Queering the pitch, deliberately

Dr Peter Jackson discusses what it means to be queer in a Thai context

The US academic Rosalind Morris once praised a book on Thai studies by noting that “it offers a relentless repudiation of those saccharine tropes through which Thailand has mainly been read”. This is a rousing comment and one that suggests great critical insight on behalf of the volume in question. But, taken by itself, we might wonder why those saccharine tropes were used in the first instance. Why would Thai studies employ sweetened ways of thinking about this country?

Well, one response could be: Explain “sweetened”. Critical analysis does not have to function as a scythe. A so-called softer approach could prove itself useful for the pursuit of certain truths. Or, the distinction might be irrelevant for certain contexts.

Case in point: Peter Jackson is a long-standing scholar of Thai gay and lesbian themes and, now, Asian queer studies. A professor in Thai history at Australian National University, Jackson has published extensively on these topics, most recently the edited volume Queer Bangkok (Hong Kong University Press 2011). He also maintains the Thai Rainbow Archives Project, an online resource that preserves vernacular gay, lesbian and transgender publishing.

Queer academic theory, as it emerged from Western universities in the early 1990s, has held radical promises: namely, a re-thinking of given categories of sexual identity and the normative strictures of cultural life and social behaviour. But how such promises can be fulfilled remains subject to contentious debate and, as we shall see, the terms of this debate are far from universal.

Jackson was recently in Bangkok to speak at the launch of the HIV Foundation Thailand. A more critically nuanced or radical discussion is possible than the one below; but I will leave it others to decide if “saccharine” is an appropriate description of our exchange.

Queer theories initially emerged as a critique of normative categories of sexual identity but ‘queer’ has now taken on the patina of an identity itself, and is often used interchangeably with LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] identities. Please discuss the political usefulness of ‘queer’ in this respect, in Asia or otherwise.

“Queer” has become a convenient way to talk about people of diverse genders and sexualities when they come together to resist anti-gay, anti-lesbian and anti-transgender laws, policies and attitudes.

In the ’90s, the term was used to describe a critical trend in theories of sexual and gender diversity which emphasised that all notions of gender and sexuality are historically and culturally relative, not universal. Queer theories argue for insights into the total structure of a sexual and gender culture, and are not the mere study of “minorities”.

The idea of “queering” conservative notions of gender and sexuality, rather than the details of Western queer theory as such, has had a very powerful influence in Asia over the past decade or so. “Queering” means taking a term, category or idea from mainstream discourse and giving it a new twist. For example, in China the term tongzhi _ which originally meant “comrade” _ has been revalued by some Chinese gay men and lesbians to mean something like gay or lesbian fellow-traveller. The fact that this linguistic strategy of queering the discourse of the Communist Party of China has had a real political impact is shown by the fact that a recent edition of a Chinese-language dictionary left out the word for fear of promoting a new queer meaning!

In Queer Bangkok you argue that commercial gay scenes in Thailand are zones of queer autonomy. Commercial gay identities are not politically unproblematic. Please expand on your understanding of queer autonomy here.

I argued that commercial gay scenes in Bangkok parallel those in the West by providing spaces to escape from homophobia. My argument is that whenever a society has permitted businesses to respond to consumer demands, a commercial gay scene has been able to emerge. And that scene of bars, bookshops, saunas, etc provides spaces of queer autonomy.

We have seen this repeatedly around the world, most dramatically in the formerly socialist countries of Eastern Europe and East Asia. As soon as a formerly socialist society _ or even a notionally socialist society like China _ liberalises and makes the market the basis of its economy, commercial gay scenes emerge. Capitalism has been the most important force in the modern world for creating spaces in which queer cultures have been able to function publicly, and from which political activism can be pursued.

Please discuss LGBT political activism in Thailand. You’ve argued that a long history of political instability here has encouraged local queers to lobby bureaucracy and the media rather than political parties. But why shouldn’t it be considered a failure that Thai LGBT and queer communities have not aligned themselves with the very public and violent struggles for governmental change?

I think it’s important not to use Western ideas of political activism in order to judge local struggles. Forms of homophobia in Thailand are different from those in Western countries. Sexual dissidence has never been against the law here.

Thai queer people suffer from a pervasive cultural regime that regards them as abnormal, weird, et al. It is these cultural attitudes that are the main barriers to achieving full acceptance. All political factions can perpetuate homophobic attitudes so Thai queer people are not going to achieve full human rights by aligning themselves with one party or faction. Getting Thai queer rights enshrined in law will require a broad shift in attitudes across the political spectrum. This means that cultural activism _ through the media _ and bureaucratic activism _ in lobbying for queer-friendly policies in government departments _ are important strategies in advancing the cause of LGBT equality in Thailand.

Please give an example of this cultural activism.

An outstanding example of Thai queer cultural activism is the way that male-to-female transgenders have used their renowned reputation to raise the status of katoeys. Reports from the 1950s and 1960s indicate that katoeys were not only perceived as perverted, but also as ugly back then. The contemporary image of the beautiful katoey is a very recent historical development. Many katoeys use the Thai fascination with feminine beauty to make an implicit claim for recognition and respect.

The fact that a significant number of kathoeys find employment as beauticians in department-store cosmetics departments suggests that Thai women indeed do respect kathoeys’ skill as beauty specialists.

Economics seems to play a great role in rights and respect for Thai queers. However, the flip side to empowerment is that social conditions can be highlighted. For example, Thai male sex workers are known to change their sex in order to prolong their working life. This is not fully an issue of queer agency.

Perhaps the most important economic dimension of transgenderism in Thailand is that it costs a lot of money to successfully transition to a status generally recognised as realising cultural ideals of feminine beauty. From anecdotal reports, I think that not an insignificant number of poorer kathoeys suffer from low-quality surgery and also do not have adequate medical supervision for administering female hormones. The health issues of kathoeys are almost completely neglected by Thai medical authorities.

Source – Bangkok Post