Pauline Ngarmpring says Thailand is far from an LGBTIQ+ "paradise", despite its reputation for embracing diversity.
Abbie O'Brien reports from Bangkok, Thailand
It might seem like an unusual place to stage a political campaign.
In fact, most politicians tend to steer clear of Bangkok’s infamous red light districts.
But amid the bright lights, the go-go bars and the throngs of tourists, are Pauline Ngarmpring’s most enthusiastic supporters.
Here, Thailand’s first transgender prime ministerial candidate is somewhat of a celebrity.
As she winds her way through the area's laneways with a team of campaigners in tow, street-vendors, bar-owners and entertainers stop Ms Ngarmpring for a selfie.
Ms Ngarmpring, 52, is one of three candidates from Thailand’s Mahachon Party vying for the top job in this weekend's election.
Ten of the 20 party members running for a seat in the country's parliament are transgender, and decriminalising prostitution and pushing for greater LGBTQI+ rights are among its key policies.
She tells SBS News she knows she has no chance of becoming prime minister in Sunday’s vote - but she hopes her candidacy will help change attitudes.
"I just want to let them know that they are someone, and that at least one political party cares about them. We need LGBT people in the parliament, to tell them 'hey, you are a human being, a Thai citizen, the same as me'."
We need LGBT people in the parliament, to tell them 'hey, you are a human being, a Thai citizen, the same as me.
- Pauline Ngarmpring
Before entering politics, Ms Ngarmpring was a well-known sports promoter. She transitioned when she was 49.
"I didn’t know at the time that I can be much better - until I became Pauline," she says.
From the outside, Thailand projects an image as a haven for the LGBTQI+ community.
The owner of one gay bar in the area says for years Bangkok’s vibrant nightlife has lured hordes of tourists for that reason.
"The gays around the world come to Bangkok because we are very open about gay life," he says.
In Patong, one of Bangkok's most prominent red-light districts, it’s easy to see how Thailand has earned its reputation as a nation that embraces gender and sexual diversity.
But Ms Ngarmpring says if you take away the bars, the tourists and the neon lights, the reality of acceptance isn’t quite what it seems.
"The perception of people who visit Thailand and see us as LGBT paradise - it’s just from tourism perspective.
"We still have difficulties living openly [as] LGBT. Discrimination is in companies, in schools, in public service agencies, in everything."
In 2017 Kath Khangpiboon, a transgender lecturer at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, was suspended after she posted an image of a penis-shaped lipstick to her Instagram page.
She told SBS News at the time, the university deemed it “inappropriate behaviour.”
"I think it’s not the main reason. It was gender-based discrimination and so I took it to the administrative court."
Ms Khangpiboon successfully sued the university and was later reinstated to her position.
"There’s still a lot of stigma here, a lot of discrimination in Thailand," she said this week.
"A lot of discrimination in employment and education and healthcare."
Ms Ngarmpring hopes that will continue to change.
"In Thailand we have transgender doctors, we have transgender teachers. We have a lot of ... LGBT successful people."
Her hope is that someday, prime minister will be on that list.
Abbie O'Brien will be reporting from the Thailand election this weekend for SBS News