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18 Jun 2001

pride on stage

Gay activism through theatre? Pakorn Pimton, Bangkok's most prominent full-time gay activist shares his thoughts, concerns and insights.

Necktie in the morning, ball gown at night. Then the tie again, then the gown, day in and day out. Pakorn Pimton worked the accounts at a Bangkok bank for 17 years under a man who doesn't like gays, and at night performed in a Calypso - a popular, main-stream cabaret review.

Eventually, enough was enough.

His interest in helping the gay community started long before, when he joined an anti-Aids group part time. "I didn't want to see my friends die from Aids, my teachers I didn't want to lose them," he says.

He left both jobs to become one of Bangkok's only full-time, all-purpose gay activists, trying to win people over one at a time to whichever of his causes - condom use among the queer community, acceptance and respect for everyone else. He organizes the annual Bangkok Gay Festival, rallies support for political candidates, protests against negative media portrayals of homosexuals, appears on TV chat shows, takes his safe-sex theater troupe to prisons, and also takes time to counsel the miscellaneous closeted or troubled homosexual who calls him.

It's more of a vocation than an avocation - the money doesn't come rolling in to support him, so he relies on his old skills and balances books. That's in his spare time.

In a culture where rocking the boat is not considered respectable and dealing with your problems in stoic silence is thought to be noble, there's a fine line an activist needs to tread if she wants to get her message noticed without alienating the audience. Where even the queerest of the queer hide that fact from their parents, finding people willing to go public for the mildly distasteful cause that gay rights is to most Thais - and finding people who can rock the boat without going overboard - can be a challenge.

The battle here is not for basic civil liberties, as it is in many countries. Homosexuals have those already. It's for acceptance and respect. But to get respect in Thai society, you need to behave properly. You need to know when to be quiet, Pakorn says, and know when to act out. In fact, he finds some gay displays distasteful. "Over" is how he describes them - this is a Thai word that comes from the English "overkill." Too extreme, not appropriate. Looking around the alley where he sits, and looking at the members of his group, especially, one can't help but notice a large proportion of men in dresses. Aren't they all "over?" No, he says. At other times, in other places, showing out does us no good. In this neighborhood, at this time of night, it's appropriate.

It's Friday night, and Pakorn and other members of the Bangkok Gay Group are hanging out in front of Dick's Caf, a bright, pleasant little bar and restaurant in the midst of the gogo clubs on Soi Twilight in the heart of the commercial sex district. For many of the members of the group, it's a convenient place to meet; they're dancers, cross-dressers, night-club professionals. It seems natural that this would be where you would find budding gay activists in Bangkok. For them, moving into activism is relatively easy. They're already publicly identified as gay figures.
And that's also what makes the idea of gay activist theater an effective concept for them. The group takes what it has and makes the most of its skills. For some, acting and activism are the same thing. As an activist, what would you most like to accomplish? "I'd like to improve my acting," said Nui, who dances in a bar in Patpong.
One of Pakorn's issues - right now the one he's worried about the most - is Aids in prisons. Prison officials refuse to allow inmates to possess condoms. If they have condoms, they reason, they'll have sex. They're probably right, as far as that goes. Of course, if they don't have condoms, they'll have sex as well. When the group proposed bringing condoms to the prison, but they were told to keep the condoms away. Still, the group does put on a show, and quite a show it is, with their flamboyant finery and subtle and yet not-so-subtle sex scenes. Even without the condoms, the group thinks, the message gets through: sex is fine, but protections is vital.

Different members of the group also helped get out the gay vote to bring in the current governor of Bangkok. But Governor Samak has hardly gone out of his way to promote a gay agenda. Is he really a good governor for the queer crowd? "Yes," says Pakorn, "He doesn't care." In other words, he leaves us alone.

This may sound like feint praise, and just a bit too tepid coming from an activist. It is rather tepid, but it also reflects something important in the way most Thais approach the idea of social change. After centuries of governing for the advancement of the governors, and decades of dubious and corrupt "democracies" (many of which looked a lot more like military dictatorships), most people here look for change on the most local of levels: developing tolerance one mind at a time. The group does work on some large-scale policy-related projects, like advocating during the governor's race, but the heart of gay activism here focuses on education.

And education here means teaching people that gays are normal people. "We're here, we're queer, get used to it?" Not in this burg. Pakorn is most concerned about the relationships between parents and their homosexual children, and the fact that may parents are "closed" to the idea. He expresses his ideas as a plea to parents, especially fathers: "I want to change his mind. Many people don't understand." A gay son can "take warmth and give warmth. He didn't kill some guy. He can do everything, if you understand."

It's a simple plea, and one that's easy to understand. The Bangkok Gay Group's activism isn't about assembling large groups to pressure to homophobic foe. It's about finding ways to allow everybody to get along, even within the gay community. "You know, some gays don't like to condoms," Pakorn says, but he adds, "You can change your boyfriend, often."

That's not to say that the Group isn't above direct pressure. When Channel 3 was doing a bad job with its portrayals of gays and lesbians, the group went - and brought with it a well-signed petition - to the network's offices. They sat down, they worked it out, and now, Pakorn feels, the problem is solved.

For Pakorn Pimton, activism is more exciting than accountancy, more satisfying that dancing in heels, and it's changing things. Things aren't changing quickly, no big societal shifts are in the offing, but one step at a time, one person, one policy, one family at a time, the Bangkok Gay Group is sending its message, and by knowing when come on strong and when to speak softly, it's being heard.



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