Sunday, July 15, 2012

[My Take on] Being Gay in Thailand

By day, the Thung Si Mueng Park of Ubon may appear as any old standard park in Thailand, but by night, it transforms into a magical place. For high school students, it is the paradigm of the social hang out; for the health-conscious it is the public fitness center; for families it is the backyard they don't have; for vendors it is their shop; for skateboarders and bikers it is where they hone their skills; it is home to aerobics and ballroom dance classes; for singers and dancers it is their rehearsal room; and it provides the evening entertainment for those with nothing better to do, like us foreign teachers after a long day of work. Night after night, the people-watching and eclectic slew of activities never ceases to amaze.

Nearly every evening, a group of 9 homosexual males who coin themselves "The Beat Generation" gather outside of the park temple to rehearse a modern hip-hop dance routine. They are talented, flamboyant and inspiringly proud of it.
After enjoying their routine and speaking with the friendly members, my friends and I tried to imagine "The Beat Generation" in one of our hometown parks. I certainly couldn't imagine their act not attracting a swarm of attention in America, some of which would surely be unwanted. My South African pals insist they'd be the laughing stock of the town and the target of outward discrimination in their extremely intolerant country. In Ubon, the fellow park-goers don't blink twice at the routine, except maybe to pause and admire theirs moves in between their own nightly pre-occupation. 

Although Thailand is a less than perfect society in terms of discrimination given the high value placed on skin color, it is refreshingly gay-friendly.

Being gay in Thailand isn't just a matter of being "accepted" by society. In Thailand, sexuality exists as it should in any culture - it's merely a matter of personal preference received without judgment.

As a teacher in Thailand, it is intriguing to witness the dynamic between the homosexual & heterosexual students in class, which is so very estranged from my observation in American grade school. Although I cannot speak from personal experience, it seems an immense challenge for a Western child to be openly gay - and there must always be the production of "coming out". In Thailand, it is treated as it should be: a fact of life. Children who recognize they're gay early on have nothing to hide - there is no shame and no hatred.

Thailand is often associated with "ladyboys," or transgendered males that live as females. The rumors are true, the prevalence of ladyboys exists all over the country, although you'll find the major hubs in Bangkok and Pattaya.

I have had "ladyboy" students as young as thirteen in my classes, who have made the decision to become a girl at an early age. Although there are also many gay boys (and girls), seemingly a huge number of gays voluntarily change their sex. It was theorized to me that perhaps because of their innate Buddhist morals, many individuals believe they were meant to be born as a woman or man and therefore take it upon themselves to alter their unlucky fate.

In Thailand, PDA is not the done thing, for both homo- & hetero-sexual couples. It is rare to see couples go so far as hold hands in public.

To compensate for the lack of affection among couples, friends are overly-affectionate in public. Commonly, straight girl friends of all ages will hold hands in public. My [straight] high school boy students lay all over each other, sit on each others' laps and touch each other in ways that would have American high school boys running for the door.

We are all human beings. It is only natural for us to crave physical connection with another human. In a society that frowns upon public affection with a significant other, outwardly physical friendships have become the norm. Perhaps their immunity  towards affection of same-sex friends has shaped an environment in which all people can connect with who ever they choose - without judgment. 

Growing up in the West, I did not know that it was feasible for sexuality to be treated with such indifference. Certainly, America has made commendable progress in terms of gay rights, but there is a long, long road ahead. Sadly, it's hard for me to imagine my country ever being as open-minded as Thailand - and I'm talking about a place with absolutely no sexual discrimination from anyone - at least in my lifetime.

One thing that I can take away from living here is that it is possible to create an environment where everyone can live peacefully regardless of sexual preference, and it's a beautiful thing. Hats off to Thailand.


Lani Cox said...

I felt the same way as you did until I had a little chat with my mom...I just assumed that lady boys were accepted part of society but my "aunt" had the crap beat out of her by her 6 brothers growing up in the small town of Lamphun.

They didn't want a brother that acted like a girl! Of course this is the older generation, but who can tell whether or not this still happens?

Recently the mother of one of my students called our school office to request that her daughter not sit next to another girl (a tom). It became evident she feared her daughter being gay...

That said, I do think Thailand is a heck of a lot more tolerant than the US. But I don't think gays are not without being judged or teased. Especially by immature boys (and girls?) who are still getting comfortable in their own skins.

AZE said...

Lani, thanks for sharing. I think I've been so impressed with the gay-tolerance overall here that I failed to consider the older generation. Before I wrote this, I did speak with a few Thai friends who said if there is anyone less tolerant, it may be the older generation, but they didn't know anyone personally or under 30 who was that way. It's interested to hear your stories. In my experience in schools, the children seem completely accepting and I have never witnessed any segregation. I suppose there are always exceptions.

Anonymous said...

Actually being gay isn't always accepted by Thais. Certainly not if you're in the army or a teacher. Some parents do accept, but only if their offspring produces grandchildren.
Most do not mention it to their family. A 'don't ask, don't tell' attitude exists.
It's true there's not so much of the bullying, but that doesn't mean it's totally okay in this society.

AZE said...

Thanks for your comment. It's always interesting to hear another perspective. I suppose I was being a bit too optimistic. No society is perfect, I've just been extremely impressed coming from the world I grew up in.

Asia Pundits said...

Hi this is a great article. I was wondering if you would be interested in running it as a guest post at the site I run - We run a variety of posts on life in Asia and this fits the bill. If you are interested get in touch with me at We would be willing to run a bio for you and a link back to the original article. Please let me know what you think. Cheers!

Krit W said...

Great post. Even I'll have to admit that the part you said "[straight] high school boy students lay all over each other, sit on each others' laps and touch each other in ways..." is very...very true. I'm Thai and I play like that with my friends a lot. I've always thought that this is normal, this surprise me that it's not at all. I believe that current generation doesn't discriminate against gay that much, though some or many people might not like them, they still wouldn't do anything like protesting or hating them or whatsoever. Most people who are freinds with gay stay that way. Hell, most gay celebities are accepted by most people. And about what Lani said, that really depends on the parents, but for this generation itself it's not much of a problem I think. True in some areas they don't accept gay, but those areas are pretty specific about what they do like in the army.

Andrea Eisinberg said...

Thanks for commenting, Krit. This topic can be very sensitive, and though I was just stating my opinion, I didn't want to make assumptions or offend. It's nice to hear that your experience was in line with my observation. And what is "normal" anyway? Normal is subjective; up to each person, culture, country, etc. Acting in such a way IS normal in Thailand, and I really respect and miss that about Thailand. Thanks again for reading and responding, Krit!