The week I arrived in Phuket to research a new story about local gay life in Phuket, this story appeared in the Phuket Post. It nicely usurped my intentions and added, no doubt, more depth and undestanding than I might have found. I am pleased to present it here, written by reporter Aparna Raut Desai.
From: Phuket Post
Accepted and rejected–A look at the acceptance and rejection of gay people in Phuket
by Aparna Raut Desai
With the back-drop of the annual gay parade, the inimitable Phuket Pride, Phuket Post decided it was time to look at the the actual gay scenario on the island. Is there anything about Phuket beyond the bars and the go-go clubs, that makes it attractive to members of the gay community? What does Phuket have to offer to tourists and long-stay foreigners that are not here for the lurid Patong scenes? And perhaps more interestingly what about Phuket’s indigenous gay people?
What about being gay in Phuket if you’re not on holiday?
What better place to start than at the very helm of the official gay society in Phuket, with Mr. Daniel See, the organising chairman of the Phuket Pride festival. Daniel is the face of the One Seven Club just off Song Roi Pee road in Patong. Hailing from Singapore, he lived in Hawaii for seven years, working as a marketing head promoting Hawaii as a holiday destination. His job took him all over the world, before he decided to go back to Singapore, where, predictably enough, for someone who has grown accustomed to a beach paradise lifestyle, he didn’t last very long.
And hence Phuket. But why not say, Bali or any other beach destination in Asia? Daniel admits to having considered running a business in Bali and other locations before coming to the conclusion that it was always really only going to be Phuket. As for why, he finds that an easy question to answer. In one word, Thais. The magnificently generous and accepting people of Thailand, that always let you be who you are, no matter what you are or are not.
All Asian countries, Daniel concedes, are culturally very rich, and each has its very own unique attractions. But Thailand has to be the most openly accepting of them all. Which other culture throws open it’s arms and embraces every kind of person, not just letting them be but letting them be on their own terms? The acceptance here is complete and unconditional. "I mean just look at the katoeys" (also known as lady-boys), says Daniel. "So many of them, everywhere… this place is so open, it’s just impossible to find anywhere else." The level of freedom and right of existence is just incredible. "You know" he exclaims rhetorically, for of course I hadn’t a clue, "a lot of men here call themselves straight even if they are with a katoey partner… any place else and that wouldn’t even be possible." They would be labeled and slotted instantly.
How about gay people that come from countries where homosexuality is not taboo? Does Phuket still have anything to offer them? I posed the questions to all the gay westerners I met, and the answer was a ubiquitous ‘yes’. Unlike Pattaya, where gay tourism is linked irreversibly with sex-trade, Phuket offers gays, like everyone else, a holiday or a lifestyle beyond the go-go bars and the pick-up joints.
I was told repeatedly how easy and relaxed it is to be gay in Phuket. No judgements, no regiments. Phuket allows a lifestyle on par with one anywhere in the West, with a friendship circle comprising equally of gay and straight individuals, and daily lives filled with all the fun activities that go with living on a beach destination.
Trevor and Jason, a gay couple who moved to Phuket from Australia two years ago, together with their Thai business partner set up a bar – the "Sby Corner" at the Paradise complex, Patong. Their pub caters to tourists and expats exactly like themselves, who want to be in Phuket and be able to relax and enjoy themselves without having to be forced into the transactions of the gay sex trade. With a bar staff that is entirely straight, and therefore not looking for potential "clients", customers can come here and enjoy other gay company without being hustled or harassed.
The Club One Seven Bed & Breakfast run by Daniel (photo left) operates on similar principles. It’s a hotel that offers gays (and straight people, Daniel is quick to reassure me) a real holiday environment, with genuine hospitality. With an entirely straight staff here as well, it promotes itself and Phuket as a whole, as a holiday venue, and categorically not as a sex-trade spot. "That’s why we have such a lot of young gay tourists in Phuket, as compared to Pattaya, which attracts mainly an older generation of gays." Phuket is a holiday destination that transcends the sex-trade.
What higher tribute can Daniel pay to Phuket and it’s Thai people when he says that it is in fact here that he chose to finally come out of the closet? Was that difficult at all, I query? The reason it happened was because it was so easy, he replies. It took no effort at all, it was so natural, to just be himself. "Why am I hiding myself?" he found himself thinking. "That’s what this place and its people give you. Nobody teases you, nobody harasses you and everybody accepts you completely, for what you are."
So that was that, I thought. Phuket can pretty much put itself up to be voted as the most gay friendly place in the world. Or can it? Simply because it was the logical route to follow, taking the story from the tourist/holiday scene to the local one, I asked Jason and Trevor if there was any difference at all between the foreign gays and gay Thai people. And ended up opening a right little can of worms.
Thai gay men I was informed, are far less gregarious and far more introverted than western gay men. Is this possibly because they are shy, I wondered aloud. Possibly, they demurred, but more like because they are not always comfortable or able to expose themselves for being homosexual.
Well. Hmm. Right. What????
This was the first introduction to an idea that was going to show me a radically different side to being gay in Phuket. The side that’s not on vacation. The side that was born, grew up, lives and works here. The real side, some might say.
My first gay Thai meeting was with the vivacious, handsome and friendly Tara, who hails from Bangkok, but has lived in Phuket for five years now. He’s a graphic designer with company on the island, and moved to Phuket from Bangkok for the usual reasons… a stressful life, traffic, pollution and a boyfriend who lives here.
So what’s it like to be gay in Phuket? Is it any different from Bangkok? It’s all good, says Tara; he doesn’t have any complaints. He feels at ease and welcomed on the island and has never faced problems with the locals or their attitudes towards homosexuals. I can’t see Tara, all charm and smiles having a problem with anyone, anywhere, really.
But different from Bangkok?
Yes. Tara explains how Bangkok, as a metropolitan city, is far more open about issues such as being gay. For the locals in particular, that is. Citing the difference between his own experience of growing up in Bangkok, and that of his partner in Phuket, Tara says that he never had a problem explaining to his family that he was gay. He’d been aware of this aspect of his nature from an early age, and remembers his family as being completely accepting and supportive. His boyfriend, on the other hand, never managed to tell his family until he was 25 years of age! And even then, only because Tara moved to Phuket to be with him, and there was simply no concealing it from them anymore. And how did they take it? It wasn’t a complete disaster, chuckles Tara, but it definitely was uncomfortable for a while. “But I was very nice to them and after some time they liked me,” he grins.
Why do you think the attitudes differ from Bangkok to Phuket, I ask him. Bangkok is a big city, he says, and a busy one. People there have more individual freedom within their professional, personal and social lives, simply because the community is not as small and cloistered as here. In Phuket, everyone knows everyone, and what everyone is doing. In Bangkok, people are just not as interested in other peoples’ lives. Less interference, less pressure, more freedom.
It was definitely time to meet with people indigenous to the island and get their story straight from the source. Sammy works for a public limited company in Phuket. Born, raised and bred here, he was exactly what I was looking for. A real gay Phuketian. In a refreshingly straight and frank discussion, Sammy was far from reticent about outlining the problems faced by the many gay people of Phuket.
In work as well as the social arena, Sammy admits he has never been able to reveal himself completely. He’s had a range of experiences as a gay employee, from working for people who were aware and almost-accepting of his status– but encouraged him to keep a low profile on this aspect of his personality–to employers who were blatantly homophobic. He has always been aware of the stigma that comes with being gay, and the need to play down his true nature.
Does this make him angry? No, he surprises me by saying, simply because he accepts what it is to be gay in Phuket, and the life that comes with it. He understands that the Thai culture, which is traditional and conservative in its outlook, has a long way to go before it can accommodate homosexuals into its fold.
So how come it’s so different for tourists and foreigners that live here, I muse. Because they are not part of the culture, Sammy says, voicing my exact thoughts and, I realize ruefully, stating the obvious. Here and welcome, and part of the society, peripherally, but in no way considered part of the culture. “Thai people don’t care what foreigners do, they can be whatever they like.”
And what of his family? Sammy outlines a heart-rending story: aware of his inclinations from a very young age, he fought a battle for acceptance from the very beginning. His family never really could come to terms with him being homosexual, and spent years trying to change what he simply could not help. “They knew, they knew” Sammy looks back, “but they closed their eyes and tried to forget, tried to make it not real.” Complete denial.
With time, Sammy tired of the continual battle and resorted to what has become a typical situation for gays in Phuket; a double life. He lived a continual and exhausting charade for a number of years, where his family could continue to live with the version that suited it, while Sammy contrived to keep his reality as secret as possible.
And this I found, as I spoke to more and more gay Thai people, was the reality of a lot of their lives. A family in denial, a split life spent between a social charade and a personal reality. Whether gay or lesbian, Thai homosexuals struggle to find acceptance.
Speaking to a lesbian couple who chose the remain anonymous, I was told a similar story; expulsion, ostracism, rejection. All within the family.
And how do gays feel about this? Let down, I was told, repeatedly. As they pointed out, they’re not criminals. They’re not even part of the sex trade. They are dignified, self-respecting individuals that work for a living and contribute to the society. So why can they not be accepted for themselves?
Phuket is a society divided in its attitudes about this difficult issue. On the one hand is the famed Thai tolerance. The generous granting of dignity and acceptance to one and all. And on the other hand lies a traditional and conservative society, that has stringent rules and norms. Men and women are meant to come together and bear children. Couples raise their progeny and children grow up to be a support in their old-age.
A beautiful family scenario–-and we all know how strong family bonds are in Thailand–-juxtaposes with the gay way of life, where progeny are not part of the plan. The two are so glaringly different, one so old and well-entrenched, the other so modern and alien, the island of Phuket has a long, long journey to make, indeed, before it affords the same freedom that it gives so generously to foreigners to their own.
Let me, however, not be too judgmental. I come from a country (India) where homosexuality is generally considered a dirty myth. Simply announcing yourself as gay may actually invite a torrent of homophobic reactions, possibly even violent. Sammy told me of the time he spent in Ireland, where it was impossible for him to get a job, simply because he was gay.
What’s holding acceptance back in Phuket has more to do with tradition than bigotry. A small, closely knit society will always be slower at adapting newer and more radical changes than a larger, more progressive one. Phuketians are just too kind and generous to intentionally disallow anyone the right to be happy. Already, I was told a few (rare, but real) accounts of families in Phuket that have embraced their gay members unconditionally.
This has to be a start. I believe the Thai spirit will transcend this general inability to accept that they do indeed have homosexuals amongst their own, and that they too, deserve dignity and respect. Time will tell. In the meanwhile, for gay westerners and other gay foreigners in Phuket, life is good. And for their Thai counterparts the battle rages on.