He doesn’t know whether to kiss them or kick them. Sometimes he does both. As a transvestite he is nothing unusual in a nation inundated with drag shows. Undefeated in 30 domestic bouts, he is a talented kick-boxer, but not extraordinary in the country that invented the sport. It is his audacious combination of makeup and body blows— as vicious as any seen in an arena— that draws the crowds.
Parinya Kiatbusaba is a symbol of Thailand’s ambivalent attitude toward homosexuality. It’s not that the gay population is hidden away behind closed doors. Hardly. Compared to the U.S., where the only place you’re likely to see a drag queen kick ass is on The Jerry Springer Show, Thailand seems like a bastion of hedonistic abandon.
In 1995, the world’s first all-gay village, Flower Town, was built in the central mountain area. Cross-dressing and openly gay men are key ingredients in most popular television shows. Several Bangkok gay neighborhoods would put Chelsea and Greenwich Village to shame. Newspapers carry commitment ceremonies alongside traditional nuptials. Fairly explicit letters to Uncle Go, an iconic gay advice columnist, have been published for 25 years. All this is not so surprising in a nation that has a history of homosexual inclusion going back to Buddhist scriptures, centuries before anyone had ever heard of Stonewall, perhaps even before the days of Siam’s reign over much of Southeast Asia.
Thailand is a land of myths, its own and those imposed on it. Foremost among these legends is that the Buddhist belief in karma explains the apparent acceptance of homosexuals by the Thai people. In a country of 60 million that is over 90 percent Theravada Buddhist, the prevailing state of compassion is a direct contrast to more puritanical Western notions of same-sex liaisons as a sin born of free will. In Thailand, homosexuality is considered a consequence of deeds done in a past life. Such people will never reach nirvana, since they live outside the norm. Nonetheless, homosexuality is considered part of a person’s character rather than a sin freely chosen. Yet this sympathetic attitude should not be confused with open-armed acceptance.
Anecdotes in academic journals and advice columns suggest that Thai lesbians face far more resistance than their male counterparts. Double standards abound. Despite karma, the Thai patriarchal structure has a much more casual attitude toward male sex, regarding experimentation as one way of releasing pent-up energy, while seeing women who do the same as a direct challenge to male control. Women are treated like property, their bodies and lives highly regulated by men.
The “Land of Smiles” image hides a much more complex system of repression and stigma. Thai culture is imbued with a deep sense of avoiding shame at any cost. In a society ruled by outward appearances, what happens in the bedroom is considered private as long as everyone adheres to strict rules of decorum and etiquette. Subtlety is nurtured from childhood, when nuances are hammered home during language classes and reinforced throughout a lifetime of class-based training. Conformity is the norm and anyone who stands out stands way out.
Sensitized to the most minute social signals, the typical Thai gay man is careful to keep a low profile, in the belief that discretion doesn’t negate his sexual identity. Kannat Jaiyindee, a gay Bangkok businessman, says the more ostentatious display of kathoey behavior (the colloquial Thai term for transvestites, gay men, and others outside traditional hetero boundaries) “scares people too much. It pushes people further behind the door.” Thais use doors to describe the status of someone’s sexuality. Someone who opens the door is out and someone who shuts it isn’t.
Jaiyindee doesn’t see much solidarity among Thai gay men. “They just stand there saying, ‘I’m too pretty. I should go home and stand in front of my mirror and make love to myself.’ ” He is also wary of the larger social climate. “There is now pressure building in some uptight groups,” Jaiyindee says, referring to a recent action by Thai prime minister Chuan Leekpai requesting that TV stations— all of which are government owned— cut down on shows featuring transvestites and transsexuals “to prevent innocent youngsters from imitating unfavorable examples.” Another measure, to ban gay students from enrolling at the national teachers college, failed.
The last time a local antigay movement reared its head was more than a decade ago. Ironically, it was fueled by Buddhist writers who echoed Western sensibilities, attributing the oncoming AIDS epidemic— which would mark Thailand like a bull’s-eye— to gay men. But times have changed.
The Bangkok Gay Festival media launch in March was a clarion call to the nation’s homosexual population— including “toms” and ” ‘dees,” the preferred Thai terms for butch and femme lesbians. For an entire month leading up to a grand parade in October, the city’s premiere gay venues will offer various events. Creative director Pakorn Pimpton, a backup dancer for a Thai pop singer, says that not only is there no harassment from official quarters: “The police are taking care of this parade. Some are even gay.”
Nong Tum, as the kick-boxer Kiatbusaba is affectionately known, is the object of praise, fascination, and sympathy. He is torn between two desires: becoming a great fighter and becoming a woman. Losing his last bout in Tokyo on June 10 might push him to hang up his gloves. In that fight, he became the first man to wear a top support for breasts enlarged through hormone injections. At 18, he needs to get his parents’ consent to get the sex-change operation. His physicians have rejected him, saying he should try to live as a woman first before going through with the procedure. Besides, in Thai culture, it’s more advantageous to be born a homosexual man than to become a woman.