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On ’100% Thai manliness’ and the reality of LBGT in Thailand

in THAILAND, 11/06/2012

On Wednesday, a rather confusing headline made the rounds when a Thai actor told that the country’s Ministry of Culture (or as we call it here “ThaiMiniCult”) ordered TV executives to ensure that “100 per cent male” actors should not play transgender roles on TV. Naturally, such a bold statement caused at least befuddlement and at most outrage among many people, given their track record in the past especially when it comes to the bare naked truth of sexuality.

However, soon after the news broke the actor in question went on record denying that he ever said the Ministry of Culture issued the order and that it was rather some pooyai (someone in high position, presumably a high ranking official) who asked him not to play transgender roles as he wished to see real transgender actors play their own roles. The permanent secretary of the Ministry of Culture also came out to deny that anyone in his office or their culture watch center ever issued any such ban.

I sat down with Siam Voices contributor Kaewmala to talk about this yet another strange news story involving ThaiMiniCult.

Saksith Saiyasombut: Well,  for a short moment there we thought the Thai Ministry of Culture came out with yet another stunning statement about banning “100 per cent manly” TV actors from  playing transgender roles. What do you make of that?

Kaewmala: Probably like most people, my first reaction was “whadda…!!” There are times I wish I could really understand our Ministry of Culture, but other times the idea of knowing exactly what they think frightens me. We were quick to jump in to join the mocking of MiniCult because it’s fun. In this case, we should give MiniCult the benefit of the doubt and take the actor’s and the MiniCult boss’s words for it that MiniCult didn’t really issue a ban. (For my part, after having had a quick swipe at them, in an act to ask for forgiveness I mentally lit an incense stick and prostrated once to MiniCult. Just to show fair is fair, you know. They would appreciate that if they knew I prostrated appropriately in Thai style.)

In any case, the idea of “100% manliness” intrigues me. Whoever came up with that concept, I wonder if they used a scale, a measurement tool of some kind, to gauge the actor’s manliness?

In my (very) heterosexual female eyes, Mick does look quite manly (and handsome to boot) but I’d be hard-pressed to say his manliness is at 100%, 96.50% or 87.46%. I admit my masculinity radar isn’t quite accurate to the decimal point. Sometimes, I even find myself making mistakes; a man who looks so manly – actually those who look so super, hyper-manly – tend to be, um, not in the women’s way, you know.

Saksith Saiyasombut: Traditional theater performances from around the world always had females roles played by men, is there anything similar in ‘traditional’ Thai culture?

Kaewmala: Have you ever seen Thai Li-ke? The theatrical performance where performers, male or female (100% or otherwise), are painted like in the Japanese Kabuki. The Li-ke heroes such as Lord Rama in Ramayana have white-painted faces, red-painted lips, arching eyebrows and so forth. The audience isn’t confused about their sexuality, I imagine. They know the roles they play are the roles on stage. Whatever sexual orientation or gender identity they might have off-stage is another thing, and people don’t really care.

In the old Siamese royal court, there used to be a tradition of female roles being played by boys or men. My knowledge about Thai classical theater performance is rather limited, so I can’t give you any deep insight on that.

Saksith Saiyasombut: Is Thai ‘manliness’ in any danger that it would need protection? And from what?

Kaewmala: Why would Thai men’s manliness need protection? I think it takes a straight man who is very secure of his sexuality to play a gender-bending role. Men who are secure about their sexuality are very sexy, irresistible even, to females (or other sexes) attracted to masculine men (Like a man who is a feminist is sexy to many women). And also, why assume that manliness is the exclusive domain of straight men? Many gay men are very manly. Men who want to play a katoey role wouldn’t easily turn into a real katoey, if that’s what some people fear.

Although there isn’t really a need to protect Thai manliness, I think we can guess a little at the rationale of the pooyai who asked the actor not to play the katoey role. He is said to have given the reason that he wished the real katoeys to play the roles, which is really thoughtful, if  true.  A few questions arise, however. Does the pooyai want to save the job opportunity for the real transgender/transsexual people? Or does he want to preserve the purity of Thai manliness? Or a bit of both? We don’t know enough about the pooyai to speculate whether he’s a liberal progressive or a conservative by making such a request to the actor. But in general, a liberal progressive person is unlikely to intervene in other people’s affairs, but there’s no hard and fast rule on that either. My guess would be that he’s more likely a conservative.

Conservatism is driven by the need to protect the sacred and to uphold the purity and sanctity of whatever is believed to be pure and sacred. Thai manliness in this case might be perceived as being in danger of being contaminated by a straight-male actor playing a transgender role, hence making it less sacred.

Conservative people tend to like to keep things as they are. They don’t like changes and prefer to see things in clear categories. Men as men. Women as women. Katoeys as katoeys. Mixing and crossing these set categories confuse and upset people who believe in the purity and sacredness of these categories that they want to keep separate. That’s why you always hear cries how things are now “degenerated,” “contaminated by foreign influences,” etc.

You see, Thailand is well known for its openness to alternative sexualities and transgender people can live more or less openly here if they so choose but that doesn’t mean there aren’t prejudices against them. The state of being a transgender, transsexual, gay, tom, di, bisexual, or whatever that is not the mainstream heterosexual, is still perceived as a perversion. Mainstream Thai society still perceives them as freaks of nature. (It’s like, “alright, alright, if that’s what you want to be – but you aren’t 100%, so stay away from us, in your place, you’re so lucky we tolerate you.”) And these prejudices are always looming shallow and deep in the background. Occasionally, it pops up in an advertisement, a government rule or regulation, a law, or some pooyai’s mouth.

Saksith Saiyasombut: That’s a good point, since Thai society has always been regarded as rather friendly towards people with different sexual orientations – especially judging by public presence of transgender people – is that really the case?

Kaewmala: Appearance can be misleading. Compared to many other societies, yes, Thai society is quite open in day-to-day treatment of people with different sexual orientations and gender identities. Thai transgender people aren’t killed or beat up because of their sexuality to the extent it happens in some other countries (though this kind of hate crimes also exists in Thailand to some extent). Instead, we have world-renowned katoey shows, arguably the best looking ladyboys on earth, and tourists the world over flock to see them in cabarets, in beauty pageant stages, etc. We have transgender people working prominently in shopping malls, in customer services, in beauty, entertainment and sex venues. But that’s pretty much where most of them are. Very few of them are in regular jobs, often not because they don’t want to, but the opportunities are limited. They are still discriminated against widely in terms of employment. Their opportunities are even officially restricted, in particular in government, police and military jobs. Military service regulations still include “katoey” as a prohibited disease and hence disqualifies anyone who is a katoey to apply for jobs in military service. Only months ago that the official branding of transgender people as “having a permanent mental disorder” on the military conscription exemption paper was finally put to stop. This paper has been the biggest obstacle for transgender people for a long time and has prevented them getting jobs, visas, doing legal transactions, etc.

In short, socially there is a fair amount of tolerance for people with different sexual identities but they are still lots of problems and unfair treatments going on based on attitudes and laws and official regulations in this country, most particularly concerning transgender people. It’s not all peaches! Things are changing gradually for the better however, like we just have the first transgender politician who won the provincial administration office in Nan. Hopefully she will bring positive changes, especially in terms of recognizing transwomen (transgender persons who have had sex change operations to become a woman) like her as legally female, so that they could have a legal identity as female, get married, and live fully as a woman, instead of legally as a man but for all practical purposes as a woman.
Saksith Saiyasombut: Ok, let’s say whoever came up that “no-transgenders-played-by-straight-actors” – idea would now look very anti-transgender – but could it be possible that this initiative is meant to protect the real transgender actors from getting their jobs stolen from their non-transgender colleagues?

Kaewmala: That is possible. In the best case scenario, the idea is to protect job opportunities for transgender people in acting jobs. It would be a new thing, and seems like a very positive thing indeed. Like banning white people from painting their faces black to play black people as it happened in history in the West. What do you think is the chance of that being the case here?

For argument’s sake, if the reason is really to protect acting job opportunities for transgender people on the principle of equality and fairness, what about straight women playing lesbian, tom and dii roles? Can “100% manly” gay men play straight male and katoey roles? 

Is it supposed to be about gender equality, fair opportunity in employment, or gender-specific or sexual orientation-specific guidelines for the acting profession? And for what purpose exactly? If actors comply with pooyais’ recommendations as it seems to be the case with this actor who made the news, where will this go and where will it end?

Kaewmala is a writer, a blogger and an avid twitterer. She blogs at thaiwomantalks.com and is a provocateur of Thai language, culture and politics @thai_talk. Kaewmala is the author of a book that looks at the linguistic and cultural aspects of Thai sexuality called “Sex Talk”.

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