by Peter A. Jackson
© all rights reserved
Bangkok’s gay and kathoey (transvestite/transsexual) subcultures are among the largest and most vibrant homoerotic subcultures in Asia.But while pride in masculine homosexual identity is common to Western and Thai formulations of gayness, there is much about being gay in Thailand that Western gay men would find foreign and unexpected. In this paper I suggest that contemporary attitudes to homosexuality and transgenderism derive from an ancient and distinctively Thai cultural source.
Historical linguistic evidence suggests that prior to the 13th century AD, when the Thais adopted Buddhism, Thai language and culture lacked a concept of non-normative male sexuality that did not at the same time involve culturally ascribed cross-gender behaviour. The Buddhist scriptures, often called the Pali canon, include examples of gender-normative male homosexuality among monks and among others, but in Thai these men are consistent ly misread as being kathoeys, transvestites or transsexuals. Pali, a close relative of Sanskrit, is the classical language of Theravada Buddhism. Indeed, it appears that Buddhist teachings have not had sufficient cultural power in Thailand to supplant indigenous sex/gender conceptions, and that instead there has been a consistent historical misreading of the Buddhist scriptures.
The continuing power of indigenous gender-based conceptions of sexuality in Thailand is not only evidenced in erudite translations of the Buddhist scriptures. Indigenous attitudes are also strongly reflected in the history of the new homosexual iden tity of gay. Until the past couple of decades Thai language and culture possessed only two sex/gender categories for males, namely, the gender normative ‘man’ (phu-chai) and the non-normative kathoey which included all males who were regarded as breaching normative male biology or normative masculine behaviour.In the past two decades, however, there has been an explosion of new bisexual and homosexual identities in Thailand, with a range of new nouns entering the Thai language to denote new forms of sexual and gendered being. These new identities include the bai (from ‘bisexual’) or seua-bai (Literally: ‘bi-tiger’, denoting a masculine bisexual male), the gay-king (denoting an active and presumed masculine homosexual male) and the gay-queen (denoting a passive and presumed feminine homosexual male). Since the late 1980s an intermediate category between the gay-king and gay-queen has also come into being, the gay-quing, whose identity is marked by his sexual versatility. All of these new terms draw on English sources, but they have been playfully reformulated within the Thai linguistic and sex/gender systems to mark distinctively Thai configurations of male gender and sexuality.
The coining of these new terms marks an important development in the history of the Thai sex/gender system. Since the early 1970s Thai language and culture have witnessed a transformation from verbs that described homoerotic behaviour between ‘men’, or between ‘men’ and kathoeys, to a series of new nouns that label the sex/gender status of bisexual and homosexual men. More importantly, these new terms are used self-referentially by bisexual and homosexual men to describe themselves and to differe ntiate themselves from the traditional categories of ‘men’ and kathoeys.
The persistent strength of traditional conceptions in defining Thai males’ views of their sexual and gender status is indicated by the fact that all the new bisexual and homosexual identities have come into being in a sex/gender domain between the two traditional poles of ‘man’ and kathoey. Indeed, as can be seen from the above table, the new identities mark out a gender continuum that shifts from identities that are regarded as being close to normative masculinity (i.e. bai, seua-bai) to those which are seen as being close to, if not indistinguishable from, the non-normative status of a kathoey (i.e. gay-queen).
The persistence of traditional notions is also shown by the fact that when first borrowed into Thai in the 1970s and 1980s, the meaning of the English term ‘gay’ was almost universally conflated with kathoey, i.e. a transgender male. Only slowly has the notion of masculine-identified male homosexuality (gay-king, gay-quing) as a distinct phenomenon gained currency in Thailand. Yet, even though contemporary gay-identified Thai men now assert their masculinity and their difference from effeminate and cross-dressing kathoeys, they continue to reproduce gender distinctions between themselves and their partners in the differentiation into active gay-kings and passive gay-queens.
In Thailand, the new identity of gay is moulded and expressed within a culture that insistently characterizes all sexual relations in terms of gender differentiation. While Western gay men have sexual preferences, these usually remain subordinate to th eir identification as gay, which is defined on the basis of masculine-identified homoeroticism. However, in Thailand gay exists only in the pairing of a sexually complementary gay-king and gay-queen. Even the notion of sexual versatility, which is gradually gaining currency within Bangkok’s gay subculture, is accommodated within this gendered framework. In Thai a sexually versatile homosexual man is not simply gay , he is a gay-quing, combining elements of the queen and king in a uniquely Thai play upon the English terms.
We need to be cautious in characterizing the power of external cultural and ethico-religious systems to alter fundamental conceptions of sex and gender in Thailand. Indigenous Thai notions have not only survived a millennium of Buddhism but also show c onsiderable resilience in the face of the recent marketing of Western-styled gay identities via globalizing transport and communication networks. It also raises questions about the extent to which the Western conception of gay has, or can be, borrowed w ithin the Thai context. The mere existence of the word ‘gay’ in the contemporary Thai language does not indicate that a global gay identity or a transnational homogenization of human sexuality is a necessary outcome of the impact of yet another universalizi ng world culture. Thailand has withstood waves of universalizing cultures in the past–notably Indian and Chinese–appropriating and accommodating elements of these foreign influences while retaining a distinctive cultural formation in the domains of sex an d gender. For at least the last couple of centuries, and perhaps longer, the Buddhist scriptures have been consistently (mis)understood as reflecting what are in fact distinctively Thai, not Buddhist, notions of non-normative gender and sexuality.
Peter Jackson is a Research Fellow in Asian and Pacific History at the Australian National University. This is an extract of an article published in the Queer issue of Meanjin, March 1996. Reprinted with permission.