Luksika Kumkhum frowns for a moment, then smiles. Her tennis career has taken her to many countries and given her many titles at the lower echelons of the sport. But it’s not just for the tireless running and ability to set up points that Thailand’s no 1 women’s player is known for. Not even for that rare two-handed forehand that she hits through, flat and hard.
In the tennis world, she is among the few in the present generation of athletes to have come out as openly gay. “I’m used to it now,” she says, casually, when asked if she has been asked about her sexual orientation while on tour. “When I go to another country, they’re surprised. They’re like, ‘oh, you’re a man, right?’ I say no, I’m a woman. But then they don’t say anything. They just say OK and that’s that,” she adds after progressing to the semi-final of the 125K WTA Mumbai Open by beating world no 47 Saisai Zheng of China 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.
Laws regarding the LGBT community in several nations have become liberal over the years. Yet in her own country, the situation has been far more grave. A highly popular tourist destination within the South East Asian region, Thailand is considered among the most progressive countries in Asia, with the LGBT community having voted the capital Bangkok as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the continent. Yet that rule applies only for foreigners.
“Thai law does little to protect the LGBTI community from discrimination,” said a report in the South China Morning Post. “Same-sex marriages are not recognised and transgender people cannot change their gender on ID cards and other official documents.”
Kumkhum though asserts that the reception towards the LGBT community is steadily changing. “It’s still not like Taiwan, where you can marry and all, but people at home accept it a bit more. But there is still the old thinking,” says the 25-year-old. “I’m comfortable with this. There are so many people in the world who are gay, but you’re still a person. If I’m doing good, and I haven’t killed anyone, then it’s fine.”
On the tour, the former world no 85 had announced herself by pulling off an upset win over former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova at the 2014 Australian Open. And earlier this year, the world no 103 reached the third round at Melbourne Park, beating former world no 7 Belinda Bencic of Switzerland enroute to her best finish at a Grand Slam.
She started playing tennis at the age of four when her father introduced her to the game. Hailing from Chantraburi near the Cambodia border, she moved to Bangkok when she turned 12 after she had started to progress through the domestic rankings. “My father was my coach, but he was always talking about tennis,” she says. “He was too intense. Now my mother is the one who keeps in touch.”
Though society in Thailand is conservative, Kumkhum found solace in her family’s acceptance of her. “I think I showed them by my actions when I was young. I didn’t want to wear a skirt, I was a tomboy,” she says, laughing. “They’re happy with me the way I am too. It’s also safe. You don’t have a boyfriend, you don’t get pregnant early or something like that.”
Back home, her followers have started to recognise her for her skill with the tennis racquet rather than for her sexual orientation. The likes of Tamarine Tanasugarn, the former world no 19, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist who is the country’s greatest women’s player, keeps in touch with Kumkhum’s performances and constantly messages her.
The youngster asserts her target at the Mumbai Open was to get to at least the semi-final. She’s done that by ousting the top seed. She’s fighting her battle on court, but for the long run, there’s a hope that the reception to the LGBT community back home will open up in the long run. “In the future, maybe when I’m older I’ll want to have a family,” she says, smiling again. “But for now I’m happy the way I am.”