We have all heard scathing and cruel remarks about transgendered bodies; they are often cast in tragicomic roles in films that end with these queer bodies marginalized or destroyed, restoring power and order to the heteronormative and the patriarchal. The well-known Thai movies Iron Ladies 1 (2000) and Iron Ladies 2 (2003) depict the triumph of a team of underdogs made up of transgendered kathoeys in a national volleyball competition. The two movies not only bring kathoeys into the field of heteronormative vision, but also add to the discourse of queer lives in Thailand. What Iron Ladies represents—that transgendered lives are also worth living—is in line with the aim of Queer Bangkok: Twenty-First-Century Markets, Media, and Rights, which examines the many faces of queerness in Bangkok. The essays in Queer Bangkok are “united by a shared commitment to expose, resist, and challenge the heteronormative assumptions that marked much earlier research on queer Thailand and which continue to restrict the lives and opportunities of Thailand’s gay, tom-dee, and kathoey citizens” (3). In other words, drawing on analyses from various disciplines, the book crafts an alternative multi-dimensional approach to queer studies in Asia, with Bangkok the center to its analysis. The book’s multi-faceted discussion of Bangkok and its nuances as a city and queer utopia adds valuable voices to the area of queer studies and queer theory, which have been dominated by North American and European academic consciousness.
The collection sets out to analyze the roles of the market and media – especially cinema and the Internet – in the transformations and transitory moments in LGBT cultures in Thailand. The book considers the ambiguous consequences the growing commodification and mediatization of queer lives have had for LGBT rights in Thailand. One of its notable findings is that in the early twenty-first century processes of global queering have led to a growing Asianization of Bangkok’s queer cultures. The idea of Asianization relates to the intra-Asian flows of queer cultures, where Bangkok’s queer cultures have become strong influences on queer cultures in other Southeast Asian countries. Moreover, global queer cultural influences have moved not just from the West to Thailand, but also vice versa, thus setting up Bangkok as a “source of radiating influences in queer cultural transformations across both Asia and the West” (11). In other words, the Asianization of Bangkok’s queer cultures rides on the city’s reputation and status as a queer cultural capital that both influences and is influenced by other countries, thereby making queer studies in Bangkok a good springboard for more studies on queer cultures in an Asian setting. Queer Bangkok is an important read especially for scholars of gender and sexuality who are based in Asia and who have as their sites for analysis culturally-specific narratives and expressions because of the diverse methodological approaches adopted and the insights that are offered in the essays.
In his introduction to Queer Bangkok, Jackson outlines his parameters for what is queer. Queer, he states, “denotes sexual and gender practices, identities, cultures, and communities that challenge normative masculine and feminine gender roles and/or transgress the borders of heterosexuality” (3). In other words, queer is configured in relation to more than just sexual practices. He notes that the way “queer” is understood in Thailand is different from the way it is configured in a Western theoretical setting. The Thai word “phet” incorporates ideas of sex, gender, and sexuality, and is “a master concept that is central to all legal, academic, and popular discourses of gender and sexuality” (3). Thus it delineates a fundamental linguistic distinction that sets the inquiry into sexuality in Thailand apart from discourse located elsewhere. Bearing this linguistic and cultural specificity in mind, the volume does a good job by also covering how queer lives are lived in Bangkok from various perspectives. Essays range from cinematic and media analyses to the progress of political activism, and attempts to situate Bangkok’s queer scene in a more regional and global setting. The book is lucid in its structure, with the essays broadly categorized into three themes.
The first section, ‘Markets and Media in Bangkok’s Queer Cultural Transformations’, contains essays devoted to analyses of images and themes from Thai cinema that challenge normative sexuality and speculate on the reasons for the overall growth of Bangkok’s queer scenes. It moves from Jackson’s reflections and observations on the queer boom in Bangkok to more specific analyses based on popular Thai films such as Iron Ladies (2000 & 2003) and Love of Siam (2007). Their application of a cultural studies approach towards these popular films adds valuable insights on cinematic representations of kathoeys and gay men in Thailand and the construction of masculinity. Through an analysis of the movie Beautiful Boxer (2004), we see that the construction of masculinity is not always a fixed process, but can function in paradoxical ways. The boxer in the movie raises funds to undergo a sex change operation by participating in Muay Thai competitions, which are well known for being physical and violent displays of a form of masculinity. He therefore uses his body as a biological male and his fighting skills to obtain a passport to a life as a transgender. The last two essays of the section analyze the place-making practices of Thai gays through their uses of saunas, as an example of commercial spaces queered, and expound on the relationship between the Internet, power structures and gay sexual health.
The second section, ‘Queer Bangkok in Twenty-First-Century Global and Regional Networks’, covers Bangkok’s role as a major nodal point of global queering. The essays here discuss how cultural globalization has pushed Bangkok to the forefront of processes of global queer cultural transformations and has established Bangkok as a source of inspiration for other nations in Southeast Asia. In this section, it becomes evident that technology, the internet in particular, and globalization (the freer flow of people, goods and ideas) have contributed to Bangkok’s reputation, for better or worse, as a global sex city.
The last section of the book, ‘LGBT activism, rights, and autonomy in Thailand’, shifts attention from queer identities and cultural analyses to broader systemic issues in the Thai society. Even as the Thai government recognizes gender other than the categorical male and female, there is still a lot to be done about protecting the rights of sexual minorities in Thailand. At the same time, across the growing number of affluent Asian societies, LGBT communities have benefited as many of them become part of a burgeoning middle class, which in general has become receptive to the idea of a pink dollar economy. As they use their disposable income to contribute to the pink dollar economy, they are more able to carve out queer spaces for themselves, and in that way, achieve protection from more morally conservative governments.
Jackson describes Bangkok as going through a “queer boom” in recent years, and the city has become viable as a site for regional gay circuit parties, an example being the Nation dance party held in Phuket in 2005, organized by Singapore-based LGBT web portal fridae.com. This blossoming of both commercial and artistic activities for queers has given rise to the kathoey (transgendered persons) being hailed as the iconic face of queer Thailand. But it should be noted that prominence in the public eye does not necessarily mean total acceptance. Brett Farmer, Serhat Unaldi and Sam Winter demonstrate in their chapters that the stereotype remains that the tragicomic kathoey is “perpetually doomed to lose out to a ‘real woman’ in romantic contests for the heart of a man”, thus a less-than-happy ending for them is almost always ensured. The stereotypical transgendered person also has to endure “the persistent discrimination that kathoeys suffer in everyday life” (35), which points to an ongoing problem in Thailand’s treatment of its sexual minorities. Finally, the volume also includes interesting outsider perspectives. Ben Murtagh examines how Thailand is portrayed as a paradise of liberality in an Indonesian novel, and Alex Au explains what Bangkok means to Singaporean gay men who found it “impossible to be gay in Singapore” in the 1990s.
Published by Hong Kong University Press, which has set up a book series devoted to themes and issues relating to non-normative gender and sexuality titled “Queer Asia”, the book is part of a collective effort to expand queer discourse throughout the world. The selection of essays in Queer Bangkok establishes Bangkok as a queer capital in Southeast Asia and discusses where it should go from here, especially in terms of political activism.
Yvette Lim is a graduate student in English and Film at Nanyang Technological University, where she earlier obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Communications with a second major in English Literature. She is effectively bilingual in English and Mandarin, and has elementary proficiency in Italian.
Queer Bangkok: Twenty-First-Century Markets, Media, and Rights (Queer Asia), Peter A. Jackson, ed., (2011) Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 320 pp., ISBN: 978-988-8083-04-6 (hbk), $25.00