HOMOSEXUALITY IN THAILAND
Homosexuality is reasonably accepted in Thailand. There are no laws against homosexuality as there are in many countries. There are lots of gay men. One grade school teacher I met told that there were a lot of effeminate boys in his classes. First graders he said liked to grab their ass. Others have said Thai men like to squeeze other men. In a Time magazine sex survey in 2001, 38 percent of men and 29 percent of women said that bisexuality was acceptable.” In the same survey 12 percent of men and 16 percent of women said they had slept with somebody of the same sex.
One of the worst sex scandals ever in Thailand took place in 1819, during the reign of King Rama II, when a high-ranking monk, a Somdet, was found guilty of enjoying homosexual activities with some of his good-looking male disciples. The monk was the abbot of Wat Saket and had just been promoted to the position of the Supreme Patriarch. Surprisingly he was not defrocked but he was removed his positions of honour and ordered him to leave the royal monasteries.
According to “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand”: Although homosexual behavior in Thailand is assumed to be quite common, little formal research has been done. Most of the available data pertain to men, and there is a paucity of information regarding women. There has been a general reluctance, as with other Asian cultures, to openly discuss or scientifically study homosexual behaviors. In a large 1990 population-based survey (Sittitrai et al. 1992), extremely low rates of male homosexual behavior were reported; the authors cautioned that, due to societal attitudes, these estimates were probably too low and reflected the research participants' underreporting of homoerotic and homosexual experiences (the prevalence of same-gender sexual behavior will be further reviewed below). [Source: “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai)” by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s]
“Same-gender sexual experience does not necessarily carry the assumption of homosexuality or a homosexual identity in Thailand (Sittitrai, Brown, and Virulak 1991). There are no laws prohibiting homosexual behavior (Jackson 1989). On the other hand, the social pressure to be in conformity with the expectations of family and culture is extremely intense. Indeed, these sanctions may have a stronger effect than religious or legal sanctions. A public statement of homosexual identity would violate two important values of Thai culture: harmony - not to confront disagreements or conflicts - and the great value placed upon preservation of family units and preserving lineage through marriage and procreation. Allyn (1991) also contends that the anti-homosexual attitudes in the Thai society are primarily the discrimination against the feminine kathoey, who, according to stereotype, display overt and loud gender-atypical social manners.
Attitudes Towards Homosexuality in Thailand
The “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand” reports: The attitudes toward homosexuality are quite complex: On the one hand, the behavior is clearly stigmatized, and on the other, tolerated. Probably the manner in which it is expressed is a more critical variable for social acceptance. In the culture in which men's sexual desires are exaggerated, it is understandable that men might, from time to time, hypothetically engage in sexual behavior with other men for pragmatic purposes (e.g., when women are not available or when they need money). Women may face stronger negative sanction than men. Again, a double standard regarding general sexuality may be at play here. Homosexual behavior for women is less tolerated, probably because virtuous women express their sexuality only with their husbands. [Source: “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai)” by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s]
“Overall, most contemporary Thais view heterosexuality as the norm; homosexuality is seen as a deviance or an unnatural act, often resulting from one's bad karma or the lack of merit in past lives. To the more superstitious Thais, homosexual acts, which are an aberration from “how nature intends,” are punishable by animistic powers. Contemporary Thais still express their disapproval of homosexuality by saying, often blithely, that “lightning will strike” those who engage in sex with a person of the same gender. The educated Thais understand homosexuality in terms of mental problems or illness. Many think homosexuality is caused by problems in upbringing or parental characteristics (e.g., a domineering mother and a passive father), while others also attribute it to the child's oversocialization with the opposite gender, e.g., a boy spending too much time with his aunts, sisters, or female peers, or not having a father around as a male role model. This pathology model of homosexuality most likely originated in the Western psychiatric theories of sexuality which dominated Western medicine and psychology until the 1960s and 1970s. Many Thai physicians and psychologists still subscribe to these antiquated theories and remain impervious to new research findings or the American Psychiatric Association's declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness in 1974.
“In contrast to the neutral position of Buddhism, anti-homosexual attitudes are quite common among Thai people. Chompootaweep and colleagues (1991) found that 75 percent of both male and female adolescents reported negative attitudes toward homosexuality. In addition to these disapproving attitudes, Thai people who have sex with the same gender also have other important considerations when they make sexual and relationship decisions. Thais are concerned about matters which would cause an individual or family to lose face, and maintaining relationships with their family is of an extreme importance. To reveal one's homosexual orientation to one's parents would, in a sense, violate the Third Precept of Buddhism, and this has caused many Thai gays and lesbians to hide their homosexuality from their parents for fear of causing them sorrow (Allyn 1991). On the other hand, what an individual does in privacy is less of a concern. Thus, a person's homosexual sex, per se, may be easier for his or her family than other more visible features, such as long-term same-gender relationships (Jackson 1989) or coming out as an openly gay or lesbian person.
Buddhism and Homosexuality
According to “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand”: Buddhism is mostly silent on the topic of homosexuality. Despite some ambivalence toward homosexuality in many Buddhist cultures, Cabezón (1993) notes Buddhism only condemns homosexuality more for being an instance of sexuality rather than its same-gender sex. “The principal question for Buddhism has not been one of heterosexuality versus homosexuality, but one of sexuality versus celibacy” (p. 82). Cabezón further notes that, as far as the laity are concerned, homosexuality is rarely mentioned as a transgression of the Third Precept in Buddhist texts and oral commentaries. [Source: “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai)” by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s*]
“References to homosexuality have been found in the Buddhist canon and the Jataka, the stories of the Buddha's previous lives. Leonard Zwilling has noted that only in the Vinaya, the monastic discipline which forms one of the three sections of the Buddhist canon, is there mention of same-gender attraction and effeminacy in men. These instances were, according to Zwilling, “derogated much to the same degree as comparable heterosexual acts”. As for other sections of the Buddhist canon, John Garret Jones has concluded that there is an implicit affirmation from the silence regarding homosexuality, and the silence is certainly not due to the lack of material.*
“Whereas the canon is silent about homosexuality, the Jataka literature, in which the previously mentioned tale of Prince Vessantara is embedded, is replete with sentiments about same-gender affection. One example can be found in the eloquent past-life stories of the Buddha and his disciple and attendant, Ananda. In one scenario, the Buddha and Ananda are depicted as two deer who “always went about together... ruminating and cuddling together, very happy, head to head, nozzle to nozzle, horn to horn.” In another story, a serpent king who falls in love with Ananda “encircled the ascetic with snakes folds, and embraced him, with his great hood upon his head; and there he lay a little, till his affection was satisfied” (Jones 1979, quoted in Cabezón 1993, p. 89). These examples are but a few of many instances which articulate same-gender affection in the context of friendships between men in the Jatakas. Considering the enormous number of warnings about the dangers of heterosexual relationships, Cabezón argues that the absence of warning about same-gender relationship is remarkable. It suggests that the attitude toward homosexuality in the Indian Jataka texts is one of acceptance, and occasionally even a eulogy, of these feelings. *
Allyn (1991) cites yet another Buddhist story, possibly a folk version, told on Thai radio about a male disciple who had fallen in love with the Buddha. The disciple expresses admiration for the Buddha's beauty. The Buddha responded to these acts of admiration by a gentle reminder of the body's impermanence, a likely response for a female admirer as well. Taken together with the analysis of the canon and the Jataka tales, this story illustrates Buddhism's neutral position on the issue of homosexuality. Nevertheless, it should be noted that some negative attitudes can be found in the Buddhist practice today. For example, some Thai people have heard that a man who acknowledges his homosexuality will be denied Buddhist ordination, although such instances may have been very rare or never enforced. *
Buddhism, Homosexuality and Gay Marriage
In a Buddhist counties like Thailand, many people have wondered whether gay marriage laws could be applied in the country in accordance with Theravada Buddhism. Is there any objection of the Buddha against same-sex marriage? The answer to the question is ''No.'' [Source: Mettanando Bhikkhu, Tha Bangkok Post, July 13, 2005; Bhikko qualified as a physician before he ordained as a Buddhist monk. He holds an MD from Chulalongkorn University, an MA from Oxford, a ThM from Harvard and PhD from Hamburg ^^^]
“There is no objection of the Buddha found in the Tipitaka. To be precise, the Buddha was neither supportive nor against marriage between members of the same gender. This is not because Buddhism is naive about homosexuality. In fact, in the first book of the monastic code, the Vinaya, in the Buddhist Pali canon, there are hundreds of references to sexual relationship and most forms of deviant sexual practices, as appeared in Indian society over 2,500 years ago. Many of the cases often raise the eyebrows of psychologists and psychiatrists, such as bestiality (sex between a man and an animal), necrophilism (sex between a man and a corpse), paedophilia, etc. These cases reveal that Buddhism had spread far and wide into Indian society, and all these problems were unearthed to the growing Buddhist community. ^^^
“Also, from the Tipitaka, it is clear that the Buddha acknowledged the difference between hermaphrodites and homosexual practitioners. Hermaphrodites and eunuchs are not allowed to be ordained, but there is no sanction against homosexuality. Of course, there was a case of a gay monk who was overcome by sexual desire and could no longer restrain himself. He was seducing his friends and novices to have sex with him. They rejected him so he left the monastery and had sex with men who were elephant keepers and horse keepers. When news spread around the entire Buddhist community that he was homosexual, the Buddha was alerted to the problem and he issued a rule for the community not to give any ordination to a homosexual, and those ordained gays are to be expelled. ^^^
“The Buddha was more tolerant of lesbianism than male homosexuality. Nuns who were caught in lesbian practices were not expelled from the order. They must confess to the fellows about their practice, and then the offence will be redeemed. (Vin. IV, 261) The monastic rules do not guarantee Buddhist monasticism is entirely free from homosexuals. Indeed, they only say that monks and nuns are required to live a celibate life. Often in history, the monastic community has been plagued by homosexual scandals. ^^^
“As for the lay homosexual people, the Buddha gave no rule or advice as to whether they should be allowed to marry or not. The Buddha posted himself simply as the one who shows the way. He did not insist that he had any right to enforce on others what they should do. With this principle, the original teachings of the Buddha do not cover social ceremonies or rituals. Weddings and marriages of all kinds are regarded as mundane and have no place in Buddhism.^^^
“The principle of universal compassion does not allow Buddhists to judge other people based on the nature of what they are, which practice is considered discrimination. Unlike Christianity, where gender is a part of God's creation, Buddhists see genderisation as a sign of decay. In the Buddhist version of the Genesis, Agga-asutta (also known as the Aphorism on the Knowledge of the Beginning), male and female genders were a part of the fall. Originally, the primordial ancestors of humans were self-luminous, mind-born and sexless. So the mind is supreme and sexless, which is consistent with the higher form of existence. The most important principle to derive from that is there is no superiority of one gender over the other. The first sin among them which perpetuated the fall was the prejudice of appearance, when those of brighter skin looked down on those with darker skin. ^^^
Based on this principle, homosexual people should not be discriminated against; they are humans who deserve all the rights and dignity endowed upon them as members of human race. This does not mean that Thai Buddhists are supportive of gay rights and homosexual marriage, or that liberal activists will be successful in their social campaign. Human rights issues have always received poor attention in Theravada countries, as the culture is rooted in the belief in the Law of Karma, which is more popular among Thai Buddhists than philosophical and advanced scriptural studies in Buddhism.
“Many monasteries and monks advocate their lay followers to see the world through the lens of karma, i.e., every person is born to pay back their sins. According to their explanations, all homosexuals and sexual deviants were once offenders of the Third Precept (prohibiting sexual misconduct) _ at least in their past lives, and they must pay off their past sins in their present life. Therefore, they deserve all that society gives to them. This belief system creates strong conservative values in Theravada Buddhist culture. For these reasons, it is unlikely that Buddhists will easily approve a law to allow gay marriage. Gay and lesbian activists in Thailand will not be as successful as their fellows in European countries or Canada.” ^^^
Homosexuality, Bisexuality and Heterosexuality in Thailand
According to “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand”: The labels homosexual, bisexual, and heterosexual are Western constructs and do not exactly fit the traditional social constructions in Thailand. Assuming a gay or bisexual identity is also a new, if not foreign, concept; for example, there is no translation or the equivalent Thai word for “gay,” and as of 1996, the construct “sexual orientation” had not been translated even for academic use. In the past few decades, Thai people have increasingly used the English words “gay” and “lesbian” in both the mainstream and academic contexts. The terms “homo” and “homosexual” are also used. Conventionally, the most widely used term for “homosexual” was an extremely obscure euphemism len phuean, roughly translated as “playing with friends.” Another popular usage employs a literary analogy, mai paa deow kan, meaning “trees in the same forest” (Allyn 1991). The now-rare term lakka-phayt, roughly translated to “sexual perversion” in English, was sometimes used to describe homosexuality within the medical context, therefore illustrating the past influence of Western psychiatry. [Source: “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai)” by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s]
“The technical terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were transliterated into Thai twenty or thirty years ago for academic purposes. The term for “heterosexual” was rug taang phayt, meaning “loving the different gender” and the term for “homosexual” was rug ruam phayt, meaning “loving the same gender.” This might indicate that the Thai construct of loving another is inseparable from eroticizing another. By the same logic, bisexuality was subsequently translated to rug song phayt, meaning “loving two genders.” However, the directly borrowed term “bisexual” and its shortened derivative, bai, are more popular and have been part of the Thai sexual vocabulary of late.
“More recently, with influences from Western cultures, the concepts of homosexuality and sexual orientation have infiltrated the Thai thinking. These concepts quickly became popularized and transformed to fit the indigenous constructs. In the following discussions, the Thai social constructions of homosexuality in men and women will be examined separately to maximize clarity. We realize that this approach has its own shortcomings, as male and female homosexualities in most cultures are, conceptually and politically speaking, not discrete entities. However, much more has been written about male homosexuality in Thailand, and a discourse to conceptually bridge the parallel phenomena in men and women has yet to be made. There is still little evidence that the discussion about this construct in one gender can be generalized to the other.
Homosexuality in Men in Thailand
According to “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand”: “A small number of studies have attempted to find the prevalence of homosexual behavior in men. In a population-based study (Sittitrai 1992), only 3.1 percent of the men reported having had sex with men and women, and 0.2 percent reported it with men exclusively. The authors of the study speculated that these statistics were an underestimation due to underreporting. [Source: “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai)” by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s]
“Cohorts of military conscripts, comprised of men mostly age 21 from lower socioeconomic populations, have also shown varying rates of male-male sexual experience. Among the 1990 conscripts from northern Thailand, 26 percent reported having had sex with a man, 15 percent reported past anal intercourse with a man, and 12 percent reported sexual arousal in response to male nudes. In the 1992 conscripts from northern Thailand, 14 percent reported having had at least one instance of insertive anal sex with a kathoey in their lifetimes, 3 percent with non-kathoey men, and 3 percent reported having had receptive anal sex. In another study of 2,047 military conscripts from northern Thailand, 134 men (7 percent) reported having had sex with men; most of these men were also more likely to have higher numbers of female sexual partners than other men who had sex with women exclusively.
“Primary affectional and sexual relationships between men are quite common, although these relationships are not akin to the Western concept of the gay couple. These relationships may be of very short duration, without much long-term commitment, and without much social or familial recognition. There are distinct problems maintaining homosexual relationships. First, because long-term relationships by nature end up being more public, they invite more public scrutiny and negative sanction. Second, the same-sex relationships would interfere with what the heterosexist norm expects of a man: to get married to a woman and have children.
“Actual data on sexual behavior confirm the fluidity of sex between men in Thailand as implied by the classification above. For example, military conscripts who reported same-gender sexual behavior were more likely to be married, have girlfriends, and visit female sex partners more often than their counterparts who have had sex with women exclusively (Beyrer et al. 1995). Northeastern men recruited through the social network of men who had sex with men demonstrated equally complicated behaviors. Their reported sex acts covered a whole gamut of insertive and receptive intercourse, both oral and anal; their sexual partners included both genders of commercial sex workers, casual partners, and lovers.
Gay Kings and Gay Queens in Thailand
According to “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand”: “In Thai society today, men who have sex with men are either gay king or gay queen: A gay king is a man who plays the insertive role in sex, whereas a gay queen takes a passive and receptive role in sex. Versatility in sexual behavior is obviously not a traditional construct, and the gender dichotomy pervades the Thai conceptualization of sex between men. Gender dimorphism also necessitates that the society views homosexuality in reference to the fundamental genders of male and female. Also, cross-gendered manners and behavior are seen as indicating the essence of homosexuality in a person. [Source: “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai)” by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc.]
“Gay queens are assumed to have feminine characteristics, and are therefore, “true homosexuals.” On the other hand, gay kings, stereotyped as male-acting and male-appearing, are seen as less likely to be “permanently” homosexual. Thai people think that gay kings are simply heterosexual men going through a phrase of sexual experimentation with other men. Gay kings are also variously referred to as “one-hundred percent male” (phuu-chaai roi poe-sen) and “a complete man” (phuu-chaai tem tua) (Jackson 1989), which reflects the belief that the insertive homosexual sex act does not jeopardize one's masculinity. The idea that gay kings are confused or adventurous heterosexuals can be seen in many Thai movies and fiction about gay relationships with a tragic ending, when the gay king hero leaves a devastated gay queen to marry a woman. Moreover, the Thai myth of men's boundless sexuality states that “a real man” (i.e., real heterosexual) can derive sexual pleasure from anyone, regardless of gender. The playful term for bisexual men, suea bai (meaning “bisexual tiger”) connotes this admiration of bisexual men's sexual vigor. Bisexual behavior, therefore, is seen as an attribute of gay kings, bisexual men, and “indiscriminate” heterosexual men alike.
“There are no models for same-sex relationships within Thai culture. The only role models would come from farang (Westerners), but their codes of con duct would not necessarily work in the Thai culture. This lack of role models and solutions for the Thai male couples has caused much jealousy and conflicts around infidelity, creating many heartaches and failed relationships. For many other couples, however, male romantic and sexual relationships adhere closely to the heterosexual model of sex roles: in fact, a gay king almost always pairs with a gay queen, and Thais find it difficult to comprehend if two gay kings or two gay queens would settle down together. Following the traditional Thai heterosexual relationship which prescribes monogamy in the women and sexual freedom in the men, gay kings also have a tendency to seek out sexual pleasures outside their relationship with a gay queen.”
Gay Identity, Gay Entertainment and Gay Life in Thailand
In 2006, Vince Macisaac wrote in Thai Day, “It’s Thursday night on Silom Road and every gay club is overflowing with well- and half-dressed men. They crowd around tiny tables, leaning in to catch every word amidst the disco din: groups who have known each other a long time, or men who have just met. It’s difficult to tell given the for-the-moment excitement that animates the humid soi like the neon lighting. Gay men from across Asia are flocking here every chance they get. It’s the only place many feel free. The mood is a bit like the Castro in San Francisco or Christopher Street in New York City in the 1970s, when gay men were having too much fun liberating themselves to be standoffish – before weightlifting and attitude replaced moustaches and cruising. Even the music – the drag queen anthems – provides a leap back in time. [Source: Vince Macisaac, Thai Day, April 6, 2006]
According to “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand”: Regarding the gay identity in Thailand, there has been a rapid development since the mid-1980s of a gay identity with a Thai twist. Meanwhile, gay enterprising and political activities began to thrive in Bangkok and other big cities. Until the late 1980s, the only regular media coverage on homosexuality was an advice column in the widely popular tabloid Plaek (“Strange”) titled Chiiwit Sao Chao Gay (“The Sad Lives of Gays”) in which Go Paaknaam, a straight-identified columnist, published letters about sexual and relationship problems from men who have sex with men (Allyn 1991). In contrast to the previous coverage which tended to be rare and eccentric, in recent years Thailand has seen a proliferation of magazines in the format of erotica for gay men. In addition to erotica, these publications also provide an avenue for men to meet through personal advertisements, as well as the new forum for exchanging social and political views. More social networks have been formed, often composed of previously isolated gay men, many of whom do not have access to or participate in the thriving gay-bar scenes in big cities. A more solidified yet multifaceted gay identity has slowly evolved as Thai men participate in the discourse on their sexuality through these publications. In the meantime, Thai mainstream media, especially newspaper and magazines, have increased accurate representations of gay life, as well as progressive treatises on homosexuality, although sensationalistic coverage is still common. [Source: “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai)” by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s]
“In addition, entertainment businesses for gay men have nourished in big cities. A variety of gay restaurants and pubs have been opened, with and without deg off (“off-boys,” or male sex workers), providing places for leisure, sex, and socialization. Bangkok sports one of the world's most famous gay saunas (bathhouses). Men in these surroundings are motivated not only by a bit of the Thai sanuk (fun, pleasure, and enjoyment), but also the camaraderie and the search for a relationship partner (Allyn 1991). These new developments represent a remarkable difference in how men who have sex with men meet one another today; in the past, these encounters were non-public, secretive and often involved commercial sex workers. Instead, the thriving of Bangkok gay scenes allows men who have sex with men to have more continuity between their sexual activities, their social life, and their sexual identity. As Allyn notes: “Love stories were being made here, most of them bittersweet ones. Gay Thai men have perhaps added the key ingredient to the development of a gay identity: love”. Allyn further notes that, “Over the past two decades, superficial aspects of Western, particularly American gay culture, have been imported to a certain degree but, as the kingdom traditionally has done, by adaptation, not adoption”.
One example of such an adaptation is the recent concept of kulagay invented by the Thai gay media, although it is still not widely in use. As in kulasatrii, kula being “virtuous” or “decent,” a kulagay is a virtuous Thai gay man who adheres to traditional Thai values, contributes to society, and rejects the Thai stereotypes of the kathoey and promiscuity. The invention of the kulagay identity reflects the movement's attempt to assimilate homosexuality into the social fabric of Thai society by way of deference to the traditional values.
“Despite the many developments of a gay identity in Thailand, the average Thai gay man lives his gay life separately from the other parts of his life. Allyn (1991) speculates that this way of life is sufficient for many, as many Thai gay men have expressed satisfaction. Allyn further suggests that Thai people are trained since childhood to accept their lot in life. Similar to the way the perceived transience of gender helps many Thai women to accept their role, Thai gay men perhaps think that their sexual orientation is only one of the many sufferings a being faces in different incarnations. Therefore, a private sex life and the constraint of being a “model Thai” may not be fraught with as much psychological pain as his Western counterparts might experience. To date, there is no evidence that gay men in Thailand are more psychologically distressed than heterosexual men.
Gay Rights in Thailand
In 1981, a “gay rights” organization called Chaai Chawb Chaai (men liking men) was established, but was disbanded shortly thereafter because there was no evidence of discrimination (Allyn 1991). In 1989, two organizations were formed in response to the HIV epidemic: Fraternity for AIDS Cessation in Thailand (FACT), and Gay Entrepreneurs Association of Thailand (GEAT). GEAT is made up of Bangkok bar owners and is concerned with issues of business. After great success from their educational theater group, the White Line, FACT also developed a subsidiary group called FACT Friends which began weekly support groups for the many Thai gay men who were tired of the commercial gay scene. By 1991, FACT was awarded international grants and transformed from a grassroots volunteer organization to a foundation with a formal structure (Allyn 1991). [Source: “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai)” by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s]
In July 2005, Bangkok hosted the first international conference on Asia’s gay, lesbian and transgender communities More than 160 scholars, human rights activists, artists and filmmaker from 24 countries showed up to discuss topics such as transsexual movies actors and discrimination again the gay population.
Homosexuality in Women in Thailand
There is an extreme paucity of information on women who have sex with women. Adopted several decades ago, the term “lesbian” is now recognized by most Thai people as describing love or sex between women, along with its derivatives ael bii (Thai acronym for “L.B.”) and bian, which could be used pejoratively or euphemistically. Also, a rather vulgar slang tii ching, or “playing [small, paired] cymbals,” compares two vaginas in lesbian sex with a pair of opposing, identical concave musical instruments. In the past decade, other terms for lesbianism have come into vogue. Paralleling the gay king-gay queen dichotomy in male homosexuality, lesbians are categorized into thom (derived from “tomboy”) and dii (short for “lady”), mostly based on their social manners and appearances. The thom women, with the masculine appearance, are assumed to have a dominant role in the relationship. Women who are dii, on the other hand, are feminine looking and passive in gender role. Because of the extreme popularity of these terms, most Thais now refer to lesbianism (female homosexuality) as “women being thom-dii.” [Source: “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai)” by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s]
“Thai people are quite confused by the feminine dii women because they are indistinguishable from the typical Thai women in their social manners. Most Thais speculate that dii women will eventually grow out of their phase of experimentation or confusion, and commit to a relationship with a man (much as they think of the gay king men). On the other hand, the masculine thom women are seen by Thais as women who want to be a man, much as feminine homosexual men are assumed to want to be a woman. Androgynous behavior in women, although not traditionally praised, has been relatively tolerated in adolescents. Popular fiction has portrayed a number of female protagonists who have “tomboy” demeanor: bold, assertive, and boyishly naughty, while nonchalant and unaware of their feminine attractiveness hidden inside. Nevertheless, these characters are unmistakenly heterosexual, as there is never any depiction of homoeroticism or lesbian character in the lives of these tomboys. As a rule, these young heroines always outgrow their tomboy phase as they are transformed into a “fully grown woman” by their first love with a man with whom they marry at the end of the story.
Prior to the late 1980s, Thai people in general seemed to show little awareness of the existence of love and sex between women. In the 1980s, a tabloid ran an advice column for lesbians, Go Sa Yaang, by a straight man, Go Paaknaam, following the popularity of his column for gay men (Allyn 1991). Yet, lesbian women never had erotic publications or enterprises as these businesses began to flourish for gay men. However, sex and love between women started to come into public attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As more and more young women have shown up in public looking like pairs of a thom and a dii, displaying public intimacy slightly beyond the usual confines of peer manners, the media have called it an epidemic of thom-dii-ism. Much anxiety and concerns have been expressed by parents and the media regarding this increased visibility of lesbianism. Many conservatives search for a cause of lesbianism in the modern or Western values, claiming that women today are taught to strive for power and autonomy. For these conservatives, women are attracted to other women because they have become more like men. Others have blamed androgynous women in the Thai pop culture for modeling gender-atypical behavior and, in turn, inducing lesbian interests among the adoring young fans.
AIDS and Gay Community in Thailand
Although Thailand was the first country in Asia to experience a major AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, it was a predominantly heterosexual crisis. About one million Thais have been infected with HIV and about 40 percent of them have died from AIDS, according to UN figures. The first study of HIV-infection rates among gay and bisexual men was not conducted until early 2003. It found an infection rate of 17.3 percent among the 1,121 men tested at gay venues in Bangkok. [Source: Vince Macisaac, Thai Day, April 6, 2006]
Signs of an epidemic among gay and bisexual men in Bangkok predate the 2003 study, however. As far back as 1999, the ministry had been warned that infection rates among gay and bisexual men using an anonymous clinic run by the Thai Red Cross had climbed to 11 percent. In 2005, a second study by the same team that conducted the 2003 study found that 28.3 percent of the men who had enrolled in it were HIV positive. (Both studies were conducted at the same 16 gay venues in Bangkok.) Epidemiologists estimate that there are about 70,000 gay and bisexual men in and around Bangkok who are living with HIV/AIDS, and most of them do not know it. Few have been tested. About 25 percent of the gay and bisexual men using the newly opened Silom Clinic, run by the Health Ministry and the US Centers for Disease Control, are testing positive for HIV, clinic staff say.
Fighting AIDS in Gay Community in Thailand
Vince Macisaac wrote in Thai Day: “The pioneering research, however, failed to generate much action at the Health Ministry. In 2003, officials drafted a detailed plan for dealing with the “newly discovered epidemic,” but their intentions remained on paper. “From what I saw, the people working in the AIDS department of the Health Ministry were concerned, but they didn’t seem able to translate that concern into immediate action,” Foreman recalls. Senator Jon Ungpakorn is less charitable: “None of the health ministers [under caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra] have taken an interest in HIV/AIDS. There is no one in charge of the AIDS program, to see that good, realistic programs are put in place for men who have sex with men, prisoners, migrant workers, and the general public,” says the founder of one of Thailand’s first HIV/AIDS organizations, ACCESS.
Despite the fact that one million Thais have been infected with HIV and about 400,000 have died of AIDS, according to UN figures, the Senator says that in the past several years, “There has been a general lack of enthusiasm for dealing with HIV prevention in Thailand. “Stigmatized groups are bearing the brunt of the crisis. Government officials are not used to working with these groups. They’re not comfortable and don’t have outreach or skills to deal with stigmatized groups, except for sex workers,” he says, explaining that health officials began working with sex workers when the epidemic first hit Thailand in the late 1980s.
The indifference of the Thaksin administration to HIV/AIDS issues has been compounded by the government’s CEO governors’ policy, which has seen national health policy shifted to the local level, Jon explains. With this decentralization, local authorities are supposed to be in charge, but no mechanisms have been put in place to ensure that they use their funding wisely. CEO governors are devising their own plans for spending their AIDS prevention budgets, and – according to Senator Meechai Viravaidya, the architect of Thailand’s first AIDS prevention strategy – some CEO governors are diverting their AIDS prevention funds to their pet projects.
In the 1990s the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand” reported: “In reaching “gay men,” gay kings, gay queens, and kathoey for HIV prevention, there is an effort in Thai society to organize and empower these individuals. This attempt follows HIV-prevention strategies from Western cultures. Local activists and international agencies in Thailand are fostering an adoption of the gay-identity concept to identify, reach, and empower men who have sex with men, in an effort to prevent the spread of HIV among them and their partners, both male and female. There remains an ethical question regarding the cultural imperialism of the West, which is imposing Western-constructed identities on a culture which has maintained different constructs of sexual orientation and sexual behavior. Examination of Thai and other cultures which have diverse constructs of sexual orientation has challenged the universality of categories of sexual orientation adopted by the West. This has forced HIV-prevention campaigns in the West to employ strategies which take into account the fact that not all segments of society identify themselves as gay, straight, or bisexual. One example of such attempts is to identify the population of interest based on their sexual behavior (e.g., “men who have sex with men” or “men who have sex with both men and women”), instead of selecting them by their “risk group” or “gay” or “bisexual” self-identity. Hopefully, the cultural exchange will lead to greater understanding of homosexuality and the promotion of sexual health among those individuals who engage in same-gender sex in any society (Coleman 1996).
Fighting AIDS on the Streets of Bangkok
On what was happening on streets in the gay area of Bangkok, Vince Macisaac wrote in Thai Day: “Something more serious is missing – safe-sex posters, brochures explaining how to prevent AIDS, and free condoms. Stepping into a gay bar in a western country, patrons are inundated with safe-sex admonitions. Every wall has a poster insisting on the necessity of condoms. And along the bar, amidst bowls of popcorn and peanuts, free condoms are aplenty. Not so in Bangkok. The owner of one bar says that in the past eight years, public health officials have only offered free condoms to his patrons on two occasions, and only after they were invited. “We’ve got a bloody bookrack for brochures. We’d be happy to hand out a condom with every drink. I’d be delighted to put up a poster in 23 languages,” he says. [Source: Vince Macisaac, Thai Day, April 6, 2006]
Further up the street, at the narrow entrance to the cluster of gay clubs on Soi 2, there is a sign that warns patrons they cannot enter if they are 20 years of age or under, or if they are wearing flip-flops. Inside, however, there is no notice advising that the rate of HIV infection among gay and bisexual men in Bangkok surged more than 50 percent from 2003 to last year – to 28.3 percent. There is not a single free condom. Not one warning to practice safe-sex and no brochures explaining how to do this.
“The [Thai] gay community is very fragmented, commercially oriented and has little awareness of broader social and political issues,” explains Martin Foreman, a former director of the Panos Global AIDS Program. “Because there isn’t a sense of community, there is no background of working together. “Walk into any of the bars in Silom, Ramkhamhaeng, Chatuchak, go to the saunas all over the city, pick up a gay magazine, look on the Thai-language websites, and nowhere will you see any information about HIV,” he adds. “Unlike western countries where a gay-liberation movement quickly led to awareness of HIV and a response to it, there was nothing here to base a gay AIDS-awareness movement [on].”
Every evening outreach workers from Rainbow Sky – Thailand’s first officially gay, lesbian and transgender association – leave their Patpong office in groups of four or five to distribute condoms and safe sex information to gay and bisexual men who meet in parks. The outreach workers say that many of the men they talk to, especially the teenagers, are unaware that there is an AIDS epidemic among gay and bisexual men. Twenty-three percent of the 16- to 21-year-olds that enrolled in last year’s Bangkok study were HIV positive.
Rainbow Sky’s outreach workers are also finding that many men are unaware that oil-based lubricants can cause a condom to rupture, and that few have been tested for HIV. The group is at the frontline of the AIDS epidemic but it receives almost no funding from the ministry, and most of the free condoms it receives from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration are so old that they can no longer be used. “For AIDS prevention you need to support civic groups,” says Senator Jon. “These groups have links with the communities government officials lack the skills to deal with. With no funding for NGOs there is more ignorance about HIV/AIDS prevention.”
Thai HIV/AIDS groups have to increasingly rely on donor agencies, mainly from the United States. The US-funded agencies, however, have to walk a fine line between policies set in Washington – which promote abstinence as the preferred method of preventing HIV infection – and the needs of those it tries to help, local AIDS groups say. To receive grants from US-funded Family Health International (FHI), for example, Rainbow Sky’s outreach workers have found themselves in the surreal position of having to hand out pamphlets promoting abstinence at gay saunas.
In February, FHI hired a public relations firm to raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic among gay and bisexual men in Thailand. The firm is reportedly being paid US$10 million to run the five-month campaign it calls “Sex Alert.” Almost two months into the nationwide campaign, owners of many of the most popular gay venues in Bangkok say they had never even heard of it. “Is it a new bar in Patpong?” asked the owner of a Silom club. Senator Jon says, “It’s NGOs that make the major difference.” Not PR firms. Senator Meechai says it’s “a tragedy” that the country which showed the world how to effectively deal with an AIDS epidemic has all but dismantled the infrastructure for preventing infections.
Male Commercial Sex Workers
According to “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand”: “The number of male sex workers in Thailand has been estimated to be approximately 5,000 to 8,000 (Brinkmann 1992), a number much smaller than the estimates of female sex workers. Although there are very few studies on male sex workers, a study has provided a glimpse of the demographics and sexual behavior of men who work in gay bars with commercial sex (Sittitrai, Phanuphak, et al. 1989). Many of these men, referred to in Thai as “business boys,” stated that their primary sexual attraction was for women. They reported that their sexual behavior outside of the bars was predominately heterosexual and many had sex with female sex workers for sexual pleasure. Similar findings were found in the study of male commercial sex workers in northern Thailand: 58 percent of them described themselves as preferring female partners outside of work, and 14 percent of all men were married (Kunawararak et al. 1995). [Source: “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai)” by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s]
At the beginning of the 1990s, male sex workers' HIV seroprevalence remained comparatively low compared to the alarmingly high rates in female sex workers, and this was hypothesized to be due to the male sex workers' use of condoms from early on in the HIV epidemic. However, recent findings can no longer sustain this optimism. In a recent study (Kunawararak et al. 1995) in which male sex workers were followed prospectively from 1989 to 1994, their HIV prevalence increased from 1.4 percent to 20 percent, with an overall incidence of 11.9 per 100 person-years, a rate considerably higher than those found in any other groups of Thai men.
Most sex workers in Thailand enter the commercial sex business in their late teens or early 20s, and many others in their early teens. The phenomenon of children in commercial sex will be the focus of the following section. However, it is important to note that much of the discussion about the sociocultural factors that lead young women and men into the sex industry will be applicable to both child, adolescent, and adult sex workers as well.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated May 2014