGBTQ movement is part of the discourse in countries that still oppress marginalised groups and people who identify differently. “There are plenty of countries, even now in the year 2017, where LGBTQ individuals are killed, persecuted and not allowed to live as themselves. From the Middle East to the Western world, the movement has to be there. It’s important for the community to take pride in themselves, but also acknowledge that we’re all on this Earth and we all have a place. I think that’s important, have pride in yourself, but don’t overshadow anyone else.”
Brenton Mauriello & Nattapat Janthakerd
“We started by just chatting and having a drink at a bar. I said hello, he said hello and it just went from there. It was very innocent. Just the normal way people would meet each other actually,” Brenton Mauriello, the CEO of dwp or design worldwide partnership, recalls how he met his partner, Nattapat Janthakerd. “It’s been ten years and we are very much in love with each other. We also have an adopted son.”
Despite his very loving household, Mauriello still faces certain legal issues that prevent him from being documented as his son’s father. “My partner and I are legally married in the UK. We couldn’t get married in Australia, my home country, because there is no law allowing same sex marriages. It’s the same with Thailand where I’m not recognised as my son’s father, because the law doesn’t recognise my marriage. Therefore legally, my son is Nattapat’s son” says Mauriello. He tries to remain hopeful, despite the limitations put upon his family life. “That’s something we have to live with, which we shouldn’t have if things were perfect. I’d like that to change but I don’t expect that to happen very quickly.”
Mauriello feels like there is still room for improvement in terms of gay rights in several other countries, despite the encouraging progress done by the LGBTQ movement. “Globally, I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. The movement is great, but there are still issues that I find perplexing and don’t quite understand,” he says, referring to how Australia is the last English speaking country without same sex marriage laws. “I think it’s ridiculous. There’s a political game that’s going on, which is unacceptable. There are also so many countries where homosexuality is still illegal and the penalties for it is disgraceful and disgusting. If you think of Russia and some African countries, it’s unacceptable in a globalised world. It is going to require a long-term education.”
The president of the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce (AustCham) realises that he could be part of the solution by educating others, especially in the Thai community. “I have been lucky to make my life here in Thailand. It’s been a fantastic 23 years. Thailand has given me a lot so if I can be a part of the process in fighting for the rights to same sex marriage and letting others know that the LGBTQ community is just like any other communities, and that’s why I’m doing the interview. It would be great if Thailand could take another step in terms of the legal structures and recognise partnerships and marriages. It would be even more amazing if Thailand is one of the first countries in Asia to do this,” explains Mauriello.
“The reality is we’re just like any other families. We have the same issues and highs and lows. Although, I must say the resistance here is less than in some other places,” expresses Mauriello. “But I want to shift the more precarious perceptions people associate with the LGBTQ community in Thailand. It’s not all gay bars, nightclubs and the crazy side, but rather there’s a human factor to it. There are people like me who are just as part of the community with lives outside of all that.”
Mauriello is very hopeful about LGBTQ rights and is very thankful for the progress so far. “It’s been much better compared to 30 – 35 years ago where people were less tolerant,” he says, adding “I just want to be able to provide security for my family. If our marriage can be recognised and in the event of my passing, my husband and son will be able to have that [security]”.
Apicha Laohapongchana & Supreeya Srethabhakdi
Apicha Laohapongchana has been with her partner, Supreeya Srethabhakdi, for 12 years. They knew each other from the same school and after constantly bumping into each other multiple times, Apicha realised that Supreeya makes her happy like no one else. “We always have this understanding and fun conversations. You would always hear us giggle and laugh together,” she says happily.
But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing from the start, the happy couple explained. “We always fought in the first two years, but eventually it all worked out because we both did not give up,” she says. “Since I come from a relatively strict Chinese background, my father also did not understand our relationship at first. With that, time really helped and right now, Supreeya occasionally goes on family trips and dinners with me. She gradually became a part of the family.”
When asked about her views on love, Apicha disagrees that it's a gendered matter. “For me, love is just a feeling of wanting to constantly take care of a person for the rest of your life. It is not about whether you are a male or female. It is up to the individual,” says Apicha. “The most important factor is whether that person understands you and makes you happy. As long as you see each other’s importance, have compassion and empathy, that’s all that matters.”
An advice she would give other people who are having a difficult time accepting themselves or getting approval from those around them is time will make it better. “As long as you stay true to who you are and believe in what you stand for, people will eventually come around. They just need time,” says Apicha.