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
Chung, Cinda Rankin, Alan Saunders, Vithi Phanichphant, Michael
Doh, John Cadet, Louis Gabaude, Helene Lepinay, Ralph Kramer, Jeff
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'?"
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 "
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.
these experiences I can say
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
question, "Is it difficult to be
both tom and Thai?" failed to translate. During an interview I typed
question into Google Translate, which confused the participant and hir
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
although their ethnicity and gender, or their legibility as Thai came
question when they traveled outside Thailand, without the presence of
communities. They commented on the high
visibility of toms in
Chiang Mai and
While kathoey or trans-feminine identities in
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
this tom participant talked about soft masculinity and strong
larger discourses around Asian masculinity. One Thai American
that they pass as a guy in many public spaces because, being Asian, it
accepted to be an effeminate guy--because Asian masculinity is read as
effeminate, as subordinate to other, "white" masculinities. Kathoey,
or trans women, in
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.
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 email@example.com
334th Meeting – Tuesday, May 17th 2011
A 75 minute DVD documentary directed by Marc Eberle
Additional commentary will be provided by Rebecca Weldon
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A talk by Louis Gabaude
334th Meeting – Tuesday, May 17th 2011
A 75 minute DVD documentary directed by Marc Eberle
Additional commentary will be provided by Rebecca Weldon
It was known as the ‘secret
covert operation waged by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
the sixties and early seventies against communist guerrillas in
“I first got the idea to do
film when I visited the Plain of Jars in
Little is known about the Lao
conflict despite the fact it remains the largest and most expensive
paramilitary operation ever run by the
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
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
Rebecca Weldon is
the daughter of two physicians, Charles Weldon and Patricia McCreedy,
administered the public health assistance program in
In 1981 she worked for Joint Voluntary Agency
(JVA) in the
Nongkhai refugee camp, documenting events in
With a background in material culture and museum
she has worked in
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
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.”