Images of Gay Muslim Reality in South Thailand
Samak Kosem has undertaken a daunting endeavor: to artistically portray the reality of Islamic LGBTK life in Thailand’s far south. He is (among other things) an anthropologist and a graphic artist using photography, videos, and montages to elicit insights. In the process of composing his projects he investigated and interviewed communities to confirm his perceptions that LGBTK people of all ages are living throughout Muslim communities but that conversation about gender must be nuanced and indirect.
In a “Payap Presents” program from Payap University on March 24, 2021, the Chiang Mai University PhD candidate told us about several of his art projects and the metaphorical theory behind his productions.
One set of images was of sheep, which he explained are the most marginalized animals living in Islamic villages, as are gay people; but in his exhibits he let the pictures speak for themselves saying, “This is what marginalization looks like.” From photographs, Samak proceeded to sculptures of sheep to require visitors to go among the sheep.
Another project was a video of an actor on a crowded holiday beach surrounded by Muslim families. He was apparently celebrating life as a gender-ambiguous pondan or kathoey. In explaining to others on the beach what he was doing he had obfuscated; he told them the video being made was about littering. The video also said, “This is what it ought to be like being gay in the middle of everyone.”
A third project was portraits of gender-diverse Muslims of various ages, but he had hidden their eyes behind blocks of text to protect their identities because fundamentalist groups used such pictures to find the individuals and intimidate them. Reality is dangerous.
Samak described some of his conclusions and inferred others. The overall impression he made is that being a gay Muslim in South Thailand is publically unacceptable. But, as everywhere, there are gay young people. They are being confronted and tolerated (within limits). In one school pondan boys are segregated for daily prayers, “to protect them from bullies,” the teachers said. This is progress beyond the bullying being encouraged or ignored. Mothers, Samak found, are more tolerant of gay boys because they realize some of their sons are gay, but men are more rigid. Samak concluded, “You can be queer and you can be Muslim. But that cannot overlap.” For example, if a “Tom” (lesbian presenting as male) is participating in something religious, they must wear a hijab (Muslim headscarf). Gay men are pressured to get married by age 40 and from then on they conform to religious moral norms again.
Samak has made presentations to Muslim audiences in which he interpreted his art. He characterized some of his audience as “shocked.” It seems that religion has a stifling influence on trends toward social acceptance of Thai LGBTK Muslims. It is behind Thai society at large in this regard. However, progress is being made in small ways wherein religion is not the overwhelming factor.
I was impressed that in the Muslim south just as in the Buddhist north, “If your family accepts you, you are fine. But if your family does not accept you, you have nowhere to go.” In Thailand all progress toward gender equality starts with the family.
Thank you, Samak Kosem for a fascinating presentation and best wishes as you complete your PhD at Chiang Mai University.
To see more of Samak’s work, access: http://aura-asia-art-project.com/en/artists/samak-kosem-minorities-and-artwork-in-islamic-society
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.