Are there any “real men” who prefer to have sex with “real men”?
To those of us who live in the gay sphere the answer is obvious and the question makes the questioner the one who is queer. We know men who are male in every way who love someone who is physically, psychologically and emotionally male. We probably also know men who are sexually active with males exclusively.
But in Thailand I believe the majority of people have trouble with this. Everywhere we turn we hear the refrain, “He’s a real man” in answer to the question, “Is he gay?” “Real men” and “gay men” are mutually exclusive categories – one cannot be both.
If the “he” has some effeminate characteristics and is a target of doubt as to his sexual preferences, he will be thought of as a katoey (commonly understood to be a female born in a male body) no matter what he says. If he is not effeminate in the least he will probably try to keep from disclosing his preference for sex with males.
Contrary to considered opinion I have heard, I do not believe that this is simply because of unfamiliarity or discomfort with the term “gay”. I think, rather, there is just no category for men who want to have sex with men. A guy who wants to have sex with men (especially if he prefers the passive role, or even if he is just willing to accede to it) must be a katoey. He may admit it or not; actions speak louder than words. He is stigmatized if he is a katoey, ridiculed if he denies it, and twice damned if he admits it.
Now we have a handle on the reason why Thai guys are reluctant to be labeled as gay. Sexual preference is an aspect of sexual performance and it is a private matter. There is no need to disclose who we have sex with, much less who we would simply like to.
The trouble is that the unclarity about who is gay leads to confusion, and confusion leads to unfounded conclusions and irrational behavior. I am especially worried about younger brothers who hear that only katoeys have sex with males, and since they aren’t katoeys and don’t want to be included in that group, the young guys don’t know who they are or where they belong. Other young guys buy into the idea that being gay is deviant, which is a short step from agreeing that it is punishable. Injustice and discrimination grow from that fertile slime.
I’ve been trying to figure out what happened to Mother’s Day. Somehow I feel it got abducted. Not all at once, but bit by bit the emphasis has shifted so subtly that hardly anyone noticed when it was happening.
First we need to define terms: Mother’s Day is celebrated on 31 different dates around the world. There is a large collection of them on the second Sunday of May, following the lead taken by the USA. The call to Mothers to take action against war was how Mother’s Day began before the US Civil War (1860-65). The pacifist protest did not prevail, and in the passionate, patriotic times surrounding World War I Mother’s Day took off in a new direction. Then it became the Mother’s Day we remember when the institution of motherhood was honored as the backbone of society and mothers were thanked.
Sometime around the end of the Eisenhower era we began to be aware of a certain myopia on our part. We were now noticing that many women were fulfilled without being mothers, others were not feeling fulfilled in their mother-roles, some mothers being honored were essentially dysfunctional, and the whole institution of motherhood was being redefined. Non-mothers and people trying to get over their mothers became assertive about this. Still we struggled on with our mother’s day cards, breakfasts in bed for her on her special day, and the forms of celebration in church and at lunch.
By the 80s it wasn’t working very well. We had to be apologetic and careful about what we did and how we did it. I think the tide has ebbed now to the point that there is a sense that the reason we’d better keep up the effort is because mothers might be measuring our devotion by how we do this. One mother here in Chiang Mai spoke for many I think when she sent out a Facebook message last Sunday (Mother’s Day in the USA) that she was about to go downstairs and see if her children had remembered it was Mother’s Day.
As it happens, here in Thailand Mother’s Day is August 12, which coincides with the birthday of H.M. the Queen. The birthdays of the King and Queen were expanded during the time Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda was Prime Minister of Thailand (1980-88) to include all mothers along with “the mother of the country” on August 12 and all fathers along with “the father of the country” on December 5. The celebrations are focused on the King and Queen. One’s own mother is remembered by a visit and a gift. There are actually more important days to give Mom her due, such as New Year’s Day or Songkran (the traditional New Year). Those are real analogies for most Mother’s Day observances. And yet there is a difference between the Thai way of honoring mothers and the American way.
In the first place, remembering mothers is not fraught with the degree of anxiety that has worked its way into the American experience. Here, one need not stretch and strain to make sure all women are included. For the most part it is understood that everyone has a mother, living or dead, to whom honor is due. This honor is communicated through certain ceremonies. One really needs to try to conduct those ceremonies, but mothers are not thinking about how hurt they are apt to be if it doesn’t work out as it has in other years.
In the second place, our various New Year’s celebrations are not ALL about mothers, and are not carried out in ways which force women who are not mothers to feel disadvantaged and unvalued. The ceremonies, in a way, from the individual’s point of view, are really about “how I am doing” as a person who gives respect to elders and ancestors. The one who is concerned is the one giving the honor, not the one unto whom it is supposedly due.
In the third place, strange as it sounds to non-Thai ears, the thing that is honored about motherhood is really focused on the travail and suffering a mother endured in giving birth to us, and then in providing us with her own life-giving milk. Poems and songs about this can become extremely sentimental. In fact, they try to outdo one another in effusiveness. All other nurturing aspects are ignored. No Thai child would endure the shame of allowing any thoughts of anything else to intrude. The association is immediate: “Mother”—“milk”, full stop. In that way there simply cannot be any inadequate mothers, it is a logical impossibility. Even an unwed girl who gives an unwanted child up for adoption at birth is adequate.
In the fourth place, just the opposite is also true. All mothers of all descriptions are counted. Aside from the physical mother whom one honors, there are the nurturing caregivers, who might or might not include one’s biological mother whom one appreciates affectionately. Grandmothers count, a lot. Teachers are thought of as mothers and fathers, women who provide help to children are called “Mother”, and a village has women who are mothers of the village. The Queen is the mother of the country. Mothers abound. Motherhood is a broad category that can include anybody who wants to be included.
I am glad that our definitions here in Thailand are not rigid. I am particularly glad the definitions can be inclusive on the key societal issues of mother, father, family and kin. I think living here in Thailand off and on for the past 50 years has helped clear my mind about motherhood, and relieved a level of anxiety about the future. It will not be as hard for this society to accommodate diverse descriptions of motherhood.
As a general rule Buddhism in Thailand reflects Thai culture (or some say it is the other way around). Thai culture is tolerant but not enthusiastic about the emergence of LGBT people from the shadows. Every once in awhile there is an issue in the media about gay people in prominent Buddhist roles.
Feeling unusually foolhardy today, I will try to interpret the current debate about whether gay Buddhist monks are OK or not. By “gay Buddhist monks” I mean ordained men who would prefer to have sex with men if they had sex at all. The main principle is that ordained Buddhists are celibate. Any serious breach of that is grounds for expulsion from the Sangha (priesthood).
Over and above that, popular opinion holds that katoeys (boys or men who think of themselves as girls and tend to act and present themselves as girls or women) should not be ordained. That is being raised into question. Can a guy who presents himself as a female enter the Sangha to make merit for his mother before he is transformed into a transgender woman?
In the ordination ceremony an ordinand is twice asked a series of questions that include, “Are you a man?” In Thai the word is burut and not the more common phu-chai. Phu-chai tae is a slang expression for “a real man”, i.e. straight, heterosexual. The question is asked in Pali and the word is puruso. If the ordinand answers “yes” the ceremony continues on track. I understand that a candidate is also asked if he is a pandako (see below), and the correct answer is “no”.
Once ordained, monks ask permission to uphold a large number of precepts designed to structure life so that the Buddhist goals of awareness and possibly full-fledged enlightenment can be achieved. When laity want to earn special merit and move to a higher plain of consciousness they take the first eight of those vows in the morning and the first five at night. The third vow is the tricky one. For monks it is a vow of chastity. If a monk breaks that vow through any act of sexual penetration he is defrocked and expelled. If the act in question is mutual masturbation he is probably given a lesser penalty.
For laity the third vow is Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadem samadiyami. A.L. De Silva, a leading scholar of Theravada Buddhism, explains it this way: “The word kama refers to any form of sensual pleasure but with an emphasis on sexual pleasure and a literal translation of this precept would be ‘I take the rule of training (veramani sikkhapadem samadhiyami) not to go the wrong way (micchacara) for sexual pleasure (kamesu).’” In the manual of monastic discipline, the Vinaya, this is explained as including the pandaka who are sexual non-conformists. The key term is pandaka.
In Thailand it is almost universal to understand this as aimed at flamboyant effeminate guys, meaning katoeys. They are going the ‘wrong way” and are sexually unrestrained. This is confirmed in the popular mind not by investigating the katoeys’ sex histories, but by application of the belief that katoeys are showing the effects karmic history. “Everyone knows” that katoeys are being punished for unrestrained sex in a past life, heterosexual adultery being the assumption. In fact, it is commonly said that one act of adultery condemns a man to 500 reincarnations as a katoey. Whereas, this tends to confirm a katoey’s place in the nature of things and provides a measure of toleration that is greater than in many other cultures, it also validates a level of suffering and scorn that is somehow thought to be justified even though it is purely societal and inhibits movements toward acceptance of gender diversity.
This understanding is under attack. Paisarn Likhitpreechakul explains in Vol. 3 of the Oxford Journal of Buddhist Studies that in India at the time of the Buddha, the word pandaka did not refer to highly sexed, uncontrolled men at all. The key story is about a certain monk who ran around soliciting male sexual services (he was a either a “bottom” or he was after semen by mouth to enhance his status as a fully-functional man); when people told the Buddha about it he had the monk expelled. That is the precedent. Not knowing what else a pandaka might be, the term was applied to men like that monk and then expanded to include men who were likely to be like that, and then to men and boys who acted like they might conceivably become like that someday. This is the basis for Thai Buddhism’s negative attitudes and actions toward gays and katoeys.
Paisarn goes to great lengths to explain that the contemporary Indian texts that talk about pandaka can hardly refer to a katoey. In those texts from 2500 years ago, a pandaka was a man who could not eject semen. That is, he was impotent, which was a matter of cultural censure at the time. The term had nothing to do with gender at all.
However, as in Christianity, the progressive view about gays has a long hard way to go to get acceptance for a change of interpretation of the passages in scripture. Paisarn is not optimistic that the official stance of the Sangha about gays will change anytime soon. Religion here in Thailand cannot be counted on to take the lead in including us.
France, a couple of weeks ago, quickly followed New Zealand to become the 14th country in the world to pass a marriage equality act, or gay marriage act, or whatever you want to call it. It’s now a race to see who will be next.
Contrary to most guesses, including mine, a bill may soon be put before the Thai Parliament which looks a little like marriage equality without some of the rights, including especially the right to adopt children. I am sure that land inheritance will be restricted and controlled, too (this is Thailand, after all). The devil, as the saying goes, is in the fine print, and the fine print hasn’t been made final yet. So we will just have to wait to see if the headlines give us marriage equality which is whittled down to nothing in the paragraphs underneath the title at the top of the law.
Meanwhile, let’s see if we can say what we would really want here in the Land of Smiles. Here is my list but I’d be happy to hear if I have missed anything important.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.