If You Care About LGBTQ Rights, You Should Care About Human Trafficking Too
Let’s Get Intersectional
Do you ever feel alone in your commitment to social justice and ending child exploitation? Here at The SOLD Project we want to talk about how ending child slavery is not just for freedom activists, but how it’s also an issue that should interest and invite involvement from a wide range of other sectors in society. We’re introducing a new recurring feature called Let’s Get Intersectional, in which we will share how anti-trafficking efforts intersect with other concerns, and how we can expand the conversation to include others.
Min is vivacious, talkative and gregarious. She’s the live wire spark at any social gathering. Whether dressed in the slacks and pressed shirt of the boys’ school uniform, or, as she prefers, in bright silk dresses adorned with flowers, lacy scarves and a sassy wig, Min is unafraid to display her full smile and quick wit. One wouldn’t know it to look at her, but Min* is a child at-risk because she identifies as transgender, and despite Thailand’s outward acceptance towards LGBTQ tourists, the reality for LGBTQ Thais remains fraught with challenge: alienation, ridicule, and sometimes abuse.
Although Thailand markets itself as a “pink” tourist destination that embraces everyone, there is still widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people. Jobs are only available in sectors like waitressing, beauty parlors, the sex industry, and entertainment–where they are often the subject of comic relief and demeaning humor. More “serious” industries like banking, the medical profession, and law are usually off-limits. Families with LGBTQ teens might send them for psychiatric treatment, kick them out of the home, or even send them to serve as monks at Buddhist temples to “be cured.” In 2002 the Thai Ministry of Health finally declared that homosexuality should not be considered a mental illness—but it’s taking society a bit longer to catch up. Violence against LGBTQ people includes rape and murder that often goes unmarked because Thai law does not have a special classification for hate crimes. In a recent survey of 2,000 LGBT students, a third reported being physically harassed, and a quarter reported sexual abuse. Kids who are isolated from support structures, whether kicked out of their home or forced on their own and cannot get jobs, are precisely those most vulnerable to trafficking—the most susceptible to the demand for children to exploit. We hear most about the young girls, but young boys are in demand too.
Thailand isn’t the only place where LGBTQ children are at-risk. In the U.S., for example, LGBTQ individuals make up 40% of the runaway and homeless youth population, and it is estimated that over a quarter of LGBTQ youths are forced out of homes by families who do not accept them. And LGBTQ homeless youths experience an average of over 7 more acts of sexual violence towards them than their heterosexual and cisgendered peers.
The stigma against homosexuality invites other kinds of trauma as well. Boys who have been abused stay silent for fear of what it means for their sexual identity, and LGBTQ teens are dehumanized to the extent that predators target them for abuse because they “want” it or “deserve” it. Gender norms also tend to perpetuate the myth that “real men cannot be abused.” As such, the psychological effects of abuse often prevent kids from getting the help they need for fear of further violence—or because they don’t even understand that they have been abused.
I feel lucky because I have some natural ability to feel confident and I’m extroverted. This makes things so much easier for me, and for people to accept me. I think people who are more introverted have it much harder. They have to be strong to survive. – Min, age 15
It is our experience that poverty, social alienation, isolation, and exclusion from job opportunities are all key ingredients in the recipe for trafficking. However, acceptance, support, and encouragement can be life changing for vulnerable youths. Those committed to the fight against child trafficking must also be concerned with the struggle to uphold LGBTQ rights because violations against the latter so often put people at risk of trafficking. Likewise, if you’re concerned about the rights and welfare of LGBTQ youths, the problem of child trafficking should also be on your radar, because as long as both the discrimination against and the demand for children’s bodies exists, more vulnerable LGBTQ youths will always be at-risk of exploitation.
Min once shared her fear that she would not be able to pursue her dream job of becoming a flight attendant due to discrimination. Her mother once was depressed about who her son was. But now, Min has the support of the entire SOLD community. She shows up at all our events, dressing and behaving exactly as she wants to be seen, and her family feels encouraged to love her, just as she is. She is very aware of the value of this support as well—she knows how hard it has been for friends who face similar circumstances but who do not have that support. She feels lucky to have the encouragement to be herself, and she feels grateful for the chance to have a place in society, to go out and experience life fully. The challenges she still faces are real, but she knows she is not alone—and that has made all the difference.
*Name changed to protect privacy.
Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Editor for The SOLD Project. After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness.