“Bodies, choices, rights”: A look at the Thai lesbian movement
“Bodies, Choices, Rights”: A Look At the Thai Lesbian Movement
The Fair For Rights and Freedom was a four day event held this past October in Bangkok. It commemorated the twenty fifth anniversary of a Thai student uprising against a dictatorial government. October 14,1973, was a dark day in Thai history, as soldiers brutally gunned down a large number of protesting students. In 1998, Thais used this occasion to reflect on the route the struggle for democracy had taken in the intervening years.
Because of the extensive media coverage both before and during the anniversary celebrations, large crowds were expected at this fair, and, indeed, thousands of people attended. Besides speeches and musical performances, about twenty organizations were present. Most of them dealt with issues such as human rights, the environment and political reform. Their exhibitions and information booths took up a corner of the huge field where the fair was taking place. One of these booths, brightly decorated with rainbow ribbons and colorful posters, contained two long tables piled high with books, magazines and pamphlets. It belonged to an organization called Anjaree. It was the first time the group had taken part in an event of this size. In fact, the members of this group had spent much of its twelve year history keeping a low profile. Yet now Thailand’s only lesbian organization was making a truly public appearance, as several of its members put themselves, and their sexuality, out there to the masses of people who visited this fair. Having stepped from the shadows of a society in which homosexuality is heavily stigmatized, these women had taken their country’s lesbian movement to a new level of visibility.
On the surface, Thai society appears to accept homosexuality. Public verbal or physical harassment of gays and lesbians is rare, and cross-dressed men and women typically go about their daily business in peace. In fact, tourist guide books as well as Western academic articles tout Thailand as a “non-homophobic,” open country. However, outward acceptance masks the deep-seated negative attitudes many Thai people have toward lesbians and gays.
Sexual intimacy between two women is disapproved of in Thailand, and lesbians can find themselves condemned from many sides. Parents want their daughters to marry and raise a family, and those who learn of their children’s lesbianism usually attempt to force them into marriage. Also, according to Amporn Boontan, a member of Anjaree who lives in Chiang Mai, it is not unheard of for male relatives or friends even to rape a lesbian, in order to “make her into a real woman.” Facing these pressures, some lesbians flee to the city, while others commit suicide. And many end up giving in to their parents’ wishes. This is not surprising in a culture in which children are constantly made aware of the huge debt owed their parents for being raised. To make one’s parents unhappy indicates ungratefulness, and is one of the worst things a child can do. As Amporn notes, it is no wonder many lesbians who have left home have struggles with intense feelings of guilt.
The mass media is problematic as well. Newspaper and magazines often present lesbianism as an abnormality, or a passing phase. Journalists typically sensationalize stories concerning lesbians, as do the television soap operas in which lesbian characters are portrayed in a stereotypical manner. The only role apparently available to a lesbian character on television is that of a pseudo-man, who eventually becomes “converted” to respectable heterosexuality by the male hero.
Thai mental health professionals, whose Western-influenced views of sexuality carry much weight in this country so concerned with “modernization,” view lesbianism as an illness. Using out-dated American psychoanalytic theories from the 1950s and 60s, these authorities, as well as the majority of Thai academics researching sexuality, believe that lesbianism must be “treated” with therapy. Until recently, when the Thai media addressed issues of homosexuality, it was psychiatrists and professors who were asked for their views, not lesbians or gays themselves.
But if these serious obstacles exist, how does one account for the relaxed treatment of lesbians and gays in public? For Westerners used to the often public forms of homophobia in their own countries, particularly against transgendered lesbians and gays, the lack of overt interference in Thailand is quite noticeable.
The explanation for this phenomenon is tied to Thai cultural norms surrounding the expression of displeasure. Simply, Thais tend to avoid confrontation. Restraint is valued, and the outward expression of disapproval is frowned upon, even to the extent that hot-headedness is considered a character flaw. William Klausner, an anthropologist who has been studying Thai culture for more than forty years, writes in his book Thai Culture in Transition: “Expressions of antisocial emotions such as anger, displeasure, annoyance and hatred are to be avoided at all costs. Thais find themselves psychologically uncomfortable with interpersonal tension and conflict.”
However, the desire to minimize social conflict does not mean that social sanctions against lesbians and gays do not exist. Klausner continues, “While such overt destabilizing social behavior is avoided, myriad indirect techniques to release socially negative feelings are very much a part of the Thai cultural scene. Thus, gossip is a fine art.” Anjana Suvarnananda, one of the founders of Anjaree, concurs. “Thais have many effective but subtle ways to put other people down, to control people. Sometimes just a raised eyebrow can mean a lot.”
Thai sanctions against lesbians and gays gain their force due to the importance of “face,” which refers to social standing and how a person is viewed by those around her. To “lose face” means one has been judged in a negative way, and in a culture which places a high value on proper appearances and appropriateness of behavior, this can be very damaging. Because Thai society is based on group values, the opinions of other people are a governing factor of one’s behavior. By failing to conform to “proper standards” of appearance and behavior, a person is seen negatively by others. Thus, gossiping or staring is enough to cause guilt and embarrassment.
So, because of a tendency towards non-confrontation, Thai lesbians or gays who are brave enough can publicly express themselves in terms of appearance and behavior without fear of verbal or physical harassment. Nonetheless, those who do so stand to suffer a great deal regarding their reputations, whether by drawing the attention of on-lookers or becoming the object of gossip.
Emergence of Organized Lesbianism
It was in this social environment that a small group of women decided to start a group in 1986. At first, the aim of Anjaree, meaning “followers of a different path,” was to provide members with a safe space in which to gather and socialize. But as membership grew (currently numbering over 500), so did the organization’s agenda.
Today, Anjaree is powered by four main objectives. First, it seeks to provide support to lesbians. Monthly meetings in Bangkok give members the chance to meet and discuss issues and problems in a sympathetic and understanding atmosphere. Anjaree also publishes a newsletter, Anjareesan, every two months. It allows members from throughout Thailand to share experiences, ideas, and news. Information from abroad is also included. It is through this publication that many Thai lesbians come to feel connected to one another, as well as to lesbians in other parts of the world.
Anjaree’s second objective is to challenge prejudicial attitudes towards lesbianism. Believing that bias is caused by ignorance, Anjaree has set out to educate the media, the general public, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In 1997 and 1998 Anjaree invited Thai journalists to a series of conferences and panels designed to offer them an alternative to the information provided by psychologists and academics. By emphasizing the views, experiences, and ideas of lesbians themselves, Anjaree encouraged a move away from the medicalized model of homosexuality.
Most importantly, in August 1998 Anjaree began publishing a bi-monthly magazine version of its newsletter. This new publication is distributed to bookstores and newsstands throughout the country. Geared to lesbians, as well as the general public, this magazine contains interviews, profiles, international and domestic news pertaining to lesbians and gays, and letters. It also has articles detailing Anjaree’s agenda concerning the empowerment of lesbians and the protection of their human rights. Anjareesan is sent to NGOs as well, in the hope that it will enable their members to better understand lesbianism, and therefore be more equipped to deal with problems or issues which arise in their own communities.
The third aim of the organization is to fight for the recognition of human rights for lesbians. This means protecting the rights of Thai women to love whom they please, however they please. By acting as a watchdog, Anjaree is ready to step in to support lesbians who are harmed or discriminated against in society.
Finally, Anjaree desires to cooperate with other women’s and human rights groups in the struggle to secure human rights for all people. For almost ten years the group has been networking with organizations from around the globe. For instance, Anjaree helped to start the Asian Lesbian Network, and in 1990 hosted its first meetings in Bangkok. And in 1995 Anjaree sent representatives to the Stonewall 25 celebrations in New York City. In the same year, Anjaree was awarded the Filipa de Souza award by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Ironically, the first time Anjaree gained widespread Thai public attention was because of its involvement in an incident concerning the violation of the rights of transgendered gay men. In 1997 Rajabhat Institute, the national teacher’s college, banned homosexuals from enrolling. School officials justified the decision by claiming that kathoey (effeminate gay men) were emotionally unstable, and thus undesirable role models for children. Because at the time no gay men’s organizations existed which dealt with human rights issues, Anjaree came forward to challenge the ban. Spearheading a movement that came to include a large number of both Thai and international human rights groups, Anjaree and its vocal spokeswoman, Anjana Suvarnananda, received a large amount of press coverage. Public pressure steadily mounted against the school, and eventually Rajaphat rescinded the ban.
Anjaree, Roles, and Role Models
While the term “lesbian” has been adopted by the Thai language, it has a derogatory connotation, so members of Anjaree prefer the phrase “ying rak ying,” which means “women who love women.” In fact, traditionally, there was no specific term in Thai for lesbianism. The closest equivalent is “len peuan” – “playing with friends.” Referring to themselves, Thai lesbians generally make use of the categories “tom” and “dee.” These are abbreviated versions of “tom-boy” and “lady.” Toms are more masculine, while dees are more feminine. These two roles are prevalent in the lesbian community, and it is unusual not to find tom/dee pairings.
However, some women are disturbed by the pressure to be either tom or dee. Amporn, who runs the Anjaree meetings in Chiang Mai, notes twin forces at work. First, some women who are seeking partners are attracted to the tom role because it enables them to visibly identify as lesbian, and therefore attract potential partners. Second, the media represents lesbian couples as being modeled on heterosexual couples, with one partner being the leader (masculine), the other the follower (feminine). Many lesbians feel pressure to identify as tom, or if that goes against the grain of their personality, then as dee. Women who refuse to identify as either role confuse both their fellow lesbians as well as confound the media stereotype. Amporn states, “Many older lesbian couples expect younger lesbians to play these roles. So if you are a tom, you have to dress up like a man, get a very short haircut, wear a man’s shirt all the time, take the leader role. Some lesbians believe that women who don’t follow tom or dee roles are not real lesbians.”
Although many toms and dees feel that these roles simply reflect their true identities, there is a small group of women in Anjaree, including Amporn and Anjana, who are seeking to widen the options. Amporn thinks that perhaps one reason why tom/dee couples are so common is because this relationship pattern is the only model available to lesbians. “The mass media gives us the idea about how toms and dees are supposed to act. We don’t have the role model of just a woman loving another woman, and being equal.” This is why Anjaree’s members-only newsletter and public magazine are so vital: they allow lesbians to create their own role models and view alternatives to those offered by the mass media.
To the Future
The past two years have seen marked gains for the Thai lesbian movement. However, Anjaree and many of its activities are based in Bangkok, one city in a very large country. Although lesbians have started organizing in places such as Chiang Mai and Songkla, many of Thailand’s lesbians remain unconnected to Anjaree. The publication of Anjareesan is designed to spread Anjaree’s message, but for some women, buying it is too risky; its discovery by parents or friends could hold frightening consequences. Thus, one of Anjaree’s goals to facilitate communication between women and the organization is to set up a telephone hot-line. This would be another tool used to address the loneliness and alienation so often felt by those struggling all alone with issues of sexuality and identity.
But Anjana can sense that things are changing for lesbians in Thai society. “It’s as if women are testing the waters, and they’re not sure if they should jump in or not. But I think they can see that the temperature is changing…it’s getting warmer now.”
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Mar 1999
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