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5 Apr 2016

Review: First Queer Voices from Thailand by Peter A. Jackson

Our Hong Kong correspondent Nigel Collett shares his thoughts on the recently published First Queer Voices from Thailand: Uncle Go’s Advice Columns for Gays, Lesbians and Kathoeys

In 2008, the publication by Hong Kong University Press of Helen Hok-Sze Leung’s Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Postcolonial Hong Kong marked the start of what was to become the Queer Asia series, a groundbreaking list of academic works on Asia’s diverse queer cultures that has now reached a total of thirteen titles in English and two in Chinese.  In launching the series in still conservative Hong Kong, and from a university which has still to recognize its own LGBTI student organisation, the Press was sticking its neck out to a good degree, and it has bravely continued to publish new work on queer issues in countries as geographically and culturally separated as China, Singapore and Indonesia.  The number of its publications has tailed off in recent years (the most recent was 2014’s Gender on the Edge: Transgender, Gay, and Other Pacific Islanders edited by Niko Besnier and Kalissa Alexeyeff), and readers had begun to worry that Hong Kong’s increasing political conservatism had begun to have an effect in its English language publishing world.  Now, to some relief, has appeared a new work in the series, Australian academic and activist Peter Jackson’s First Queer Voices from Thailand.

This book is not, however, new in itself, for it is the third edition of Jackson’s Male Homosexuality in Thailand: An Interpretation of Contemporary Thai Sources, a volume which blazed the trail of sexuality and gender studies in Asia back in 1989 (the second edition was entitled Dear Uncle Go: Male Homosexuality in Thailand and was issued in 1995).  In publishing a revised third edition, the Queer Asia series is repeating something that it had done in 2009 with the re-publication of J. Neil C. Garcia’s Philippine Gay Culture: Binabae to Bakla, Silahis to MSM, which had first come out in 1996.  Re-publication is a valid activity for the series; it not only provides us with copies of classics which are nowadays almost impossible to buy, but also allows works to be updated or fitted into current perspectives.  Jackson’s book is certainly a classic and its reappearance is much to be welcomed.

Male Homosexuality in Thailand was a very clever use of an unorthodox tool, the column of a heterosexual agony aunt, to examine and explain the culture that had, by the 1970s, produced a distinctive Thai approach to both being trans (kathoey) and gay.  Jackson had lived for some years in Thailand to study Buddhism, and had become fluent and literate in Thai, so that he was able to read the letters sent in to Plaek (Strange) magazine and published by ‘Uncle Go Paknam’ (the publisher Pratchaya Phanthathorn) in his columns ‘Girls to the Power of 2’ (a phrase Go used to denote kathoeys) and ‘Sad Gay Lives’.   These columns began to appear in 1975 and continued to do so until the early years of this century.  They were the first public spaces for anyone of sexual or gender diversity to write in public in Thailand, and provided the first serious and fair public recognition of their plight.  What was extraordinary was that Uncle Go was a straight man of traditionally conservative views, although these were views he coupled with a compassion and libertarianism that turned him into a cult ‘uncle’ figure for kathoey and gay people, then, after 1976 when he began a new column, ‘It’s Go Paknam’, for lesbians as well.

Jackson rightly saw the letters in these columns, and the response that Uncle Go gave to them, as a window on Thai culture and society, and his book quotes them at length to discuss their implications.  Many of the letters are touching, others are amusing, some written by educated people, others by the unsophisticated.  At times, Go’s correspondents give long and intimate details of their personal lives and of the sex they have had; some are clearly very confused by everything. ‘Uncle, I’ve got some questions,’ writes Dam after giving his story of being abandoned by his lover. ‘Will he come back again? Am I wrong to love the same sex? Uncle, what kind of person do you think he is? I have a lot of hair on my legs and I shave it off but why does it come back again?’

Uncle Go answered them all as humanely as he could, but as he did so he revealed his own prejudices and theories which were based in the view of transnormative sexuality and gender taken by heterosexual Thai society at the time.  Gay men, for instance, were either ‘Kings’ (tops), whom Go often advised to try to be straight, as they could penetrate their lover, or ‘Queens’ (bottoms), whom he generally counselled to live the best life they could but not expect male-male relationships to last forever.  Lesbians were similarly either ‘Toms’ (masculine acting), whom Go thought unlikely to be able to have a straight relationship, or ‘Dees’ (feminine acting), who Go felt would be better off with a man. Kathoeys Go regarded as a gender apart, impossible to reform, to be pitied slightly as unlikely to be able to keep a real relationship,  but attractive as objects of heterosexual desire (hence the phrase he used, ‘Girls to the Power of 2’). Bisexuals he seems to have rather envied as being able to enjoy themselves willy nilly.

Jackson dug behind all this seeming inconsequentiality to get at the origins of the attitudes that Go and his correspondents portrayed and to investigate something of the lives of the latter.  His conclusions were (and perhaps remain) surprising, for Thailand, despite the tolerance that its Buddhist religion has given it, was (and is) no paradise for its queer citizens. He found that homosexuality and lesbianism was not accepted in upper or educated circles, that queer people were subtly discriminated against and that they were pitied as having, in previous lives, caused the bad karma they were sufferring in this life.  Whilst there was a general acceptance that in some circumstances (for instance, yielding to the sexual advances of a higher class male, teacher or patron) same-sex acts were tolerable or even justifiable, publicly flaunted same-sex relationships were not.  At the time, the lives of kathoeys were much circumscribed and only employment in such places as beauty salons was open to them.  There was also a surprising amount of sexual violence, directed not by homophobes against gay men, but by heterosexual men against kathoeys and lesbians, as it was against women in general, it would seem. In addition, regrettably, Thailand seems to suffer the same amount of home-grown paedophilia as does the rest of the world.  

Many of the themes of which Jackson writes will be familiar to a greater or lesser degree to those of us who come from, or have lived in, other countries in Asia. Whilst all are different, some of the ideas and practices which form the meat of this book are recognisable in some form or other in places like Nepal, India and China.   The cultural differences that the Queer Asia series has highlighted are contrasted by some of the similarities it has revealed; it is time, perhaps, for a wider more general approach to pull together the similarities in the cultures of countries not deformed by imported Judaeo-Christian proscriptions.

The new edition of this book shows some signs of being rather hastily cobbled together; the introduction to the 1995 edition, for instance, comes rather strangely after a full new chapter on the evolution of the Uncle Go column. This, however, is merely a structural issue and the chapters are individually eminently readable.  Of more concern is the lack of much attempt to update the book in terms of its description of Thai society.  When he first wrote in 1989, Jackson acknowledged that Thai attitudes had already changed by the time Uncle Go’s column appeared and were changing as he wrote. By 2016, these changes will have gone further, and it would have been good to have seen a fuller re-examination of the themes of the first edition.  Has Thai society now a more tolerant attitude towards open demonstrations of same-sex relationships?  Have the lives of kathoeys improved?  What now are the heterosexual and queer views and customs relating to ‘King’, ‘Queen’, ‘Tom’, ‘dee’ and kathoey?  One can only hope that Jackson will go back to Thailand to bring us up to date.

That said, this new edition of Jackson’s book is a great addition to the Queer Asia series.  Jackson is a fine and enjoyable writer, free of much of the linguistic cant that disfigures modern academic writing, and he couples common sense to a deep knowledge of a country he obviously loves.  This reviewer for one is very glad that it is now possible once again to get hold of a copy of a book that explains so much and which can rightly claim to have launched queer studies in Asia.    

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