In mid 1994, the trend became clear. A Thai gay identity is being born in a non-homophobic society. A sign of this was reflected in its gay businesses. . . . There was also an astonishing surge in the number of gay venues without male sex workers. . . . Some may think that the Thai gay world is developing, but we think it is evolving to meet the needs of Thai gay men.
This passage clearly yokes the "surge in the number of gay venues" with "the needs of Thai gay men." Although the assertion that Thailand is "non-homophobic" is contradicted unanimously by the men I interviewed, as well as in letters written by Thai men to "Uncle Go" in Dear Uncle Go (Jackson) and journalistic accounts such as "A Plea for Tolerance" (Chamsanit), what Allyn and Samorn imagine as a "sign of this" supposed non-homophobia describes an economic shift. The emergence of gay businesses and venues, as well as the change in the types of services offered, links economic success in an international market to the desires of Thai gay men. The Men of Thailand Guide jubilantly pronounces 1986 the year farang labeled Thailand a "gay paradise," but it also claims that the scene is "evolving," not "developing," and that it evolves according to Thai needs rather than farang desire. The refusal to attribute this change to "development" recognizes that such a term would insinuate the uncritical replication of western structures. Proposing evolution based on the needs of Thai gay men presents an example of what Arjun Appadurai describes as "a space of contestation in which individuals and groups seek to annex the global into their own practices of the modern" (4). Oad similarly remarks on Bangkok society's increasing awareness and acceptance of the appearance of western style gay culture: "Ten years ago, straight people didn't accept [the presence of gays] as much as now, but now they are open minded and accept it. We live in the capital city." His positioning of Bangkok acknowledges that the site of increased economic activity is also where new ideas and experiences evolve.
Perhaps the best way to comprehend Thai social values is to focus on its basic unit, the family, and in particular the rural family in its typical village setting. Generally this will be an extended family. . . . Respect for elders is taught very early, . . . and by the time a child walks he is aware of his position in the family hierarchy, a distinction that applies not only to the relationship between parents and children but also to that between siblings of different ages. This same delineation of roles also applies to the wider world outside the family and will remain deeply ingrained throughout life. . . . (56-7)
Thai children see themselves as part of their extended family, community and nation from a very early age, and with this participation comes the acceptance of duties and obligations. Imbued with the responsibilities inherent in Thai-ness, Law is very concerned about his position in his family; he says that first and foremost he wants to be a good Thai son, and feels guilty that he ignored his parents' request that he marry. Consequently, he puts most of his salary towards the construction of an exquisite house for his parents that includes fixtures imported from Europe and a greenhouse for orchids. This is exorbitant in his small, tropical village which consists of two dirt roads, a temple, rice fields and other rudimentary homes which do not possess running water or plumbing. By doing this, he fulfills the primary Thai obligation of showing respect to his parents, exceeding their expectations and incorporating his own.
Gai is really country and still spends a lot of time there. He doesn't need much. Steven gives money, instead of "helping" him. It makes Gai dependent directly on Steven. In Jep's case, John will give Jep money to study or whatever he wants to do. But Jep is starting to take advantage of it. Recently, he enrolled in three English classes and never went. And Jin is going to lose Shawn because he cheats on him all the time, even though he needs his support.
Law recognizes that the Bangkok gay community privileges youth and worries that his friends may not realize this because the Thai society endows status on increasing age. These contradictory positions of respect mark an instance where being gay and being Thai do not mesh. Law finds that his friends perceive their current positions within the two as stable, while he believes that decisions they make now will affect how they will be perceived and what opportunities will be available to them in a future where social roles are continually shifting and changing.
I talked about this to many westerners. Somebody said, okay you are gay. But I don't feel gay. But I feel bisexual. Somebody said I am gay even if I feel bisexual because I never have/had [tense unclear] sex with women, so how can I be bisexual if I've never had sex with women? But I am Thai, and I still believe that kind of Thai attitude that you can't have sex with a Thai woman until you marry her. I don't go to prostitutes because I don't want to, though someone said if I don't go and I get married, I won't know how to make love. But I already know how to make love. So I don't have sex with women, but I call myself bisexual anyway.
By describing himself as bisexual despite his lack of experience with women, he reveals both his anxiety that "being gay" is incompatible with his future plans and his membership within traditional Thai society, as well as his resistance to western categorizations. Oad dismisses farang attempts to assign him an identity based on his sexual history. Despite pressure from his friends to have sex with a sex-worker, he declares that he "already know[s] how to make love," insinuating that sex with farang men will prepare him for sex with Thai women. He will not accept the label of "gay" despite his actions--he consistently has sex and relationships with farang men, he is an active member of the gay community, recreating at gay bars, clubs and restaurants, and he works in the farang oriented service sector--all of which are the qualifications presented by other Thai men to describe being gay. This marks his resistance to farang pressure, his refusal to accept an identity based on his current actions, and his concern that being gay will affect his ability to be Thai. Oad's fluctuation in his self description illustrates one strategy for managing what he perceives as a contested, inconsistent and contradictory position. Other strategies exist, and the possibilities are proliferating.
- "Fuck me faster, harder!" [the student] pleaded. "Please, sir! It
- feels so good!"
- I was so stunned and excited by his passion that I didn't realize he'd
- spoken English. . . " That was the most complete sentence I ever heard you speak, Ek. Where did you learn that kind of talk?"
- "From a magazine called In Touch my friend lent me."
- "You understand what you were saying?"
- "Sure, sir. It was the first English I could ever remember."
- That night, he taught me a few more really filthy phrases in English
- and several things I had not thought about doing.
- From that night on, after tutoring him in polite English, he taught me
a whole encyclopedia of sexology. He also stopped stuttering.(36-7)
In this passage, learning English not only provides the opportunity for sex between teacher and student, it comically reverses the expectations set up in the pupil/teacher dynamic. The shy, stuttering student, unable to understand or speak English, is transformed through sex as a result of his exposure to the combination of English language teacher and English language magazine. The knowledge gleaned from the English magazine enhances his erotic acumen, enabling him to teach his teacher. And this knowledge and acumen enable his speech fluency during sex. The story depicts the common Thai scenario of a student being tutored in English, but it puts in a series of erotic twists and, in the process, suggests sexual pleasures may accompany English language learning experiences. Furthermore, the story insinuates that farang gays exercise exotic acts and that the knowledge and practice of these acts increases sexual pleasure.
I have known so many westerners who are gay, and they came to Thailand just to find a lover. They want to find a lover that will be with them for the rest of their life. But they come here to Thailand, and they use their imagination and think that Thai boys are sweet or whatever. But I think eventually they see it's not true. I don't think it's easy to find that type of good Thai gay man. Most of them just want money from westerners. (interview)Oad says that Thai men involved with farang try to occupy this imaginary position, but, after a while, they normally fail to conform to the farang's preconceived image. At this point, relationships often flounder. Disappointed but not disillusioned, farang men frequently search out new Thai partners and uncritically reassert their stereotypical expectations.
Rather than employing western words to note the many sites where information, ideas and people originate, I will use the Thai word farang (as a noun, both singular and plural and as an adjective), which is a Thai word that originally meant "French person" but has come to represent most non-Asians, especially Europeans and Americans, in Thailand. Thais have specific words to denote the race or ethnicity of other Asians: Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Laotians. South Asians, who have lived in Thailand for several centuries and have acted as trading partners with Thailand for longer are referred to as khon khek, or guests. The word farang is used constantly in Bangkok and throughout Thailand, so I will use this term rather than a non-Thai word to describe non-Asians in Bangkok since it affects how these groups of people are imagined by Thais and by themselves in Thailand. The word farang reflects how Thais conceptualize the recent (last 300 years) groups of peoples who have appeared in Thailand and imposed their economies and cultures upon (or at least positioned them in relation to) those of Thailand. Back
For a thorough account of the economic and cultural changes in Thailand during this decade, see Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker's two publications: Thailand's Boom! and Thailand: Economy and Politics. Since the time of my research, the Thai economy has taken a drastic turn for the worse. The Baht, Thailand's monetary unit, was no longer valued according to a "basket" of currencies (the largest of which was the US Dollar). Floating freely in international currency markets resulted in a drastic, unforeseen devaluation. As a result, the I.M.F. began a bailout in December 1997. Back
My archive includes informal conversations with over forty self-identified gay Thai men and twelve formal interviews, as well as discussions with approximately fifteen western men involved in this scene. I have also traced the representation of gayness in Thailand in English language texts available in Bangkok during the period of my research. All of this data was collected between August 1995 and June 1996, and in October 1996. Back
One interesting result is the popularity of luk krung (biracial Thais). A large number of singers and actors in Thailand's prolific music, television and movie industries are of mixed race, and a significant number of them have been raised outside of Thailand. This marks a huge ideological shift; luk krung used to be vociferously rejected by Thai society because they symbolized a woman's involvement with a westerner, which alluded to prostitution. Until recently, most luk krung born in Thailand were not considered Thai citizens and were not entitled to government mandated education or health care. Back
The Men Of Thailand Guide To Thailand 6. There are several points in this statement that I disagree with. While Thailand is remarkably less homophobic than many countries (illustrated by the common acknowledgement that three of the Thai Prime Ministers in the last twenty years have been known to have sex with men), self-identified gay Thai men still face homophobia and discrimination for several reasons: initially AIDS was presented as a "gay disease," and Thai men with farang are often assumed to be sex-workers worthy of disdain. Because of the relative silence about sexual actions, many farang believe that Thailand is a non-homophobic society; thus Thailand is often depicted by non-Thais as a gay paradise and many tourists come to Thailand specifically for this reason. By perceiving silence as freedom, visitors often do not realize the potential isolation, condemnation and rejection Thais face when they do not fulfill their parents' expectations as a result, either directly or indirectly, of their participation in the gay community. Back
See Denis Segaller, William J. Klausner, and Robert and Nanthapa Cooper. Back
That Law and two other men in his village find it important to build homes for their parents, an obligation once reserved for women, illustrates that the expectations for being a good Thai are also changing because, at least in part, of the increased opportunities for economic advancement. Historically, women and their husbands would inhabit and eventually inherit the parents' home and land. Thus it was their duty, and in their best interest, to improve it. Now, the child who achieves the most economic success should improve the lives of his/her parents. Back
See Anderson's "The State of Thai Studies: The Studies of the Thai State" for a description of the racism involved in the concept of Thai-ness and the emphasis past scholarship has had in developing and defining Thai-ness. Back
Anderson and Mendiones, In the Mirror: Politics in Siam in the American Era, and Suvanna Kriengkraipetch and Larry E. Smith, Value Conflicts in Thai Society: Agonies of Change Seen in Short Stories. In the latter work, analyses are grouped in the following categories: Traditions vs. Modernity, Individualism vs. Group Solidarity, New Barriers to Social Mobility, Role Conflicts of Women, and Ideological Confusion. The readings, as these headings suggest, highlight the conflicts in Thai values brought about by increased participation in the global economy. Back
This included the opportunity for international travel and both national and international recognition. Oad's achievement was announced in the Thai and English language presses, as well as presses in Singapore, and he received an all-expense-paid trip to Singapore to meet with other Young Leaders and government officials from many Asian nations. Back
Thais increasingly consider their ruins and traditional wooden structures to be important aesthetic achievements, enjoyable to visit and worth preserving rather than neglecting or destroying for modern constructions. This is promoted by the Tourist Authority of Thailand, which started to designate ruins as national monuments, promoting them as important historical sites and investing in their upkeep to increase tourism. While sometimes considered a strategy pandering to western tourists' expectations and practices (Thai people historically visited temples with famous monks), many Thai people are starting to visit ruins, and repair, rather than renovate, Thai temples. Back
Mai-Tai's are sweet cocktails which farang tourists often order, assuming the name refers to a Thai origin. They are not a drink indigenous to Thailand yet are frequently available in bars, clubs and restaurants that cater to farang. Back
"Three Sexes" 19. See this essay for a description of the history and position of kathoey in Thai society. For a discussion in which she complicates this strong assertion, revising her assertion that kathoey constitute a third sex, as well as providing additional analysis, refer to her more recent essay, "Educating Desire." More general descriptions of kathoey and how they are positioned in mainstream Thai society can be found in Dear Uncle Go and The Men of Thailand Guide to Thailand. Back
Describing the current state of Thailand's economy, Teera Phutrakul, director of a Thai mutual fund, told the New York Times, "Once you call the I.M.F., the party's over" (Friedman). The following description of "the Show" occurred when "the party" was in full swing. Back
Benedict Anderson provides the following explanation of the role class plays in how these men identify themselves:
It isn't that kathoey have low social standing, but that only people of low social standing are kathoey. Class norms are such that effeminate middle class or upper class boys simply aren't permitted to dress in drag on an everyday basis. . . . Family status and respectability are at stake. . . "[G]ayness" is a middle class thing mainly, or a thing for people aspiring to middle class status. Insofar as kathoey equals lower class, you'd see why there might be a wish to stigmatize people too close to you. (personal correspondence) Back
For example, "When Little Girls are Made of Boys" by Emily Hohler about a girl with male chromosomes, and "The Boy who Grew up into a Woman" about an American hermaphrodite who sat for Salvador Dali." Also Chakrvarty, "Eunuch Enters Fray in India General Election." Back
The first article about kathoey, and any kind of same sex desire among Thais, appeared in 1992 by Malcolm Linton entitled "The Boys Who Steal the Show." Others appear periodically, such as "Crossing the Gender Divide" by Suda Kanjanawanawan (1995). Back
Emily Smith, "Gender-Bending from Backstage to Limelight" about gays in Hollywood. Also, on November 3, 1995, there were 3 articles about gays in the west on one page in the Nation: "Hit Films Woo Mainstream public to London's Drag Clubs" by Joelle Diderich and "Hollywood Stars Stay in the Closet," and "The Gay Revolution," both by Georgette Gouveia. Back
For example, "Festival puts Australia on Gay Tourist Map" by Michael Perry. Back
Varaporn Chamsanit, "A Plea for Tolerance." This article reviews a press conference called "Gender Bending in Thailand" held in English at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand on 17 Jan. 1996. Back
"Disc Jockeys charged with Procuring Boys," "Radio Pair to Go After Being Declared Undesirable Aliens" by Anan Paengnov, "Two DJs Declared Persona Non Grata," and many other stories about two farang DJs who had a daily show at a radio station in Bangkok appeared in October and November 1995. These DJs (Clifford R. J. Armstrong and Ian David Baker) were later deported to England after many reports questioning the validity of the charges including letters to the editor by the two men claiming their innocence. In addition, Australian diplomats were accused of paedophilia ("Inquiry into Paedophilia Diplomats Claim") and a German gay pederast was reported to have four boys aged 8-13 in his flat when he was arrested. He was jailed a record 43 years, the heaviest single sentence ever imposed on a foreigner. See "German Pederast Gets 43 Years," "German Paedophile is Jailed Record 43 Years," and, for more detailed reports and background information, Donald Wilson and David Henley's "Portrait of a Paedophile" and "Why Paedophiles Target Thailand." Back