Venerable Shine Waradhammo has become an unlikely champion of Thailand’s LGBT+ community—a 52-year-old Buddhist monk who works beyond the often conservative bounds of predominantly Buddhist Thai society and the even more tradition-bound realm of Buddhist monastic officialdom. With Thailand’s parliament poised to pass a landmark Civil Partnership Bill, the voices of Phra Waradhammo and those like him have become even more relevant.*
“Treating LGBT people badly goes against the Buddha’s teachings,” emphasized Phra Waradhammo, who was ordained at the age of 21 and now defines himself as a neo-Buddhist. “LGBT people are also humans, they are also Buddhists, and as a monk I support and accept all Buddhist people, and aim to reduce their suffering.” (Thomson Reuters Foundation)
Although Buddhist-majority Thailand, which decriminalized homosexuality in 1956, is broadly open to and accepting of non-mainstream sexual and gender identities, LGBT+ people still experience discrimination and prejudice from many aspects of society and day-to-day life, where traditional mores continue to hold sway.
Activists say that LGBT+ people face social hurdles in education, the workplace, the healthcare system, the military, the monastic community, and are often rejected by their own families due to traditional patriarchal expectations.
“The Buddha never said anything against LGBT people, so it is a very wrong interpretation of the scriptures that leads to bias and rejection of LGBT people,” said Phra Waradhammo. “Monks generally avoid talking about LGBT and gender issues, but we should be talking about issues that affect society, and religious teachings have to reflect the present times—otherwise religion becomes a dinosaur.” (Thomson Reuters Foundation)
Reflecting a gradual tide change in official circles, Thailand’s Civil Partnership Bill, which began its journey through the Thai legislature in 2018, received backing from the Thai cabinet in July this year.* If the bill is passed into law, registered same-sex couples will receive almost the same legal rights as married heterosexual, cisgendered couples, including joint property ownership and inheritance rights, as well as the right to adopt children as a couple.
Taiwan became the first Asian government to legalize same-sex marriage in May last year, while India cast out centuries-old colonial legislation prohibiting gay sex in 2018. Hong Kong, where Buddhistdoor Global is based, last year abolished or revised several offenses that criminalized sex between men, yet continues to resist calls to provide equal rights for same-sex unions. Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore, meanwhile, still outlaw sexual relations between men.
“The Civil Partnership Bill does not give [full] equal rights. Changing the Civil Code would be better,” Phra Waradhammo, who is also a defender of legalizing abortion, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “But changing the Civil Code would take longer, as we still have many old-fashioned people in parliament. So perhaps they will prefer to pass the Civil Partnership Bill first.” (Thomson Reuters Foundation)
Phra Waradhammo concedes that he was not always so openminded toward non-mainstream identities. “I had a negative view,” he admits, but after learning more his perspective changed. “I realized little by little that the issue of LGBT and abortion is related to gender discrimination . . . with prejudices imposed by society.” (express)
Those difficulties extend to the world of Buddhist monasticism, in which openly LGBT+ people are prohibited from being ordained, although they are often tolerated if they are able to outwardly identify as male.
“Buddhism [in Thailand] was created only for heterosexual people. Male and female are the only genders that are recognized by the religion,” Phra Waradhammo said, observing that people whose identities don’t fall into either of those two groups “have no place to be.” He continued: “It’s already difficult for katoey** to integrate into society, but religion makes it worse.” (Bangkok Post)
Although Thai society is in many ways tolerant and progressive, its deeply conservative roots continue to hold strong sway. It is often taught that people are born LGBT+ as a result of “bad” karma accumulated in past lives, so the views espoused by Phra Waradhammo can seem subversive.
“As a monk, I believe that the Buddhist teachings should be interpreted in accordance with social realities. If they are not interpreted in this way, they are useless,” said Phra Waradhammo. “Between people and religion, people should come first. We should try to free people from their suffering. If we want to protect these teachings, we have to find a way to interpret them according to the life and customs of the people.” (express)
Thailand is a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, with 94.5 per cent of the nation’s population of 69 million identifying as Buddhists, according to government census data for 2015. The Southeast Asian kingdom has some 40,000 temples and almost 300,000 Buddhist monks. While communities of female renunciants also exist, the monastic authorities in Thailand have never officially recognized the full ordination of women, and bhikkhunis do not generally enjoy the same level of societal acceptance as their male counterparts.
* Thailand Moves to Recognize Same-sex Unions (Buddhistdoor Global)
** A Thai word widely used to describe both gay and transgender people.
‘LGBT people are also humans’: Thai Buddhist monk backs equality (Thomson Reuters Foundation)
Gay couples to ‘live more freely’ with Thai civil unions (Openly)
Thai Rainbow Community Backed by Buddhist Monk Seeking LGBT+ Rights (express)
Paradise or paradox? (Bangkok Post)
Young monks struggle with gender issues (Bangkok Post)