Supporting the LGBT Movement in Thailand

November 06, 2012

Kathryn Norsworthy, professor of graduate studies
Ouyporn Khuankaew with Kathryn Norsworthy, professor of graduate studies in counseling.

As the mist rises over the rice paddies in the rural Thai village of Ban Mai, Kathryn Norsworthy joins a circle of 23 women seated on straw mats under a thatched roof. This group is up to big things, the least of which is achieving the audacious goal of unifying Thailand’s dissipate LGBT movement. So what’s a Rollins professor doing here? The answer to that question is found in a story that began 17 years ago.

In 1996, a friend introduced Norsworthy to Ouyporn Khuankaew, a Thai native who shared Norsworthy’s commitment to feminist activism. This being pre-email days, the pair started corresponding by letters and fax. “Even through our written correspondence we began to bond as we discovered so many common values, experiences, and interests, despite being from opposite sides of the world,” said Norsworthy, who has traveled to Thailand more than 30 times since the 1970s. “A year later we met and started working on our first project together.”

Norsworthy, who is a professor of graduate studies in counseling, spent her 1999 sabbatical in Thailand, devoting much of her time to helping Khuankaew establish an international organization for women’s issues. The two activists dreamed of having a physical center where women could meet and attend workshops. “By 2002, the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice was established and we raised enough money to convert an old rice barn into a meeting space, small office, and guest room for visiting teachers—the beginnings of what Ouyporn has now built into a full-fledged retreat center.”

Fast forward 10 years, and that humble center has gone from one building to seven, and now features a guesthouse, dormitory, kitchen and dining area, library, meditation hall, office, and an open-air sala used for workshop space. It’s in this workshop space that Norsworthy and Khuankaew welcomed 23 leaders from Thailand’s lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community this past summer. 

The project was sponsored by the Foundation for SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) Rights and Justice, a national organization devoted to achieving full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) citizens of Thailand.

“We started working on building a national social movement for LGBT rights and strengthening the relationships among the lesbian, bisexual women, and transgender leaders within the movement, particularly through experiential activities designed to help them understand the ways that sexism, homophobia, and heterosexism can undermine their connections with one another and lead to conflict and division,” Norsworthy said. “By the end of the workshop, group members also designed social change-focused action plans to be implemented when they returned to their organizations and home communities.”

No stranger to LGBT activism, Norsworthy has spent more than a decade working with the Orlando Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Committee (OADO) to secure protection for Central Floridians from discrimination on the bases of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. She has also been quite active on the Rollins campus.  For example, Norsworthy is a co-founder of the Rollins Safe Zone program and was actively engaged in adding gender identity to Rollins’ antidiscrimination policy and advocating for domestic partner benefits now offered by the College.

Focusing her activism on Thailand has always felt right. “Through this work and the process of forming deep, meaningful connections with people with different cultural and social identities than mine, I have come to understand how all of our liberatens are bound up together, how we need to learn to be allies for one another by being good listeners, and how we have much to learn from one another,”Norsworthy said. “Everything I do now, everything at Rollins and in the local LGBT community, is inextricably bound up with my relationship with Thailand and with what Ouyporn and I have learned from one another and from the groups with whom we collaborate.”

Kathryn Norsworthy, professor of graduate studies
Leaders from Thailand's LGBT community meet to discuss ways to unify and strengthen the movement.

The work Norsworthy and Khuankaew did this summer with the LGBT leaders has already started to have an impact. For example, one of the national LBT organizations, Anjaree, has started a public awareness campaign, called “Out of the Box,”which is a series ofweb-based videos that discuss the effects of homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia and offer ideas for changing these attitudes within the LGBT community and in the larger straight society. Another transgender member of Norsworthy’s group was recently featured in an article in the August 10 edition of the Bangkok Post, raising public awareness about the situation in Thailand for female to male “transmen.”

“The work in Thailand also offers an opportunity for forming cross-national alliances and partnerships, which makes our local and national LGBT social justice movements even more powerful and potent,” Norsworthy said. ”I am convinced that what happens in other parts of the world effects us here at home, and how successful we are in the U.S. and even here at Rollins and in Central Florida influences the international web of change we see happening for many LGBT communities around the globe.”


FOOTNOTE: During the workshop, a team from the Thailand PBS television show, Life Explorer, interviewed Norsworthy and Khuankaew and filmed two days of their work with the LBT group. The show aired on August 29 and highlighted the LGBT communities of Thailand and their struggles for justice and equality, particularly within the context of a predominantly Buddhist country. The segment featuring their work begins at approximately 32 minutes.


By Kristen Manieri

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