Thailand - Canada could stand to learn some lessons from this Asian nation. Recently passed legislation allowing same-sex marriage is a great step forward for Canada, but the push to accomplish this feat unearthed a current of prejudice against gays, lesbians and bisexuals. According to polls conducted before the bill passed, 52 per cent of Canadians disagree with changing the definition of marriage. That's a far cry from Thailand, where anything goes. The Thais have moved boyond mere tolerance concerning gay rights, and have surged forward into the realm of acceptance - and sometimes even celebration.
Homosexuals are lauded for the major role they play in high society; some preside over soirées at large hotels. Besides socialites, Thailand has had two reputedly gay prime ministers in the past 25 years. Gay Thai men and women are open about their sexuality, and their comfort is reflected in the country's thriving gay scenes.
Thais have Canadians beat hands down in their acceptance of transgendered people. Bangkok is the transsexual capital of the world, and the Thai city of Patong runs a close second. Any visitor to Thailand can probably gleefully (or mournfully, depending on the degree to which they were fooled) recall stories of meeting "lady-boys" - Thai men who dress and behave like women. Often it's only the Adam's apple or deep voice that reveals the secret.
Lady-boys range from those who dress up in drag every now and then to transsexuals who have had a complete sex change. Tomboys, Thai women who dress and act as men, are also common but tend to be less obvious and easier to miss. The widespread acceptance of transgendered people and their prevalence in the service industry gives the impression that Thailand is host to many more transgendered people than other countries.
Opportunities abound here for lady-boys. The most attractive of them can win fame and fortune in beauty contests and cabarets, while others work in hair salons, restaurants, bars and hotels.
Their careers aren't always so stereotypical; one of the most celebrated lady-boys in Thai history, Nong Toom, was a top Muay Thai boxer. In Muay Thai, the national pastime and one of the world's most brutal sports, fights are filled with rituals, blood and music. With the exception of head butting, all blows are legal.
Nong Toom would enter the ring in full makeup, sometimes even wearing a wig, and intimidate his opponents by blowing kisses and acting effeminate. It worked, and he was Muay Thai's undefeated champion for much of his career.
His foray into boxing was motivated by his desire to save money for a sex change and to financially support his family. Once he accomplished both, he retired from the ring. On December 5, 1999, he completed his transformation into a striking woman at the hands of Bangkok's best surgeons.
These same surgeons have been attracting a different kind of tourist to Bangkok. In Thailand, sex-change operations start at $7,820, way cheaper than in most places. Prices dip even lower if the patient allows the operation to be a demonstration for university students. Visitors from all over Asia, Europe and North America regularly flock to Bangkok in search of the ultimate souvenir: a sex realignment.
Why the high acceptance of difference in Thailand, when the very notion seems foreign to many Canadians?
Most Thais are quick to credit their devotion to Buddhism for their open-minded culture. More than 95 per cent of people in Thailand identify themselves as Theravada Buddhists, a religion with a strong creed of acceptance.
According to Thai interpretations of Buddhist philosophy, as explained to me by one local, what's most important is that you have a good heart. Buddhists also strongly believe that it's predetermined from birth whether a person will be a lady-boy or tomboy.
This philosophy has even influenced national legislation: recent changes to Thailand's constitution allow those who have undergone a sex-change operation to alter their gender on certain legal documents.
Not everyone agrees that Thailand is so open. Some argue that lady-boys are still subject to ridicule from Thais, tourists and the media. They note that lady-boys are often unable to gain employment professionally or in offices, which is the reason why there are so many in the service industry.
But Thailand's embrace of difference still puts Canada to shame. It also poses a challenge to an age-old bias: is the West really more advanced?