During the modernizing period of Thai history (ca CE 1840-1940) the emphasis was on conforming to European rigid binary types, especially for the royal and elite classes. Women’s hair was to be long and men’s hair short. Women were heavily clad from chin to ankles and carried parasols; men wore shirts and jackets and tall silk hats if they could afford them and carried walking sticks. Men had one way of sitting and women another, and these varied by social class and circumstance. Women’s duties and recreation increasingly differed from men’s but heavy scorn was reserved for boys who played like girls.
When King Mongkut, Rama IV, ascended the throne of Siam in 1851 the threat of imposed colonization was rising. European empires were expanding and trouble was on the way for Siam and its vassal states. His Majesty was an avid reader of newspapers, especially those from Singapore where he learned as much as he could about what the British expected of a modern civilization. That was the beginning of an effort to modernize to protect Siam from being forcibly included in the British Empire. The nation’s greatest modernizer was King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, 1868 to 1910. He felt it was both prudent and necessary to expand agriculture from simple subsistence farming into an economic resource to develop funds with which to begin building a modern country. He also wanted the rapidly increasing foreign observers to notice how the county was civil. Railroads, steamships, and modern buildings would do that. Another indicator was how the elite, at least, looked. Westerners of the Victorian Era insisted on rigid gender identities. They commented ceaselessly on how backward Siam was in this regard. Photographs from that time showed that other principles than being modern were guiding such things as hair styles and dress. The King could not mandate changes of style for the population at large, but he had the say with regard to his very large household and those he employed. In the move to modernize, one critical area was law. The king hired international experts to draft a comprehensive code to conform to international codes, but the project stumbled over family law. This issue was to remain unsettled for 70 years with the ostensive reason being that polygamy was considered a unique cultural characteristic and there was no need after a thousand years to abandon it just to conform to European standards and morals. Something about everything should remain Siamese, the argument went. So when Italianate palace buildings were erected they included Siamese roof lines, and when European court dress was adopted, trousers and skirts were Siamese. When King Vajiravudh, Rama VI, ascended the throne in 1910 the issue of legalizing family law was a major matter, and that depended on a decision about polygamy (actually polygyny since only men ever could have multiple spouses). Under Rama VI conformity to standards stipulated by the King became a measure of how Siamese one was. Well into the twentieth century the pressure to modernize did not extend far from the compounds of the rich and royal. But gradually, an element of elitism began to burden the matter of how ordinary people dressed and cut their hair. The elite dressed stylishly modern, and those who did not were clearly socially inferior. Indeed, their ethnic communities were not fully Siamese. This was a matter of growing shame (although under Rama XI [1946-2016] ethnic diversity became a matter of civic pride).
The absolute monarchy was brought to an end in 1932 by a revolution led by “Young Turks” in the military from the middle class who wanted more modernization and less monarchy. One of the early acts of the people’s parliament was to reverse the policy that had defended polygamy as a unique cultural heritage. Right away, Siam’s full-fledged constitution and legal code at international standards and with mostly international nomenclature enabled Thailand to join the community of nations as an equal. All nations lifted their extra-territorial treaties and ended the last vestige of proto-colonization of Thailand.
Ironically, this modernization of family law finally ratified an elitist position that disqualified whole sectors of the population from the sort of full inclusion they had always had. Under family law after 1934, all Thai citizens were one of three types: Mr., Mrs., or Miss. There were no exceptions for people after they came “of age”. Gone were categories of minor wife, temporary wife, secret wife, and slave wife (that had ended when slavery was abolished [about which I shall produce another essay later]), those women were legal nonentities without recourse to justice, as were prostitutes of all types. The end of these types of wife meant that even the King had no minor wives, concubines, or others – most of whom had been acquired for political reasons and to insure a large, loyal cadre of royal sons to assume control of government agencies and functions. Since there was no “Inner City” (wrongly called a harem) behind the Grand Palace there was no longer any need for eunuchs, so these were not mentioned in the new family law code. Eunuchs were perhaps the smallest gender group to be ignored in the law. One of the largest groups suddenly non-legal (but not yet illegal) was kathoeys. Although Buddhist monks were excluded from the list of Mr., Mrs., and Miss they were no legal problem because they were not officially citizens, having no right to vote, own property, inherit wealth or titles, or to live outside the Sangha and its stringent regulations. Nor were they an exception to the sexual binary theory. They were “obviously” all males. The law entitled and protected them as a group. But kathoeys were gender deviates when binary monogamy insisted there were only two sexes.
Before changes in family law began to become a reality, homosexuals of all types were given all rights and access to the type of justice specified for their rank in society. They were simply people scattered within the socio-political levels of Siam. They had their place. But that had little or nothing to do with who they loved or how they lived with them. Members of royal families had duties to perform that took precedence over everything, but being homosexual was less relevant throughout the rest of society. In this system fathers controlled families, princes controlled fathers, and kings controlled princes. There was only one case of a gay liaison among princes being prosecuted, and it was for disobedience. Indeed, Rama VI was tolerant of gay relationships to a scandalous extent, although he finally married in order to try to produce an heir.
It is hard for those of us living in the twenty-first century to realize what it was like to have one’s place in the cosmos become unclear. Theoretically, the modern legal system takes care of all individuals, treating them equally under the law. But under Thai family law there are gaps. The issue today is how these gaps are addressed, whether by the slow process of cultural shift later codified into law, or by the more aggressive means of recognizing the need to have a law even if society may not be uniformly in favor of it.
We hear that the military government of Thailand is anxious to promulgate a new constitution and have elections. The word is that gay civil partnerships (but not marriages) will be included in the new law. That would fill one of the gaps to a small extent. Sexual diversity, however, is a culturally shifting matter. There are now more identifiable categories of gender and sexuality than before. Simultaneously, the whole idea of elitism and exceptionalism is under siege. Twenty first century needs will not be addressed by nineteenth century means. We would not want to go back to the waning feudalism of the post-Ayutthaya era where homosexuals were fully included but endured the same suppression as everyone else in their level of society.
Still, it is fascinating that there was a time when gender diversity was taken for granted.
Notice the costume and hair-style changes from Rama IV to Rama VI, reflecting attempts to conform to Western ideas of civilization without becoming slavish. Notice, also, that the population outside the palace did not much care about that. – Some of the concepts of the evolution of family law are thanks to Assoc. Prof. Tamara Loos of Cornell University in her excellent study Subject Siam: Family, Law, and Colonial Modernity in Thailand published by Silkworm Books in 2006.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.