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28 Sep 2011

Queer Bangkok: 21st Century Markets, Media and Rights

In this new collection, Peter A. Jackson brings together experts including veteran Singapore gay activist Alex Au, and prominent academics Professor Douglas Sanders, Megan Sinnot and Dr Sam Winter, to piece together a picture of how Thailand’s politics, economics, art, society and views of sex affect the LGBT people who actually live there as opposed to just pass through.

Queer Bangkok: 21st Century Markets, Media and Rights
Edited by Peter A. Jackson
The Fifth Volume in the Queer Asia Series, co-published by the Hong Kong University Press and Silkworm Books of Thailand, 2011
Winner of the 2011 Ruth Benedict Book Prize

Peter A. Jackson

Bangkok and sex are two words that have been entwined in the popular imagination since the Victorians ‘discovered’ Siam. At its height in the sixties, the Vietnam War brought American servicemen to Thailand by the hundreds of thousand to help found its commercial sex industry. The economic boom times that have (inconsistently) enriched the East since then have long-ago widened the source of sex-tourists that came initially from Europe and America to include Asian countries like Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. People come to Bangkok now from everywhere in the Pacific Rim. All this has served to reinforce the association of Thailand with sexual paradise. Almost everyone, even if they can’t afford to, dreams of going to Thailand to get laid.

I apologise immediately to any Thai readers and other lovers of the country if I offend by offering this crude approximation of the attractions of the country. There is, of course, very much more to Thailand than I describe; many come to Thailand for the other extraordinarily beautiful things that are found there. But what you are reading is, after all, a Fridae column, so I shall remain unashamed of confining my introductory remarks about Thailand to the area of sex. I am ashamed, though, in reading the collection of essays in Queer Bangkok, to realise how ignorant I have been up till now of almost every aspect of sex, sexuality and gender in the country. Peter Jackson and the authors he features make it plain that even the scrapings of ‘knowledge’ picked up in Bangkok’s Silom Road by farangs (foreigners) such as I fear I must be, are likely to be embarrassingly misleading. Read the collection of essays, many of them superlatively written, that Jackson has assembled here and see if your understanding has been any better than mine! 

Jackson is a member of the Editorial Collective behind the ground-breaking Queer Asia series published by Hong Kong University Press, of which this book is the fifth (this one uniquely published jointly with Silkworm Books of Thailand; apologies are due here to the Press as our recent review of Falling Into the Lesbi World wrongly credited that volume – actually the sixth – with being fifth in the series). Jackson is a Professor at the Australian National University and a recognised expert on Thailand; he was one of the organisers of the 1st International Conference of Asian LGBT Studies in Bangkok in 2005, which this reviewer was lucky enough to attend. He is also a fine writer: clear, succinct, incisive and free of the mind-numbing jargon that disfigures the writings of so many queer theorists (one has to hope his example will be at least one foreign habit Asian queer studies will copy!). 

In this new collection, Jackson has brought together experts from many fields to piece together a picture of how Thailand’s politics, economics, art, society and views of sex affect the LGBT people who actually live there as opposed to just pass through. The book is organised in three parts: a review of markets and media in Bangkok’s queer cultural transformations; a look at Bangkok’s place in global and regional developments; and analyses of LGBT activism and its achievements (and failings) in modern Thailand. 

The picture that emerges from this collection is surprising and thought provoking. A background point that neither Jackson nor his contributors have need to labour is just how different the Thai approach to sexuality and gender is. The Queer Asia series has long ago made it quite plain that approaches to sexuality and gender are culturally specific, in many cases miles removed from European or American models.

This book adds to that, but goes further in indicating that, due to huge intra-Asian tourism from places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, Bangkok has become a centre in which Asian sexualities are being developed in ways that take them further from western ideas. Asian men (and this is from an amusing and insightful piece by Alex Au, the heroic activist and blogger who kept the flame alive during Singapore’s dark ages and now inspires its (almost) liberated gay citizens) have freed themselves there from the old stereotypical desire for a Caucasian ang mau and have learned in Bangkok’s saunas and go-go bars to desire the Asian body. The ways of life of LGBT people across the region are increasingly spoken to by Thai film makers, whose family-centric plots puzzle westerners brought up to ‘come out’ as you ‘ship out’ of home. In direct opposition to the European and American experience, the growth of access to the internet in Thailand has increased usage of gay venues and caused a multiplication of facilities, as the poorer members of society are brought together online only to find that they have to meet outside the family homes in which they still live. What Brett Farmer, in his study here of gay Thai cinema, calls ‘vernacular queerness’ is not simply ancient Asian culture surviving to reassert itself but also much that is both local and new. 

Thai LGBT activists, too, have learned to depart from the legal and human rights models advocated by western activists to make progress under repressive political, even military, regimes. Despite the lack of liberal democratic systems, activists have initiated change, for instance, by embarrassing military men or staid bureaucrats who fear to appear lacking in modernity (and so political legitimacy) in the eyes of the world. This last can, of course, have only limited value, but Douglas Sanders and Megan Sinnott’s essays both make it clear how and why some political change has been possible in Thailand despite (even because of) the turmoil in its politics. Making one’s rulers lose face is an effective, if second best, strategy. Sinnott’s study of how mostly lesbian activist politics, for a time, grew to be so strong in Bangkok in alliance with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, is a lesson for activists across the region. Sanders’s piece in itself is a neat reference history of what has happened in the Thai LGBT world of the last few decades. 

Collections on Thailand would not be complete without inclusion of something on the third gender and this collection is particularly strong here. Dr Sam Winter of Hong Kong University has penned an impassioned chapter making plain just how few rights transgendered people have in Thailand. On the surface, to the unaware, katoeys seem an accepted part of the fabric of Thai life. In reality, they are isolated and discriminated against. They often lead unsuccessful lives of abject misery. It is only the beautiful, or those who can afford to be made beautiful, as Aren Aizura’s look at the reassignment surgery tourist trade makes plain, who can make it big even for a short time on the Bangkok, Pattaya or Phuket stage. For the rest, unemployment, derision, social and family ostracism, abuse, drug dependency, self-harm and suicide are all too common fates. There are a few who break out; Stéphane Rennesson has a subtle and fascinating piece in this collection looking at two muay thai katoeys, one, Norng Tum, made famous by the 2003 film Beautiful Boxer and the other, Norng Tim, who had a similar though short-lived Thai boxing career in 2004. 

Several of the interesting themes that emerge from this volume are picked up by Peter Jackson himself. As the title of his book indicates, he is much exercised by the role that economics has played in developing Thailand’s sexual landscape. Queer theory seems not yet to have caught up with the rapid and vast changes in the economic and political balances across the world; much of it is mired in ‘post-colonialism’ (the relevance of that term or its concepts to modern Asians is hard to discern). Much of it is exercised by ‘globalisation’, the spread of ‘exploitative’ large-scale western capitalism into developing countries (more a concern of the late 20th Century, perhaps, rather than of this). Much of it is radically left-wing and antipathetic to capitalism. Theory is to some small degree mirrored in reality in some places; anti-capitalists do exist within Asian LGBT networks; Hong Kong’s LGBT movement, for one, is riven by outdated and nugatory political argument between ‘capitalist roader’ middle classes and the radical working class activists who control some of its organisations. 

Yet some of the advances in Asian LGBT ‘economies’ can be seen to have come, and continue to come, from their association with commerce. Commerce, as Jackson points out, may be exploitative but it may also be liberating. Sex workers may actually choose the life they lead as it allows them to earn more than they could in any other way, and to rescue, thereby, their status as filial offspring by contributing to the wellbeing of their parents, wider families and even villages.

Commercial competition has reduced the cost of being ‘gay’ in Thailand so that poor working class men can now emulate a ‘gay’ life they would not, twenty years ago, have been able to afford. Increased personal wealth has led to travel, to escape from restricting cultures like that of Indonesia (see Ben Murtagh’s analysis here of Bangkok as the ideal sexual paradise in his account of Andrei Aksana’s novel Lelaki Terindah (The Most Beautiful Man) for an example of this). Liberating experiences abroad are brought home to alter and enrich LGBT lives. Commerce was harnessed by Dr Stuart Koe, former CEO of Fridae to enhance consciousness and change minds across the region with his Nation dance parties and with the online news site you are reading now. Big business, and in particular big finance, in Asia is increasingly building diversity organisations that are changing for the better the working lives of their employees and are making governments change their minds. 

Jackson’s point is a salutary one. The LGBT activist world has for over-long remembered the crass exploitation of the San Francisco bath owners, whose greedy refusal to change their ways contributed to the early spread of HIV, and it needs reminding even now that commerce is what has paid for much of the lifestyle it enjoys. There is still too much turning up the nose at commercial contributions to LGBT activism too little acknowledging them after the events they fund. 

The wider point on which I would close is to expand Jackson’s thesis with the recognition that the 21st Century world has changed irrevocably. Asia, particularly China, is already its focus, not the West. The apologetics of queer theory are rapidly becoming outdated. Peter Jackson has observed in Bangkok the start of a much bigger trend.

Asia’s LGBT communities will build their own ways of life in the future and these will increasingly differ from those of the West. Today Bangkok has already developed its own LGBT ‘economics’ and has played its part in leading Asia away from western models. I suspect and hope that China, when that behemoth’s LGBT communities are finally set free by its ascent to wealth, will tomorrow change the face of queer theory for ever!

讀者回應

1. 2011-09-29 09:15  
hahaha;)
BKK is no more a paradise for gay men anymore!!!
It was but not now:)
2. 2011-09-29 09:17  
All good and well, but please stop using the word ‘queer’! It means, odd, weird, etc., and NOT gay. Besides, it’s derogatory and disrespectful to gays and lesbians. A little bit of decorum would not go amiss, especially when writing an article to be posted on-line.
3. 2011-09-29 12:46  
Zactoon, you must be over 50. Queer does NOT mean those things anymore. There is nothing disrespectful about it. Has your head been in the sand the last 20 years?

Queer and proud.
4. 2011-09-29 13:00  
Re: #2
Check out --> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queer_theory
5. 2011-09-29 13:06  
Great article! So much is happening in Asia around LGBT issues! Very excited to watch how things progress over the next century. I'm also looking forward to learning more about the Queer Asia series.
回應#6於於2011-09-29 20:00被作者刪除。
7. 2011-09-29 20:58  
I wonder if the difference in approach is not so much an East-West thing, as a difference between those places where gays have been criminalised and harassed, where a fight-back mentality created a community, and those places with a more Buddhist live and let live approach, where there was no criminalsation, and where commerce has been more of a catalyst for progress.
8. 2011-09-29 21:05  
I say they forgot the rampant prostitution activities in that country.
9. 2011-09-30 12:26  
No nr. 3: It's just about self-respect and and the respect for others. And yes, I am over 50, which only leads me to believe that you are not :D
10. 2011-09-30 13:04  
Queer defined as a synonym, can be described as surprising, funny, astonishing, perplexing, odd, curious, unexpected, remarkable. Being gay or lesbian can hardly be expressed in any of these terms.
11. 2011-09-30 13:30  
Nr4: As for http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queer_theory, Critical theory. Criticism stems from one’s own insecurities, a deficiency of self-respect and/or a lack of an opinion. And theory, it’s all just hypothesis and speculation, culminating in misinterpretation and confusion as to what’s real.
12. 2011-09-30 19:50  
eeeww 'queer' how low brow.. as a Wiccan we respect and honour the Ancestors, those who walked befor us, not to unlike in many non christian/moslem Asian Cultures, the attempted appropriation of the not so salubrious term "queer' is apart of a philosophical decay of fringe western homosexual political activism, I am sure most asians use it as they are largely clueless of it's hateful use and origins and the fact that many hundreds of thousands of Homosexual men in the west where brutalised even murdered while having this homophobic slur term spat at them, how we would honour our 'cultural war dead' by legitimising hateful slur terms like"queer'or 'faggot is truly Queer, to negate slur terms as effective weapons is one thing but this use of 'queer' is a profanity that disregards the violent experiences and dishonours the memory of all those brutalised and murdered.. good on you 'zactooh' having the sensibility to speak out
修改於2011-09-30 20:13:37
回應#13於於2011-09-30 19:52被作者刪除。
14. 2011-09-30 20:11  
@12, lol, was counting the moments.
15. 2011-09-30 23:25  
Well, just a quick skim / read of this review but it would be good to add a Volume Two, to this book about Thailand and not JUST BANGKOK. I have lived/worked/studied in Thailand for 16 years and in/out. Of those 16 years, 9 were spent working in the provinces outside of Bangkok, where there is a different world...for example more .....Thais.

There should be a chapter on the North, South, and Northeast at a minimum and then broken down by location. And more writing by local people and/or observations of social behavior.

I hope that the "Bhuddist" cultural values which still, some how underpin, most of Thai society/ies are covered in this book. Because at the heart of Thailand's "tolerance" for others, Bhuddist values is the most important factor, not regimes/politics/ect.

Well not complaining just observing.

Oh Peter please issue / re issue volumes one and two of the "Coo of the Dove" books which are simple stories of real Thai experiences in gay sexuality. Let's all move out of Patpong and the DG and sex show world near Patpong and move it out to the real Thailand.

And Bangkok, is part of Thailand, but like so many other countries, the urban mega centers represent themselves and that is about it.
Also, bear in mind about Bangkok, that Thai society in Bangkok is heavily influenced by "Thai Chinese" customs/mores/attitudes as a result of the Chinese/mainly Fugian immigration in the late 18th century/early 19th century. And no offense, but there is a famous saying, probably mainly about Bangkok...."The Thais hate all the Chinese except their fathers."

Move on. I would give some clues about where to go even in Bangkok where there are no tourists, just local working class gay and mixed people having a good time. But if I did that, those nice scenes would be ruined. And the "gay bar elitism" that infects the Patpong area and beyond would spread and devour another part/location of nice Thai culture and social change.

Bye.
16. 2011-10-02 15:19  
@15 I agree about the Buddhism aspect of Thailand. I remember seeing this documentary about AIDS/HIV and there was a story about a temple that have monks taking care of the dying when everyone else in the community has abandoned them because the rest feel that because they're gay and having AIDS was a punishment. In the end, when the people finally succumbed to the disease with no family around, the monks cremated their bodies and stack the packed ashes in front of Buddha. How so very sad, the story was so shocking to watch that a whole community casts aside the victims.

Anyhow, Peter Jackson is hot (have to put that in). And I love how at the beginning, the whole sex industry in Thailand was blamed on white men.
17. 2011-10-02 16:52  
I hope that this book can illuminate certain issues and offer practical policy recommendations for Thai policymakers and NGOs. I am personally most concerned about 4 specific issues:
1) The high prevalence of HIV rate among MSM in Bangkok....
which in itself isn't a problem IF the HIV-positive persons are screened, discovered, counseled and treated early. Thailand offers affordable, quality HIV treatment. Money is not the problem. The question is how we can encourage people to go for screening regularly and treat the infected so that their viral load is kept low, and so that they can learn about how to take precaution to protect their sex partners. There is no way to heal a HIV-positive person. But there are ways that can prevent him from spreading the disease to others.

2) Lack of sex education or information about safer sex available to Thai youngsters.....
since this group makes up the majority of new infections. Being immature and commonly poor, they are most likely to have unsafe sex for either the fun or the money. The kingdom's health and education ministers should offer evidence-based comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in schools, like what many European countries have been doing. It should take this bold step to psychologically vaccinate the youngsters against unsafe sexual behaviour. Given that internet access is becoming more common across the kingdom, anti-HIV NGOs should create and share comprehensive online information resources in Thai language on the cyberspace. This can be implemented more quickly than persuading the education ministry to develop and provide CSE in schools. NGOs should work with experts on public health, early childhood education, marketing and communications to create such resources.


3) Lack of local support centers in the provinces that offer assistance to LGBT members that offer counseling, HIV screening, education and other empowerment programs.
Which may be a money issue. There are more than 70 provinces, so it'd be a challenge to convince the local authorities to support this. But I think NGOs should still talk with the Governors to provide such centers, preferably in informal settings in each province. An alternative strategy is to convince the monks to work with the NGOs and house, in local temples, such informal support centers. If there is at least 1 temple that offers an office for NGOs to conduct anonymous screenings, counseling and workshops in each province, Thailand's anti-HIV campaign will be much more effective, working at the local level.

4) The lack of purpose-build gay retirement facilities.
If you are a retired Farang, and you can't find good retirement facilities in Thailand, you'd most likely live where it's most convenient for you: the red light districts of Bangkok and the few other big cities. What would you do when you are bored? If there isn't much choices, you'd probably visit the gogo bars, saunas, discos. That is why such facilities are concentrated in a few big cities, because there's where the money is. But if Thailand has more purpose-build retirement facilities like those in New Zealand and Australia, the retirees are likely to move in to such facilities than to live in rented apartments near to such commercial gay spots. And it helps both them and the Thai people. The demand for professionally trained staff to manage such facilities will increase, and that for saunas, discos and gogo bars will decrease. A boy serving the farangs in the sex trade may then find a new job in the retirement village as a nurse because of the shifts in demand for the two jobs. The farang can still enjoy a good life in Thailand having moderate sex, because he can spend his time on activities like dining, golfing or walking his dog. And, most importantly, it should help the Thai economy too if the kingdom can attract more retirees to spend their money in professional services like retirement facilities, healthcare, etc. instead of sex.
18. 2011-10-03 03:14  
For No. 16. Thanks for your comments. I guess I missed this: "And I love how at the beginning, the whole sex industry in Thailand was blamed on white men. "

Anyone who has read Thai or regional history for the past 500 years would learn that "commercial sex workers" have been a traditional part of mainland southeast Asian cultures for years and years.

With out excusing "white peoples" behavior, it did not take "white people" to introduce commerce sex trade/s to Thailand. Especially in Bangkok but all over Thailand......

But let us not fall into such "blame traps" it's unproductive and does not solve the underlying economic and social issues about commercial sex, male or female customer orientated.
19. 2011-10-04 14:12  
Re: Zactooh #11 --> "Criticism stems from one’s own insecurities, a deficiency of self-respect and/or a lack of an opinion. And theory, it’s all just hypothesis and speculation, culminating in misinterpretation and confusion as to what’s real. "

?

Queer theorisation seems quite clearly about the formulation of an opinion, or at the very least, about the active undermining of others' misguided opinions (on 'normal' heterosexuality, or a 'stable' male-female binary). The rejection of queer theory is, of course, also an attempt to undermine an opinion or a way of thinking you perceive as misguided, but naming this specific reason for rejecting queer theory (that queer theory or critical theory in general is for people who do not know how to form opinions) seems itself misguided... After all... why do you bother engaging in critique at all yourself then? Are you insecure? Deficient in self-respect? Or do you lack enough of a coherent opinion of your own?

I mean no malice. I am simply applying your logic to your own critique.

As for Aztlan_oz #12's --> "I am sure most asians use it as they are largely clueless of it's hateful use and origins and the fact that many hundreds of thousands of Homosexual men in the west where brutalised even murdered while having this homophobic slur term spat at them"...

Incidentally, terms like 'gay' and 'lesbian' have also historically been used to put people down, including today. I grew up hearing 'gay' used as a slur against me in violent ways far more often than 'queer' (sum total: Never). This is not to deny your reality, nor is it to suggest that we should not use the term 'gay' either... I simply want to reflect on how your lived reality, awful and heinous as it has been, does not present sufficient enough evidence to reject, in its entirety, the corpus of work presented by queer theory. Much of queer theory is not only in favour of progressive social and legislative change, but has also been part and parcel of achieving this change.

You are certainly under no obligation to adopt queer identity or queer theory as your own personal framework of understanding the world around you, and I will not try to convince you otherwise. However, your assumption that Asians adopt queer because we don't understand Western culture, and are clueless, is unwarranted, unnecessarily parochial, and patronising.
修改於2011-10-04 14:17:42
20. 2011-10-04 14:15  
Hi to Interesting29 #16 --> " In the end, when the people finally succumbed to the disease with no family around, the monks cremated their bodies and stack the packed ashes in front of Buddha. How so very sad, the story was so shocking to watch that a whole community casts aside the victims."

I would certainly be interested to continue learn more about the role of Buddhism in conditioning the perspectives of different people around the world concerning homosexuality and gender variance. :) Thank you for sharing your experience watching this documentary.
21. 2011-10-05 02:54  
Let one thousand flowers and words bloom!
回應#22於於2011-10-07 04:01被作者刪除。
回應#23於於2011-10-07 04:01被作者刪除。
24. 2011-10-07 04:00  
I love the look and feel of Asian bodies, and their cultural personalities which have been positively affected by Buddhism, as I have, no matter what religion they may be now. When our attraction is not mutual and our economic status is not in balance, I pay them for sex, because I have more money than they do. They share their bodies with me, because they need the money for themselves and their families. I do not put a moral value on money, just the way it is earned and spent. I do not put a moral value on sex, just the way it is conducted and how people treat each other. When we have sex, as well as before and after, I treat Asians with respect, genuine care, and emotional tenderness, no matter how brief our encounter. I believe they are equal to me as human beings, no matter what their economic, education, and societal success levels are. Asian cultures and bodies are all different, and Asians within each culture are all unique. We are all human animals, with instinctual, intellectual, psychological, spiritual, and creative needs. The goal is to keep our actions and reactions as compassionate and passionate as possible in this extremely imperfect, frequently harsh world. The purpose of life is to share our better qualities whenever we can.
25. 2011-10-21 14:50  
What is Paradise ..... i Want to Know, come into my paradise and say what you Got ....... it ;)) Well come to thailand

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