Queer people in Thailand made themselves heard nationally quite by accident. Our first progress into the public domain was thanks to a busy publisher who never intended to make that happen. That was the ironic conclusion to decades-long tracking by Dr. Peter Jackson. He analyzed how Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Kathoey (LGTK) Thai people gained a voice. Prior to the publisher’s stunningly popular “Uncle Go” lovelorn advice column, the only writing in Thai mass media about gender minorities had been negative.
The column began by accident, Jackson concluded. The publisher of PLAEK แปลก (pronounced somewhat like “black”, meaning “Strange” or “Weird” but also “queer” and “outlandish”) in only his third edition included an interview with a local transgender celebrity, who – in the context of other articles about supernatural beings and bizarre freaks of nature – he must have thought belonged to the same genre. “He had not expected thousands of letters from readers wanting more,” Jackson reported. The wily publisher realized he was onto something and kept the articles coming in which transgender and then gay and lesbian celebrities and ordinary people were interviewed. A second, even more popular advice column followed in which two or three letters were published, ostensibly to ask for advice. Jackson’s investigations revealed that these interviews in PLAEK were the first in-print, first-person voices of gender minorities ever heard by Thai people all over the country.
LGTK voices were made public in Thailand.
Having shown the viability for such publication, in a very few years the first two Thai gay magazines came out. They, too, were enough of a commercial success to last for more than a decade. These were gay Thai magazines that informed a generation of boys and men all over the country that there was an extensive population out here.
Jackson’s presentation at Chiang Mai University on Tuesday, August 30, 2016 was partly a launch of his book on this topic. His persuasive analysis was focused on the “first voices” to be heard nationally, but it prompted me to reminisce about a chain of developments leading to far greater social acceptance.
· “Uncle Go” in PLAEK showed that the LGTK population in Thailand was larger than most people had suspected.
· This encouraged publication of the first generation of gay-targeted books and magazines.
· The commercial success of these magazines encouraged other commercial ventures such as gay bars in Pattaya and Patpong (Bangkok).
· These venues sought customers which led to the publication of gay guidebooks in English for sale in bookstores and then locally published guidebooks in Thai and English with articles, maps and especially ads for those venues distributed for free.
· By the 1990s gay venues were found in Bangkok (in 4 growing areas), Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Udorn and Phuket. They included pubs, go-go/disco bars, saunas and massage spas, karaoke shops and even a couple of gay hotels.
· Some venues attracted so much international attention that Thailand became a gay tourist destination.
· More recent publications are geared to upscale or at least comfortably middle-class gays and lesbians. Their ads and slant show an elitist bent.
· Still more magazines have come out that are “metro-sexual,” meaning, apparently, commercial print media are once again ahead of the general public in perceiving that gender is spread along a spectrum rather confined to boxes. There is no longer any inference that LGTK folks need to be told where to gather or how to find each other. Thanks to the print media, followed by the broadcast media, and now the IT social networks, LGTK sequestering is largely over in Thailand.
· Voices at the cutting edge in the public domain these days are seeking inroads into the conservative sectors, government and religion, in particular.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.