“A” is 21. He was born in Nan and grew up there. He came to Chiang Mai this year to go to a technical college to study computer business. He works as a masseur in a “for men only” spa and gets big tips from the sexual favors he provides. He really enjoys himself and his customers, but he’s planning on marrying a woman in a few years.
“B” is 31. She was born and raised as a boy, transitioning into a young woman when she quit school. She is the “minor wife” of her older sister’s husband. She also has a hunky boyfriend of her own.
“C” is a florist. He uses feminine pronouns and gestures but dresses as the male he has always been. He has women as friends and no boyfriends of consequence.
“D” is a chauffeur. He is just 30 but has the liver of an 80 year-old because of his alcoholism. He is passionate about sex with males of any age when he is sober, which is more of the time since he got this job as a driver for a man of very substantial influence.
“E” likes to dress up as a woman. Otherwise he presents himself and considers himself to be a man with a preference for older men as lovers. He can afford to pick and choose. He is not looking for Santa.
“F” waited for his mother to die before coming out as gay, not that it mattered. Everyone knew he had two lovers as well as a coterie of happy party goers.
“G” was the first gay Thai guy to die of AIDS that we knew personally. He was a talented nightclub performer and managed a very successful Thai restaurant in Los Angeles. In his funeral memorial folder his family pointedly printed his death certificate, saying he died from pneumonia.
“H” is 17 but likes to claim to be older. He is trying to decide how to tell his parents he has no interest in marrying a girl and continuing the family line. He has experimented and knows what he likes.
“I” has two families, one includes a wife and three children and the other consists of him and Goi. The two families overlap in many ways. It works because they don’t talk about it.
“J” does not call himself gay. He does not think he is anything. He finds solo-sex best, but he can be really turned on by watching a guy “do it”.
Being gay in Thailand is not any easier than it is elsewhere in the world. It is a juggling act between being authentic and being acceptable. What sets Thailand apart from other lands is that the predominant religion does not usually launch a homophobic campaign, local communities take their signals from clans about whether a family member is OK or not, families measure their sons’ characters first of all by how they treat their mothers, and strict gender identification is a recent cultural gloss that shows signs of fading again.
Being ambiguous about ones sexual or gender orientation is not a matter of being sly or in denial. The fact that few gay guys in Thailand are clear about their identity tells more about the inadequacy of labels and diagnoses than about Thai self-awareness.
We can say that this is a convenient fog. Since being queer can lead to controversy (loss of face being one form of loss) or conflict (which is to be avoided in Thai society whenever possible), it is better to be ambiguous most of the time. Just be yourself. But be unclear about who you are. The only thing we should allow to show is our individual story, and only as much of that as may be inevitable.
That is convenient social obfuscation. It does not help the “cause” of gender equality or gay rights or greater understanding. Observers and activists object that this gay grayness hurts the cause. What would help would be coming out and being honest.
It is the nature of these narratives to be individual and not to conform to categories. The smaller the pigeon-hole the less pigeons will fit into it. Clear sharp definitions are analytical and comparative tools, but not helpful in promoting individuality. “Causes” need masses. Individuals need to self-identify with the mass whose cause they decide to espouse. So far the convenient fog feels fine.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.