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April '98:
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Vol 1. No 7. April, 1998

Lesbians in Thailand Speak Out

Lesbian issues were in the spotlight last month when the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand hosted a discussion night on March 18 at its plush premises high above Bangkok.

Fielding questions from journalists and other members of the public were Anjaree organiser Anjana Suvarnananda, Pink Ink co-editor Jennifer Bliss, sexuality researcher Megan Sinnott from the US, women's health worker Kanokwan Tarawan and Anjaree member Khun Mau.

Outlining the work of the national lesbian group, Ms Anjana said they aimed to support lesbians and protect lesbian rights. She said that many lesbians did not feel comfortable coming out: "We want to put an end to this situation, not just for lesbians, but for everyone to be able to be themselves. It's a question of freedom of choice."

Commenting on the "coming out" episode of the TV sitcom Ellen which was screened before the discussion, Ms Anjana said that Thai women did not enjoy as much independence as American women did and were under more pressure from their families to be seen as "proper women" in public.

"Many of us who are not married live with our parents until they die. When we find a partner it becomes complicated. It's hard work to come out and it depends on the understanding of your parents," she said.

Ms Mau added that she didn't need to come out to her family as everybody guessed she was a lesbian from an early age: "But many parents don't accept their lesbian daughters and think they are abnormal. We try to explain that we didn't choose to be gay; we were born like this. We feel it inside."

Parents' fear of their children being lesbian or gay was understandable, said Ms Kanokwan. "It comes from being afraid of seeing their kids live in a society with much discrimination. We have all as a society created this fear."

On the question of identity, Ms Kanokwan said that Thai women did not like the word "lesbian" because of its negative connotations. She explained that "lesbian" was tainted because it was associated with pornographic foreign films aimed at titillating men.

"We have come up with a new Thai word, 'ying rak ying', meaning 'women loving women', but so far it is not used beyond the Anjaree members," she said.

Thai lesbian women generally refer to themselves as "toms" and "dees": "A tom is a woman who wants to be a man and a dee is a woman who is with a tom," Ms Kanokwan said.

Comparing tom/dee to the western concept of butch/femme, Ms Sinnott said that feminist theorists in the 1970s dismissed butch/femme as imitating heterosexual roles, but that it was making a comeback in the 1990s.

Ms Bliss added that she saw butch/femme in the West as an idea to play with to undermine stereotypes. "But in Thailand it's a survival technique which enables lesbians to find a level of acceptance in society. We can't assume a parallel with the West."

Ms Anjana explained that dress codes made it easier for lesbians to identify potential erotic partners. On the subject of national political action, the Anjaree coordinator said that Thai society was not ready to grant legal rights to lesbians and gays as has happened in some other countries. "The level of politicisation is different in Thailand ... I wish we were better at getting together and setting political agendas."

"We must place the lesbian struggle in a wider context," explained Ms Sinnott. "In the US, for example, it came after civil rights and women's rights." Public demonstrations demanding gay and lesbian rights, it seems, is not the Thai way.

"We don't confront. We sidestep any issue we deal with," said Ms Kanokwan.

The level of violence against gay men and lesbians is lower here than in the West, and there seems to be more tolerance. But without laws that tolerance can be withdrawn at anytime as the Rajabhat Institute demonstrated last year.


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