333rd Meeting – Tuesday, April 19th 2011

 

Tom / Trans / Thai

Writing Self Across Thai and Thai American Trans-masculinities

A talk and film presentation by Jai Arun Ravine

 

Present: Keywon Chung, Cinda Rankin, Alan Saunders, Vithi Phanichphant, Michael Shilman, Dale Doh, John Cadet, Louis Gabaude, Helene Lepinay, Ralph Kramer, Jeff Warner, Somme Tinee. An audience of 12.

 

Here is the complete text of Jai Arun Ravine’s presentation:

"What do you think of when you hear the words 'tom,' 'transgender' or 'trans,' and 'Thai'?"

Introduction

I am a trans-masculine Thai American and luk kreung writer, dancer, video and performance artist. Invited by the ComPeung artist-in-residence program in Doi Saket (http://www.compeung.org/) to participate in the "Chiang Mai Now!" art exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (http://www.bacc.or.th/), open now until June 19, 2011, I will screen a short experimental film I created as a resident artist at ComPeung, discuss my process and present some of the research I've gathered so far. The film "Tom / Trans / Thai" explores the intersections between tom identity, trans-masculinity (defined as culturally-specific masculine gender expression by individuals assigned the female sex at birth) and Thai identity in a transnational context through writing and dance. This talk functions as an introduction to a larger paper, which has been selected for presentation at the International Thai Studies Conference this July.

One of my reasons for doing this project is that whenever I said the words "transgender" and "Thailand" in the same sentence, people automatically assumed I was talking about kathoey, or transgender women. I wanted to question the silence around the existence of Thai transgender men, so I interviewed toms and trans-masculine Thais, including those who identified as queer, genderqueer and/or on the female-to-male (FTM) transgender spectrum, many of whom were also mixed race or luk kreung, who were living in Chiang Mai, Bangkok and the US. I am interested in bridging critical discussions regarding trans-masculine gender identity formation within Thailand and the US through analyzing the ways gender and queerness are linguistically and culturally conceptualized and communicated--how people think and talk about gender, the existing language around gender, and how language contributes to the invisibility, isolation and silencing of Thai transgender men and trans-masculine people, but also how language can be the place where we can build self and community.

Passing Through: Dissonances Between Tom and Trans

I had not anticipated that my subject position would shift during the course of this project. In the San Francisco bay area where I have been living and working for the past almost four years, I have come to identify myself with masculinity in a genderqueer or gender non-conforming space. At this time I don't identify as male and don't want to pass as male, but feel that I have masculinity in my internal sense of gender that I want to outwardly express. So while I am very used to my gender being assumed and very aware of what it takes to survive day-to-day, in Thailand among toms and other Thais, I was surprised that I was sometimes read as a cis-gendered man and passed as male.

I realized this when I went to interview a tom who owned a restaurant. I had had dinner there a few days prior and had set up an interview time with hir then. When I arrived for the interview and showed hir the Thai translation of my "call for participants," which had translated "trans-masculine" as "ying bpen chai," se became outwardly confused. Se had thought I was a cis-guy when we first met, and asked several times in Thai if I was a boy or girl. I was extremely uncomfortable, not only due to the question itself, but also because of our limited language capabilities--the language barrier was silencing me. More than not really wanting to respond, I didn't know how to respond in terms se would understand. Se was a bit distant and short of words during the interview and hir partner did most of the translating. At the end of the interview se asked again, so I said "puu ying." Se replied, "So you are like a tom!" Identifying me as someone "like" hir, se then said se would be glad to be interviewed again, any time.

A similar thing happened at another interview with a group of friends--some tom, some dee. Half way through our conversation, a feminine-presenting younger sister of a tom I had interviewed previously said, "I just realized you are a girl! I thought you were a man!" The discussion reached a point where I explained the physical effects of my testosterone injections, and that FTM transition wasn't only about bottom surgery. Later, while we were chatting after the conclusion of my questions, one of the toms at the table asked me, "So, when did you know you were like a tom?"

During another interview with a tom, I passed as another tom until midway through our conversation, when I chose to out myself as "trans" and "queer," which caused hir a lot of confusion. The energy in the room shifted, and I wondered if I had upset hir in someway. Despite hir difficulty understanding my definitions of "queer," which se read as "lesbian" and as not being strict about active and passive roles during sex, afterwards se seemed fine with it and returned to the idea that I was "like" hir, was another tom, and was a friend. Se proceeded to ask if I had a girlfriend, and why I didn't have one. "You don't want one? Because you can find a good girl."

During the opening reception of the exhibition at the BACC, I noticed that a person I read as tom was sitting on one of the beanbag chairs watching my film. We made eye contact and began talking. Part way through our conversation se asked, "You, boy or girl? When you were born, boy or girl?" When I answered, se deduced, "Me, too. I always knew that I liked ladies. But you, you look like a guy, a lot."

I hadn't taken into consideration the ways in which I would be perceived by interviewees, and how these perceptions would influence the quality of our connections and understandings of each other. Despite the ways toms adapt masculinity, most had not heard about transgender men and were at times resistant and critical of the concept. Even though some Thais read me as a cis-man or a tom before interviews occurred, after my attempts to explain my personal identification all returned to the language "tom" in order to make a personal connection with me.

From these experiences I can say that in Thailand masculinity attributed to folks assigned the female sex at birth is explained using the word "tom," in part because there are no other words, with the condition that tom is also defined in terms of attraction to feminine women. Many toms explained their "gender" or their “tomness” in terms of knowing they had always been attracted to feminine women. Trans-masculine gender expression in Thailand, then, exists in the gender binary already visible in masculine/feminine, tom/dee pairings. Gender of the person to whom one is attracted and one's own gender must be "opposing." Masculine gender presentation and attraction to feminine women is one and the same--one directly follows the other. Articulating gender as separate from sexual preference in my conversations with Thais was a difficult task.

So while I wanted to find a sense of connection with other toms, in the sense that tom identity was the only visible trans-masculinity in Thailand (and within ‘tomness’ I was hoping to find a connection to ‘Thainess’), and while I tolerated their questioning of my assigned sex in order for them to realize I was "like" them, I felt simultaneously alienated by being read as tom. Being read as tom was an erasure of my desire and my personal sense of self. I was silenced by their demand that I choose a gender, in the same way I felt silenced by the demand to say khrap or khaa. After outing myself as trans, I was afraid to out my desire as anything other than for feminine women. I delicately asked about what I had only just learned was called "tom/gay," tom and tom pairings, but I was afraid to say more. The ways I conceptualized my queerness and my gender were lost on and illegible to most Thais.

I was also not prepared for how my strong sense of identification with other genderqueer and trans-masculine Thais overshadowed my connections with toms. Mostly this was due to language, and cultural context, as with trans and genderqueer Thais I felt I could express myself and be understood. Also, the terms "trans" and "genderqueer" are English words with no real linguistic or cultural context when translated into Thai. At one point during the process of making my film, I realized that all the toms I spoke with had a strong sense of self and of their community, that Thai society held them even though they might not entirely accept them, that toms had a community rooted in ‘Thainess’--and that the two trans guys living in Thailand I talked to were extremely isolated, what with the complete lack of information in the Thai media about the possibility of FTM transition, and in the ways toms had difficulty understanding their need or desire to "pass" as male. I realized that maybe my project was for all the queer and trans-masculine Thais I interviewed who knew no other people like them, who weren't sure about their relationship to ‘Thainess’, who were completely silenced by language. I had attempted to read tom and FTM identities together, as trans-masculinities, but I was seeing the immense divide between them.

 

Conceptualizing and Communicating Gender

The question, "Is it difficult to be both tom and Thai?" failed to translate. During an interview I typed this question into Google Translate, which confused the participant and hir partner, who said, "I don't understand this program. I think you ask again." Many toms I spoke with had pride in being both Thai and tom without separation, although their ethnicity and gender, or their legibility as Thai came into question when they traveled outside Thailand, without the presence of tom communities. They commented on the high visibility of toms in Chiang Mai and Thailand at large and that they didn't feel the need to hide. Tom has become a more identifiable cultural and gender role; this legibility owes itself to the kind of pop culture niche that tom identity seems to have in Thailand, with the presence of @tom act magazine, a tomboy lifestyle magazine since December 2007, and the popularity of luk kreung tom singer Zee. One participant said, "Zee helped Thailand to know a good tom."

While kathoey or trans-feminine identities in Thailand are structured around the taking of birth control pills, surgeries and the idea of passing as a cis-woman, tom identity has no relation to hormones or surgeries and is generally not concerned with passing as a cis-man. I asked toms if they knew toms who took hormones, as an introduction to the concept of Thai transgender men. Some had heard of it in the odd media story, but none knew actual Thai trans guys.

My inquiries into the presence of Thai transgender men generally led to a discussion about the boundaries of tom identity. When I asked if toms had heard anything about transgender, or women changing their sex to be men, most toms replied with theorizations of their own personal identity, saying they did not want to change their bodies, or with a discussion about the meanings of tom. One participant theorized tomness as coming to terms with having a female body, that saying "khrap”, binding one's chest and using the men's restroom were really not all they were hyped up to be, and that when a tom finds someone, that person will love them for who they are, despite and because of having a feminine, yet masculine body.

One participant's reasoning for why it is acceptable to be tom in Chiang Mai involved an explanation of the ways masculinity differs in different regions within Thailand, as well as comparing masculinity in Thailand to other countries like the US and Australia. According to this participant, a softer or more effeminate masculinity is accepted in Chiang Mai among men. Se cited an article that discussed the ways Thai women have more cultural power within the family unit (when men and women marry, men go to live in the women's house), and more sensitivity and patience than men. So being tom in Chiang Mai is accepted because it is accepted that women can take on the power associated with masculinity, and that men have to have a "small voice" and have to be, to a certain extent, subordinate to women. Interestingly, this reasoning for why it is acceptable for women to take on masculinity exists within a binary in which female and male are inscribed as restrictive categories that are mutually exclusive and in opposition, rather than within a discourse in which trans-masculinity questions binary thinking.

It is interesting to relate how this tom participant talked about soft masculinity and strong femininity to larger discourses around Asian masculinity. One Thai American participant said that they pass as a guy in many public spaces because, being Asian, it is more accepted to be an effeminate guy--because Asian masculinity is read as effeminate, as subordinate to other, "white" masculinities. Kathoey, or trans women, in Thailand are said to pass more easily as "real" women, perhaps because they were already "effeminate" in terms of being Asian men. Being female in Thailand is about being rieb roy; according to one tom participant, if you want to be a girl, you won't be anything but rieb roy. Thai toms are read as cute and friendly and their adaptation of masculinity is less threatening to maleness as a whole because they are adopting a "softer" masculinity.

All participants who identified as trans read tom/dee as a restrictive gender binary they could not identify with. One participant said trying to dismantle that or begin conversations was difficult, as it was for me trying to translate the concepts of trans, genderqueer and non-binary thinking. All Thai American participants had experiences of being read as tom or of people trying to peg them as either tom or dee. Trying to explain that they weren't tom was a painful process that exposed the failures of language.

Glai: Both Near and Far: Multiple Distances / Exclusions from Thainess

While being half Thai removed me from ‘Thainess’ already, I felt that my queerness and ‘transness’ enacted a further removal, causing me to make more of an effort to find a way to be Thai across all that distance--I had to search. Our queerness, genderqueerness and radical politics and how they interact with Thai constructions of gender and binary thinking renders us illegible as Thai. Many trans-masculine Thais disidentified with tomness and consequently, ‘Thainess’, because they didn't see themselves in that culture. For those of us who are half white, our queerness often makes us more white, or more American. Our trans identification distances us from femininity and ‘Thainess’ and makes us "whiter."

For Thai Americans, trans and genderqueerness does in some cases exclude ‘Thainess’ and vice versa. Sometimes gender and ethnicity/nationality inhabit completely separate communities and parts of our identity so that they are unable to exist simultaneously. One participant chose to stop taking testosterone before traveling to Thailand to see hir family because se didn't know how to be both trans and Thai. Thai Americans often felt that their gender or gender non-conforming presentation excluded them from ‘Thainess’, and that being Thai (and having Thai mothers) conflated ‘Thainess’ with femininity, rendering their gender transition as a transition away from ‘Thainess’.

One participant said, "I don't see my kind of queerness or transness coexisting with my kind of ‘Thainess’." In this statement is the urgency I feel to create narratives of inclusion of our kind of genderqueerness and our kind of ‘Thainess’ through this project, and to begin a dialogue between tom, trans and Thai that enables us to create a language through which we can begin to understand each other.

 

Jai’s talk concluded with an engaging and extensive question and answers session in which almost all of the audience participated.  

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The larger paper "Tom/Trans/Thai: Writing Self Across Thai and Thai American Trans-Masculinities," has been selected for presentation at the International Thai Studies Conference in Bangkok, July 26-28, 2011.

 

The film "Tom / Trans / Thai" has been supported by ComPeung (http://www.compeung.org) as part of their contribution 'ComPeung featuring Jai Arun Ravine' for exhibition 'Chiang Mai Now' @ Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, April – June 2011. ComPeung is the first non-governmental artist-in-residence program in Thailand. Since 2005 ComPeung aspires to provide a platform for explorations and questioning in the arts.

 

For more information on this project, or to acquire a DVD of the short film, please visit: http://jaiarunravine.wordpress.com/

tom / trans / thai project: http://jaiarunravine.wordpress.com/tomtransthai/

Please send comments or questions to eucalyptusraven@gmail.com

Future meetings:

334th Meeting – Tuesday, May 17th 2011

The Most Secret Place on Earth: The CIA’s Covert War in Laos

A 75 minute DVD documentary directed by Marc Eberle

Additional commentary will be provided by Rebecca Weldon

335th Meeting – Tuesday, June 14th 2011

Twisting Buddhism Through the Christian Lexicon: ‘Ordination’

A talk by Louis Gabaude

 

Next Meeting:

 334th Meeting – Tuesday, May 17th 2011

The Most Secret Place on Earth: The CIA’s Covert War in Laos

A 75 minute DVD documentary directed by Marc Eberle

Additional commentary will be provided by Rebecca Weldon

 

It was known as the ‘secret war’, a covert operation waged by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) throughout the sixties and early seventies against communist guerrillas in Laos. And the most secret location in this clandestine war was the former CIA air base of Long Chen, in central Laos, a place still off-limits today. The Most Secret Place on Earth, which explores this little known conflict, includes images of Long Chen shot by the first Western camera crew to enter the base since the communists took control of the country in 1975.

“I first got the idea to do the film when I visited the Plain of Jars in Laos in 2002,” recalls Marc Eberle, the 36 year-old German director. “You could still see the craters from the air bombing and unexploded ordnance was everywhere. Then I heard about Long Chen and the fact that no one had got there since the war and I thought, how do I visit and how do I make a film about it?”

Little is known about the Lao conflict despite the fact it remains the largest and most expensive paramilitary operation ever run by the US. It was completely run by the CIA using largely civilian pilots from the Agency’s own airline, Air America, and mercenaries recruited from the Hmong, an ethnic tribe living in mountainous areas in central and northern Laos.

Despite being the centre of the covert operation and at its peak one of the world’s busiest airports with a population of 50,000 people, Long Chen’s location was never marked on any map. “I found it bizarre that at one time this was the second biggest city in Laos and it was completely secret,” Eberle says.

Long Chen remains off-limits to foreigners and most Lao due to clashes with remnants of the CIA’s Hmong army and until recently formed part of a special administrative zone under the direct control of the Lao army.

Renewed interest in the Laos’ secret war was briefly rekindled in 2003 when two Western journalists made contact with members of the Hmong resistance, the first white people they had seen since the CIA abandoned them 27 years ago.

 

Rebecca Weldon is the daughter of two physicians, Charles Weldon and Patricia McCreedy, who administered the public health assistance program in Laos for USAID between June 1963 and September 1974.  Raised in Laos during the war and fluent in French and Lao, she worked as a summer intern for USAID/Laos between 1968 and 1973.  Her duties included translation of Lao government documents, collation and research on the origin and personal histories of refugees from northeast Laos to the Vientiane Plain, research in Lao government archives to create a chronology of political and military events in northern Laos between 1945 and 1972 and translation from French to English of the first doctoral thesis written by a Hmong, Yang Dao. 

In 1981 she worked for Joint Voluntary Agency (JVA) in the Nongkhai refugee camp, documenting events in Laos from 1975 to 1981 by collecting oral histories of Lao refugees, organized by social background and profession.  She also recorded oral histories of refugees in the holding center, recently released from “seminar” camps and was the first to record the story of the deaths of the King, Queen and Crown Prince of Laos.  

With a background in material culture and museum studies, she has worked in Thailand from 1982 to the present as a gallery owner, curator and museological consultant.  

Rebecca writes: “Many people, across generations and around the world, have grown up in a war zone.  I am one of those people.  I do not pretend to have played any significant role.  My father documented his work and experiences in Laos in his book, “Tragedy in Paradise”, and I recommend it as a personal memoir to those who would like to understand how a non-military, non-CIA, but, active participant, viewed the events that transpired in the north of Laos.  It was through his work and my mother’s that I met General Vang Pao, the CIA officers, USAID officials, writers and journalists featured in the documentaries of the “Secret War”. My knowledge of the events in Laos was nurtured by conversation around my parent’s dinner table.  Many of them told stories I could never forget. On occasion, and because my father retired in Chiang Rai, where I live, I discussed and helped to illuminate for others, the story of the war.  I was much amused to discover that Long Tieng was “secret”, for it never was in our family.  I was distressed to read of attributions of Air America as “Air Opium”, knowing many of the pilots who flew the planes.  I joined the Air America Association, just to be with them when they met, as a representative of friends from the past. 

Over the years, when researching the history of Chiang Rai, I met many Thai who fought the war; an immigration officer in Mae Sai, a businessman in Chiang Khong, even a T’ai Lue villager in Sri Don Chai.  These stories remain to be told and the generation who lived them is passing away.  I hope that there will be a time when modern Southeast Asian history is better understood by all who live here, a time when the politics of the situation will give way to facts.  This can only happen if the personal stories can be recorded and the documents be revealed.”