September 2023 Church & State Magazine - September 2023

Travels in Thailand: A trip abroad sparks some new perspectives

  Rachel Laser

Last month, I was fortunate to take a trip with my family to Thailand. This was the first international travel I had done since the pandemic, and though the flight times were long, it felt like an amazing privilege to experience such a different, vibrant culture. 

Usually, it takes me about three days to unwind from work before I can let it go and be in vacation mode. And every time I succeed at taking an actual break, I come back feeling more rested and with a new perspective.

This time, I had several thoughts during my time off. The first was around how distinctly American church-state separation, and hence, our organization, is. When Thai people asked me what I do, I noticed that I could not get much of a reaction out of them after I told them about Americans United.  I’ve had this experience before when I’ve described my work to people who aren’t American. 

Perhaps the response was flat in Thailand because Thai people have relatively little religious diversity. Nearly 95% of the population is Buddhist, so maybe the constitution’s requirement that the king be Buddhist and declaration that he is the “upholder of religions” doesn’t feel like an imposition. In our religiously pluralistic country, by contrast, when I talk about AU to strangers, it’s hot or cold — folks either love what we do or dislike it. My experiences in Thailand made me realize once again how unique our country’s commitment to keeping religion and government separate is.

I also came back thinking about the connection between the well-being of LGBTQ+ people and Jews. Let me explain. Our family hired a tour guide for our first day in Bangkok to take us to some of the key sites, and, as she told us about Thailand, one of the first things she boasted about was how LGBTQ+ friendly it is. 

A little story here as evidence of her point: Our trip took us from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and then to the island of Koh Samui. No matter where we were, we took time out to visit great cafes, as Thailand is known to have excellent coffee.

But for some reason, by the time we reached this last beach town, we couldn’t find the same quality of coffee as we had enjoyed elsewhere. Google Maps revealed a well-rated cafe a 15-minute drive away, which turned out to be a simple open-to-the-street shop. The cappuccinos were delicious, and before we left, I decided to buy some coffee beans to bring back for some friends. One roast they sold was called LGBT Blend (the beans came from four nations: “L” for Laos, “B” for Brazil, “G” for Guatemala and “T” for Thailand) and it came with a little rainbow flag attached to the bag! 

At our hotel, I had noticed that a lot of guests were from Israel, and many of the shops had signs in Hebrew. My husband and I were confused, so I asked a taxi driver why there were so many Israelis in Koh Samui. “Because they feel safe here,” he told me. It turns out that Thailand and Israel have very solid relations.

Thailand’s welcoming attitude toward both Jews and LGBTQ+ people made me think about the Holocaust, where both populations were massacred based on their identity. And it made me reflect on the way some religious extremists have targeted members of both communities. Consider the recent murder of Laura Ann Carleton in California, who was killed because she flew a Pride flag in her shop. The murderer’s account on X (formerly Twitter) revealed him to be homophobic and antisemitic. Just like in Thailand, the safety of LGBTQ+ people and Jews correlates.

I had a third thought on the trip. At the very end, I found out that one of our older donors (98 years old!), whom I had gotten to know on a personal level, had died. And while it made my heart hurt, I also realized that getting to know our supporters is one of the greatest joys and privileges of my work here. I will always cherish our many exchanges about your families and learning about your concerns about the country, your aspirations and your ideas for AU. 

Taking a break and changing environments is always clarifying. But it’s also such a great feeling to be excited to come back to our amazing staff and community of members. Now, excuse me while I get back to work. …  

Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. 

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