Gay Thailand

After the jump is a piece I wrote for the gay American blog, where another version was also posted. It was for the website’s “Boundaries” issue, and is supposed to highlight what I perceived as an informal-formal divide over GLBT acceptance in Thailand (i.e., there is a very sizable queer population in Thailand that is seemingly accepted, yet there is little demand for discussion of things like gay marriage and nondiscrimination policies).

“For a country with such a large and evident GLBT population, Thailand has virtually no gay rights movement. There is little formal public discussion of homosexuality, despite the fact that it still carries a dangerous stigma…there are no anti-discrimination laws in place, and…a frighteningly high HIV rate of 28%.”

I wrote this as an outsider and it was meant for a foreign publication. I don’t know what actually goes on in the Thai GLBT community; I can only give a view from my observances, research and some friendly interviews. It is lengthy for a blog post, but I’d like to put it out there, both to propel the issue forward and hear what others think and know.

“Banging the Kok: The fight (or lack their of) for GLBT acceptance in Thailand”

All countries have their share of gayness, but you could say Thailand has a heaping portion. One visit to Bangkok and you can’t deny the city has an amazing energy. Despite a traditional and religious culture, its streets pulsate with pop culture, nightclubs, music and…sex.

While the country has it’s fair share of heterosexuals, there is undeniably something gay about it: something that allows gay men and kathoeys (male to female transsexuals) to flourish. The country performs the most male to female operations in the world, and kathoeys have historically been members of Thai society with a place in its culture. I believe this is why they are, for a large part, accepted more than gay men. Kathoeys’ “transgressions” are seen as a gender-identity issue rather than sexual (same reason why in Iran being a transsexual is perfectly legal while being gay is punishable by death!). You are just as likely to see kathoeys working as a waitress, businesswoman or travel agent as you are to see her performing a cliched cabaret show. There are a few possible reasons for this seemingly contradictory acceptance.

Perhaps it’s a lax attitude or the prevalence of male femininity in Thai culture that allows kathoeys to flourish. Back in middle school, a limp wrist would have gotten me a beating on the playground, but here I feel like I’d even be fitting in–many middle school classes contain a few kathoeys already, some of whom start making the transition as young as 12 years old.

Or maybe it’s because of the absence of a religion or dogma condemning homosexuality or gender bending. I have seen Buddhist monks draped in layers of orange cloth wearing makeup befit for a drag queen. Although monks are celibate, there is nothing proscribing gay men from a life of the cloth, and most forms of Buddhism hold nothing particular against homosexuality.

What’s more, Thai society distinguishes between public identity and sexuality. Public identity is something proper and to be kept in check (riab roi is the term in Thai, I believe), while sexuality remains unchecked – and subsequently unarticulated. A Thai man can sleep with whomever he wants, but his sexuality is not likely to be broached: not by his family, politicians, media, public forums, or even by himself. There is no “coming out,” which I was surprised to learn since I obsessed for months before telling my family. Here, there is no need; family members eventually “get the idea.”

For a country with such a large and evident GLBT population, Thailand has virtually no gay rights movement. There is little formal public discussion of homosexuality, despite the fact that it still carries a dangerous stigma (in fact, it was only taken off the list of mental diseases a couple of years ago). If they come out, gay men and women face discrimination at home and at work, where there are no anti-discrimination laws in place, and banned from military service. Also, considering gay men face a frighteningly high HIV rate of 28%, there’s the erroneous fear of contagion.

While Bangkok does have an annual gay pride parade in late October, it is mostly organized by expats. City officials refuse to even issue a permit for the parade, so the event must take place on the shoulder of Silom Road, interrupted by buses pulling over to make their normal stops. People here could never hope to bring up the issue of gay marriage in politics or public discourse. In fact, the closest any Southeast Asian country seems to have come was in Cambodia when King Father Sihanouk posted on his blog (yes, he has a blog) that he admired Gavin Newsom’s directive legalizing gay marriage in San Francisco and that Cambodia should do the same. Unfortunately the Cambodian king has no political power. Sihanouk has been seceded by his son Sihamoni, a handsome ballet dancer from Paris whose own sexuality is a mum topic.

Yet to an unknowing visitor, Thailand seems like a gay paradise. Bangkok’s legendary nightlife is home to over sixty gay clubs and bars and 20 gay saunas (but who’s counting?), most of which double as meeting places for prostitutes and their johns. Visitors mostly frequent Bangkok’s nightlife strip in Silom, where most of the seedy clubs and bars popular amongst tourists are (there are, however, gay clubs frequented just by Thais). They gyrate with sweaty bodies until about 2AM, when police shut down the venues unwilling to pay extortion fees. Visitors tend to see this omnipresence of nightlife, the sex industry, effeminate men and kathoeys and conclude Thailand must be queer wonderland. And to suppressed, old, unattractive gay men from America, it may very well be. But these men are not precluded from the prudent judgment of a Thai society that turns its noses up at them; they’re just oblivious to it.

I think sexuality in contemporary Thailand has a lot to owe to the sex tourism industry. There’s an unmistakable cause and effect relationship and both probably flared up at the same time, burgeoning in the 70’s when American GI’s from Vietnam came to Thailand for their R&R missions (no doubt some of them dabbled in boys and even more got an unexpected surprise after meeting a beautiful kathoeys). The industry grew on both sides of the fence, breeding armies of limp-wristed “money boys,” who now work the bars and clubs along Silom looking to pick up foreign clients. Most of them migrate from the country’s upper provinces, and serve as the most prominent reminder of Thailand’s gap between the urban rich and rural poor.

Money boys and their sexuality were generally accepted by Thai society as ‘an appropriate job for the poor.’ And for a while, they made up the only prominent (or visible) gay population in Thailand. More recently, however, there’s a gay middle-class making waves: a relatively new and growing population of masculine men in gay relationships. Some of these men see kathoeys and money boys as an embarrassment and dislike the association they’ve created among homosexuality, femininity and prostitution.

Middle-class gays prefer the seemingly modern, Western masculine stereotypes. At California Gym in Silom, gym bunnies obsessively sculpt their bodies before going across the street to dance and take their shirts off at the wonderfully sleazy DJ Station. But now, some club promoters are taking advantage of this new “gay middle-class,” giving them another outlet to meet without the stigma or the sleaze of Silom and its money boys. The city’s premiere nightclub “BedSupper” holds a weekly gay themed party on Sundays called Think Pink, catering to those gay Thais who can shell out the $15 cover (read: not money boys). (a misshapen acronym for “Gay Entertainment”) is a new group pioneering the untapped market of the gay middle and upper-middle class, promoting nightlife, traveling and networking activities for gay men.

These developments could mark a turning point for GLBTs in Thailand. If Thai queers recognize that they they deserve full acceptance, it may be within their reach. But don’t press America’s gay movement on people here. It will backfire. Strong emotions are embarrassing in Thailand, and adopting the West’s aggressive pro-gay movement would be considered bad-mannered and backwards. Varayut Milintajinda, an openly gay Thai actor, probably offered the best advice to Thailand’s LGBT community when he said: “Everybody loves good people. So, be good people. Do some good work for society, and society will accept our lifestyles.”

It’s no “We’re Here, We’re Queer”, but it’s certainly a sound suggestion. And not just for queers.

1 Comment so far

  1. Thai TV (unregistered) on January 6th, 2007 @ 12:59 am

    Interesting article.

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