Contrasting our Buddhist façade, we Thais have a rather relaxed and tolerant attitude toward sexuality and gender. No brassieres were burnt during the sexual revolution. Often compared to the elephant’s hind legs, Thai women stay behind to support their men—they are, however, often the ones who hold the purse strings n households. Standard male-female relationships aside, Thailand’s third sex has thrust sexual intricacy over the rainbow. The titles Mr and Ms have gone amiss here.
On the surface, gays and lesbians are prominent in both urban and rural Thai communities. Gender diversity is as old as time itself. The oft-used word “kathoey,”originally Khmer, actually means “hermaphrodite.” To some extent, its use broadly covers homosexuals, transvestites, and transsexuals. However, in the 70s, the word “gay” was adopted to represent gays and lesbians.
Long before Caitlyn Jenner made the news, Thais weren’t even batting their eyelids over gay and transgender public figures. When I was young, Paan Bunnag, a famous hairdresser, was at the forefront of the gay crowd. Later, Parinya Charoenphol’s life was made into an award-winning film, “The Beautiful Boxer.” Although caricatured portrayals of gays in mainstream media have become more balanced and realistic, most roles are still comically or tragically conceived.
Gays seem to be socially accepted working with in certain professions, such as fashion, beauty, design, communication, hospitality, and entertainment. But if involved in politics or upper management, a closet can be comforting. Coming out isn’t hard for most, but acceptance is another story. Conservative or homophobic families may not be able to cope easily with their family members’ sexual expression. Trauma from anxiety, stress, and depression is common; suicide is sometimes seen an easy way out. While some keep their closet’s door ajar, others seek safety-net solutions, such as covering up their secrets with marriage.
The current state of human sexuality is more perplexing than a Pedro Almodóvar movie. Recently coined terms, like intersex and pansexual, create more confusion within an already confusing field—fathoming the fluidity of the mind is enough of a challenge, not to mention having to consider sexual ambiguity. If Dr.Kinsey and his team were conducting their research at present, they would be having a field day. The spectrum of gender identity, role, orientation, and attraction now stretches over 50 shades of sexuality. Bisexuality is no longer shocking—it can double or triple your chances on any given night. Yet when it comes to serious matters, such as equality and legal and marital rights, the Thai LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, and Intersex) community still faces a gauntlet of obstacles.
Lady boys are typically associated with the country’s nightlife, and Thailand performs the most sexual reassignment surgeries in the world. But is there life beyond cabaret shows and the cosmetics counter? Although there are other choices, many choose to bare their bodies for business. It’s because social and occupational discrimination makes it difficult to find employment outside these environs. So this is how most choose to make a living and, perhaps, find love. But can “straight” men who go out with them notice the differences? Or are they attracted to unusually tall, bosomy, deep-voiced girls with big hands and feet, who also happen to be equipped with male genitalia?
For several years, the Thai national assembly has debated allowing transgender persons to legally change their titles after having a sex change operation. Most cannot. So their titles remain the same, but their newly minted names may not represent their birth gender. Looking at someone’s Thai ID cards or passports can be confusing—Mr Desirée sounds quite fetching, doesn’t it?
The Thai LGBTI community has never really fought for their rights in marriage or civil partnership. When premarital and extramarital sex is the norm, regardless of sexual orientation, why let legal papers ruin spontaneous love? So what happens after “happily ever after”? Like in many countries, de facto partners don’t have rights to hospital visits or common properties. Since we don’t look after ourselves, we are then looked over. As long as we don’t make too many waves, we are deemed fine.
While much of the Western world is celebrating same sex marriage, a harbinger for social equality, Thailand, the “Land of Sexual Freedom,” hasn’t yet fully acknowledged the rights of its LGBTI community. Love may win, but do we have the courage to ask for what is justly ours: equal rights and protections irrespective of origin, religion, or sex, to have all judgment cast aside? As RuPaul said, “We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.”