The two stories presented here focus on lesbians in Thai culture and the search for an identity that is unique to women who love women.
The first report is more recent (2004) and the second is more than 15 years old. However much of the insight and ideas described here, in both stories, are still very much current in Thailand culture and society.
Both stories examine the organization called Anjaree, a native Thai women’s association that centers on women who love women. It was founded by Anjana Suvarananda, (nicknamed ‘Pitang’) who is Thailand’s most well know lesbian activist.
For years she has been vocal and out with no fear. She has thrust herself into a public role of gadfly, challenging stereotypes of gay people among politicians and health workers and among lesbians themselves challenging the subservient roles imposed on women, demanding equal rights and awareness of LGBT issues.
Much to her credit, her lobbying and smooth-tongue persuasions resulted in a remarkable change in the ministry of health when it deleted homosexuality as a “permanent mental illness” from its diagnostic categories. It is now seen as an alternative variant of society.
Anjaree is Pitang’s social and political organization that is in contant motion to educate the public about the truth of homosexuality and to bring awareness of safe-sex behaviors. As much as rural Thailand is ignorant of family planning, they are even more ignorant about HIV and its infection means and less about homosexuality. Most rural lesbians marry and have children without ever having the awareness or choice how to manage their emotional lives. Pitang strives to change that.
Tom, Dii, and Anjaree: “Women who Follow Nonconformist Ways”
January 1, 2003
By Jillana Enteen
Women’s Studies Center
State University of New York
Anjaree is the only Thai organization specifically targeting women who love women. Headquartered in Bangkok, it has members throughout Thailand, providing information, encouraging community formation, and sponsoring social events for Thai women who love women. In Thai, Anjaree means “women who follow nonconformist ways.”
Despite the organization’s entrenchment among Thailand’s women who love women-it has existed for over a decade and boasts a membership of over 500-its founder, spokesperson, and leader, Anjana Suvarananda, (nicknamed ‘Pitang’) complains that she is at a loss for words, in Thai and in English, that adequately describes her identity as a woman who loves women following nonconformist ways.
At the Sixth International Conference for Thai Studies, she presented a new Thai word that she created, yingrakying, hoping it will circulate as a new word for women “who have erotic feelings or love feelings for other women.” While Anjana often invokes the common word ‘lesbian’ when portraying herself and members of her organization to farang (Westerners), she avoids the term if given the opportunity to describe the site specific situation in Thailand. When speaking in Thai and to Thai people, she resists using the word lesbian.
Though widely understood, many Thais, including those involved in women-centered relationships, consider it vulgar and derogatory. When talking to Thais, Anjana employs and revises the commonly used Thai words for women who love women. Rather than perpetuating the use of these established terms and the stereotypes that accompany them, Anjana addresses the changing situations of Thai women who love women. At this meeting she stated: “We are not sure if this [new] term will go down well or if this will be the term we stick to or not. We are in the process of building our own culture and terminologies” (Suvarananda “Lesbianism”).
The motivation to formulate a new word is partially attributable to Anjana’s experience with cultures outside Thailand. She spent time studying at the Hague, had access to Western ideas, and speaks almost fluent English. These extensive experiences inform her attempts to affect community formation by broadening the community’s way of conceptualizing itself and its individual members. Yingrakying literally means “woman-loves-woman” in Thai, originating from the erase currently en vogue with Western women-centered organizers and academics: “women who love women.”
Rather than adopting the English word and using it in Thai in the manner the word lesbian was employed, Anjana reformulates this phrase in order to match her own intentions through translation and transformation. In this case, knowledge of the English language and farang ideas become tools rather than models for linguistic community formation. Her word becomes a strategy for interaction and community building that encourages shifting the way women imagine themselves according to changing circumstances.
Yingrakying is more than a convenient new word to name something heretofore ignored-it signals an awareness of the effects of a global Western-based movement that is personalized for this increasingly outward looking Thai community.
By considering, as the editors of the special issue of Social Text, entitled “Queer Transexions,” hold, “the interrelations of sexuality, race, and gender in a transnational context.” I attempt “to bring the projects of queer, postcolonial, and critical race theories together”
In the past decade feminist, sex, and gender theories have addressed the erasure of specific bodies in terms of race and class of individuals located in the West. Even more recently, work has begun that extends this theorizing beyond Western culture and location and re-theorizes according to localized situations. Hence the notion of sexual identity is being complicated, but universalized assumptions of identity formation are still frequently applied unproblematically to non-Western cultures.
As Dennis Altman explains, “It has become fashionable to point to the emergence of “the global gay,’ the apparent internationalization of a certain form of social and cultural identity based on homosexuality” (“Rupture” 77). While this “global gay” image is being produced by both the West and the East, and its embodiment can be seen at times in Bangkok, an international gay/lesbian is a fictive construction that has no literal embodiment, nor is it manifest in all social, political, and cultural contexts.
Rather than mapping Western histories and theories unproblematically onto Thai bodies, new explanations based on the situations in Thailand must be devised. Examining the shifts in identity formation by a group of women existing in the heretofore geographic and sexual margins reveals the effects of the “globalization” of information and economies. Arjun Appadurai asserts that “the new global cultural economy has to be seen as a complex. overlapping, disjunctive order that cannot any longer be understood in terms of existing center-periphery models.” He proposes that the relationship between five terms, or landscapes, that he creates establishes a framework for looking at these global cultural flows.
Peter Jackson, Rosalind Morris. Thook Thook Thongthiraj, and Dennis Altman practice expanding the ways in which global and local cultures in Thailand are understood, re-evaluating the usefulness of using Western theories of identification to describe Thai notions of sexuality. They look specifically at Thai history and describe the changing presentations of sexualities in response to cultural events. This chapter extends this work, examining the shifting positions of women in Bangkok over the past decade as a result of increasing opportunities for education and financial stability.
It presents varied and conflicting accounts by yingrakying that delineate previously available positions, and then shows how Anjana and Anjaree suggest new possibilities through the creation of words and communities. Anjaree’s function as a social club where women could meet women provided the impetus for my increasing involvement during my tenure of research in Bangkok. I initially joined Anjaree for social reasons, having learned about it from another American woman living in Thailand. The Thai women who loved women that I knew who were not members of Anjaree were either friends from my previous stay in Thailand or friends of friends. I conducted interviews in May, June, and October 1996.
Some of the examples cited occurred while socializing during the eight months previous to my decision to consider these interactions part of my research. Most contemporary ethnographic research combines these formal and informal procedures and methods for gathering information. While Carol, an American researcher who contributed to this study, asserts that socializing, pursuing relationships, and creating unusual or startling situations by asking abrupt questions or purposely violating Thai practices is integral and productive to her work, I employed more formal procedures, acquiring most of my information through interviews that took place, for the most part, in English.
As I will explain in the section of this essay called “English Effects,” using English for the interview processes encouraged the women to speak about identity and sexuality in ways that would not occur in a Thai language setting. Many Bangkok Thais, especially the young middle class, associate English use with prosperity, the influx of daring new ideas, and an increased number of ways to articulate sexualities and genders. Because English functions as a second language, it can provide a sense of freedom.
The position of yingrakying in Thailand has changed concurrently with the rest of Thai society, particularly Bangkok. over the last decade. Between 1986 and 1996, Thailand had one of the fastest growing economies, producing a high volume and variety of export products which generated a per capita income that increased exponentially. Prosperity had the largest impact on Bangkok residents, creating a burgeoning middle class. The majority of the members of this new middle class are college educated and have access to information from around the world via uncensored Internet access, imported entertainment, and academic media, and a large influx of farang tourists as well as those from other parts of Asia.
As a result, they possess an increasingly international outlook that is reflected in their tastes and consumption. Mobile phones, Western-made cars, and Western name brand clothing are possessions of de rigeur for Bangkok professionals. Not only are Western products consumed but also “ideas, ideologies, and politics” (Pasuk and Baker 409) from outside of Thailand.
However, while some practices and expectations changed to reflect increasing prosperity and exposure, many of Thailand’s traditional societal values remained. One societal custom that conformed to the increasing need for educated, middle class expertise was women’s participation in business. In addition to managing family finances. Thai women have often been entrepreneurs and salespeople. In accordance with previous Thai practices, women often fill the increasing demand for economic expertise.
In the past decade, many women have entered the middle class workforce, enjoying the broadening opportunities for education and individual economic security. As a result, marriage, the Thai presses repeatedly report, is no longer the primary concern of women in their twenties and thirties. Many women are opting for career success, job stability, and comfortable salaries before marriage and motherhood. Middle class women, single, in their twenties and thirties, economically independent and educated, make up a large, visible part of the population of Bangkok women who love women.
Tom and Dii
The most common words to describe Thai women who love women, Tom and Dii, appeared about twenty years ago. Tom comes from the English word “tomboy” and Dii from the word “lady.” These terms roughly coincide with the English terms butch and femme, respectively, when referring to lesbian positionings: however, they are neither mere imitations of their English derivatives nor of American descriptions of butch/femme dynamics. While one woman who studied Women’s Studies in the United States believes that the positions of Tom and Dii accent and prescribe normative Thai gender roles to a greater extent than heterosexual relationships, most women assert that these positions serve to specifically illustrate and circumscribe the desires and roles of Thai women who love women. Altering English terms to name these distinctly Thai identities conforms to the Thai habit of adopting English words where no Thai word exists. For example, in the nineteenth century, when a couple was involved romantically, they would declare themselves married. No registration was required, but marriage was premised on a man’s financial commitment in return for a woman’s running a household and remaining sexually faithful.
Over time, having “boyfriends” and “girlfriends” became possible social relationships that acknowledged interest yet did not entail specific commitments, and a new word emerged. The Thai word is faen-derived either from the English word “friend” or “fan.” The meaning of this Thai word, however, does not directly reflect either English referent. Rather, it named a situation occurring for which there were no preexisting lingual referents.
Similarly, the Thai word farang comes from the French word “francais.” yet the Thai use the word farang to refer to most non-Asians, especially Europeans and Americans, in Thailand. Anjana’s attempt to coin a new word follows this same pattern, where, as Mikhail Bakhtin describes, words carry traces from their pasts and incorporate the changing histories of the use they receive: “language, for the individual consciousness lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes one’s own only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word. adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention”.
These words are significantly altered in the process of cultural translation. yet they still retain traces of their original meanings. Rather than imitation or replication. the use of this word illustrates what Mary Louise Pratt terms “transculturation” whereby “members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant or metropolitan culture” (Pratt 36).
Yingrakying resonates differently in Thai than “women loving women” does in English: these terms have not been strung together before and consequently do not directly reflect the people and organizations that promote equal rights and acceptance for women loving women. Instead, this past is translated, and the history changes. Like the meaning of the terms Tom and Dii, their positions neither replicate/imitate Western butch/femme constructions nor do they exist entirely in isolation from Western forms of desire and societal positioning. The presence of intermediary or mutated positions is often overlooked in scholarship about gender and sexuality in nondominant cultures.
Recognizing this, Will Roscoe critiques scholarship about “gay” Native Americans that simplifies the depiction of Zuni genders instead of analyzing the ways in which they do not conform to a male/female binary. “Underlying these statements,” he explains, “are assumptions about cultural change based on an either/or opposition of ‘traditional’ and ‘assimilated'” (194). Rather than viewing Tom and Dii in this either/or framework, I will delineate many of the perceived parameters and particularities.
Not only are the many kinds of same sex relationships between women in Bangkok not contained by the terms Tom and Dii, the qualifications and definitions provided by the women I interviewed about what constitutes being Tom and Dii contrast and contradict rather than forming a consistent portrayal. Although the explanations about what designates Tom and Dii dissent, certain patterns emerge. For example, fashion is the most frequently cited visual indicator of Toms. Men’s style shoes, flip-flops or sandals on their feet, Toms wear large polo shirts or oxford cloth shirts tucked into loose jeans of assorted colors. Their hair is short, straight, and styled in a manner that does not require curling or drying when wet.
Toms do not carry handbags or purses, but they do wear mobile phones and pagers, which signal their middle class status, as well as car keys hanging from their belt loops or pockets, a practice otherwise reserved for Thai men. Under their shirts, they wear undershirts instead of bras, and they tend to keep their shoulders hunched slightly forward so as to diminish the appearance of curves. Despite what seem to be clearly coded visual clues signaling class-stratified positions and particular gendered practices, the Thais I interviewed did not always rely on outward appearances as clues when asked to describe Toms. Conformity to a style of dress or appearance may be provided as examples that mark them as Toms, but they do not do so conclusively.
“Active” is another consistent adjective evoked in relation to Toms. When asked to define Tom and Dii, Pari, a yingrakying who previously considered herself a Tom, said that a Tom usually takes to “active” role during sex and “does not let another woman see her body or her breasts or whatever.” Hiding their bodies, even during sex, “they wear tank tops [as opposed to bras or nothing]; they are active,” she states. Susan, an American researching gander in Thai politics, has had several relationships with Thai women and asserts that mainstream Thai society thinks: “If you’re seen as a Tom, that defines your sex in a certain way.”
She believes that there is a stereotypical set of assumptions that a general member of Thai society, if they attempted to sexualize the position, would assume, including that “This person would be active in bed.” Carol asserts that “people associate Toms with sexuality. It has a clear sexual meaning to the outside.” For her, coding oneself as Tom through appearance is not merely a fashion statement or dislike for gender conventions; it marks one sexually. However, she also finds that the “active” role of Toms is not limited to sex acts; Toms were also “active” by controlling the emotional tenor of the relationship: “how intense things are, how emotional things get.” This has occurred in her own relationships with Toms as well as in other relationships she has observed.
While not necessarily the initiators of relationships, Toms are described as active in controlling the sex, emotional tenor, and level of commitment. Several Thai women agree that Toms are “active,” yet resist the extension that being Tom includes a sexualized component. They insist that young women who live with their families are rarely imagined as sexual beings unless they are involved with a man. Female friends often spend large amounts of time together including passing the night in each other’s beds, and the display of emotional intimacy does not lead family members to suspect sexual activity.
One woman recounted that her mother found out about her involvement with a woman through a friend. Despite the mother’s disapproval of the relationship, she did not admonish her daughter for inviting her girlfriend to her bedroom to spend the night. Sharing a bed did not offend her mother, the daughter reports. because the relationship carried no sexual connotations in her mother’s imagination. This same mother would object to a man merely entering her daughter’s bedroom. Desire between women is frequently overlooked despite seemingly clear indicators, because the interaction between women is not thought of as sexual. Imitating men is frequently described as an aspect of being Tom. When Pari perceived herself as Tom, she tried to imitate men.
Another Tom, Pui, who is college educated, in her thirties, living in Bangkok, and financially independent, gives the following definition for Tom: [A] woman who loves to see herself and tell herself she is a man is Tom … A Tom does not accept herself as a woman although the truth is that she is one, but then she also isn ‘t a man, but she has to be somebody, so Tom is what she can be. Tom’s copy men’s rules because they think they are one, so they act like a man in almost everything-loves pretty women-sexy or lady, always says ‘pom’ [I, masculine singular] and ‘krab,’ [masculine tag to denote politeness], has short hair, wears men’s clothes.
Refusing to enact the roles prescribed for women, and unable, yet wishing, to be a man marks the position of Tom for Pui. She uses masculine linguistic cues and is attracted to women who embody current dominant Thai notions of feminine beauty. Pui sees the Tom as a tertiary, pejorative position, but it is the only identity available to a women “who thinks she is” a man.
While some Toms describe themselves as better able to provide for the women they love than Thai men, Pui imagines herself as an inferior imitation of a man. Consequently, her relationships tend to be with Diis that are married or engaged, and she expects and accepts to take second place and eventually be deserted. The desire to be a man is the extreme position for a Tom, one that many women without a Tom community most often describe. Having sex or having a girlfriend is also not a defining feature of being Tom. Throughout Thailand, the women I interviewed concurred: Toms are not defined by Dii companionship.
In fact, Toms frequently form their own communities and networks of friendships without including Diis. Carol stresses community identification rather than sexual actions: “Toms are in a community together, and it extends to their sexual life” and not the other way around. While community formation is also not a requirement to being Tom, Toms often form social groups ranging in size from two to six or seven. These groups spend their free time together-in restaurants, bars, or taking weekend trips. My informants consistently mentioned Toms they knew that had no girlfriends. Most of these women socialized with other Toms; however, other Toms focused on their relationships with Diis and spent their time with their girlfriends.
Frequently Dii girlfriends are included in the social events. However, it is rare that a Dii hot involved with a Tom remains a part of the social group. These Tom communities are often premised on an unspoken agreement not to discuss their sexual identities or desires. For example, one group of Toms that I encountered, only one of whom is a member of Anjaree, had never talked about whether or not they were Toms before I began associating with them. They all dressed accordingly and looked the part, and they socialized with each other, but they never overtly divulged their own desires.
The woman who was a member of Anjaree had asked me not to reveal her participation to the others. When I later asked her why, she said she was not sure they were Tom, even though, several years before, three of them had both pursued the same Dii. For some reason, she did not make the assumption, despite the visual cues and their shared object of desire. Yet Toms often speculate about the existence of other Toms. A frequent topic of conversation is whether someone is a Tom or not, though the question is almost never directed at its subject.
For example, at restaurants my friends frequently speculate whether servers are Toms. Despite hair, clothes, and mannerisms that are stereotypically Tom, the conversation keeps returning to speculation: “I think she’s Tom. Do you? Yes, I definitely think she’s Tom.” A lot of attention goes to classifying strangers, yet conclusions are rarely drawn, and questions are not asked, even among friends. Community formation is thus often premised on silence about desire and identification among members, displacing self-revelation with assertions about those outside the circle. Jose Munoz terms these “survival strategies” disidentification, the practices by “minority subject[s] … in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere that continuously elides or punishes the existence of subjects who do not conform to phantasm of normative citizenship”
(4). Through the process of disidentification, these women are able to form bonds without exposing themselves to potential persecution. When a woman is involved with a Tom, she is considered to be a Dii, but this is neither a permanent, nor fixed, position. A Dii conforms to the mainstream image of Thai femininity and, in fact, any woman in Thailand could be a Dii. Diis are often involved with men in addition to their Tom partners.
Both the families of Diis and Toms whom I interviewed assume that the majority of Diis will eventually get married and have children. as motherhood is described as, and generally assumed to be, the position most powerful and desirable for a Thai woman. Diis take the “woman’s role” in the relationship following a code for dress, manner and gestures, and nurturing. During sex, “Diis lay back and enjoy. They cuddle and things. Making love is only one way” (Pari). Passivity during sex is not necessarily the “woman’s role” in heterosexual relationships, yet it is built into the Tom/Dii continuum, partially because of the position of Toms as active and partially because many Toms refuse to expose their bodies, wishing not to reveal feminine attributes.
The sexual role of Diis was described as passive of receptive by all the Toms and Diis with whom I came into contact. In heterosexual Thai society, men normally initiate contact. However, in the Tom/Dii scenario, a Dii can initially be “more flirty” and “that’s acceptable.” Because Diis are not visually coded, any woman is “fair game” to a Tom for a possible relationship (Susan). That is why initial contact is often left to Diis. According to Anjana, there are no established symbols that “allow erotic messages and interactions between people,” such as pink triangles or rainbow colors.
This may account for the acceptability of their initiations: “A Tom is like a moving target. Diis can identify you” (Suvarananda Personal). These initial contacts tan occur in locations where Toms and Diis are known to frequent, but they also occur in the workplace or at any number of places where people mix. Thus this acknowledgement that Diis initiate contact contradicts the insistence that Toms cannot be identified by appearance. If Diis approach Toms, they are making assumptions about their sexuality based on visual codes. Diis are considered even less visible than Toms, marked only, according to some, when they are accompanied by Tom partners.
Because their identity is not considered fixed or primary, community formation is even more difficult than for Toms. Carol remarked that she has only seen community formation among Diis at Anjaree functions. Pari, Mao, and other women I interviewed point out that some Diis are entrenched in traditional family relationships: “Someone marries, has kids, decides they’ve just fallen in love with a Tom” (Pari). In these instances, Toms normally spend a lot of time with the entire family, including the husband. They may take the kids out, be included on family trips, and become involved in many of the family’s activities. In most cases, the presence of a Tom does not cause suspicions or jealousy, because, as I have suggested, these relationships may not be marked as sexual.
Although Anjaree members frequently cite the organization’s unique position in the realigning of identities, Tom and Dii positions are transformed by women outside of Anjaree as well. Pari stated that many women do not fit into the Tom/Dii scenario, calling these women “another category” of “people who don’t necessarily rave to put the role on themselves.” “I know other Thai women who have this feeling of another category. Some of them don’t label themselves as lesbians, they just have relationships with women.”
According to Pari, most of these women have had some type of contact with Europe or the United States-through study, travel, or work. They are also older, normally in their thirties: “They know who they are and don’t need to act out anymore.” Carol was asked by a Tom during a conversation in Thai with a group of Toms and Diis who were hot members of Anjaree if she was a Tom or a Dii. She replied: “I’m 60% Dii and 40% Tom because I’m little bit lazy. I like to get it more than I like to give it.” She recounts their surprise: “They were just shocked. One woman said, I can’t believe you said that, no Thai would ever say that. We all think that but no one would actually say it.” One Tom present announced: “I can be a Tom or a Dii, too.”
She seemed attracted to the idea that it would be possible to express that, but I don’t think she felt comfortable saying that to her Thai friends. This interchange illustrates that Anjaree members are hot unique in their efforts to rethink their positions, but because it requires reimagining and realigning oneself vis-a-vis is facilitated by the presence of others who are similarly reconfiguring themselves. Overall, Toms are net defined by their actions, communities, or desires.
They are Toms because of the way they look: yet determining this look is net fixed. Even a Tom cannot be sure that another woman is a Tom. Yet there is a fascination in discovering this, among both women in this community and in mainstream Thai society. Diis, on the other hand, are defined in their relations to Toms. Any woman can be a Dii, as long as she is with a Tom. Without a Tom, her position is not secure. Toms together are imaginable. although their positions must eventually shift. but not Diis.
While Toms are described as active, they cannot always control the tenor of the relationship because Diis, especially those who have joined the heterosexual economy. have other partners outside of this dynamic-whether boyfriends, potential boyfriends, or husbands-to consider. The ambiguous and conflicting descriptions that I have discussed de not form a coherent picture: Toms are seen but not seen, sexually marked but invisible. and Diis cannot exist without Toms but they initiate contact with active, yet inconclusively visible Toms. ”
Lek, an Anjaree member and organizer, who wrote her Masters thesis about Tom and Dii identities, contends that you can no longer define them as static categories, but rather positions on a continuum. She states: For my thesis, I found out that there are many kinds of Tom and many lands of Dii. Extreme Tom and Diis try to imitate their lifestyles like a heterosexual couple. They don’t have the chance to see that they can have another style of relationship. Because they are socialized in a heterosexual family, they take this kind of a relationship. They have a couple in the same gender. Lek has had a long term relationship with a farang lesbian and no longer considers herself strictly Tom or Dii.
Rather, she believes other Tom and Diis would also change their identities if they were exposed to alternatives: “If they have the chance, I believe some of them would change.” Anjaree is one place where this chance is offered. One member asserted that the increasingly varied positionings between the poles of Tom and Dii described by some women was limited to members of Anjaree: “Anjaree is an exception, where people want to be more ambiguously defined.”
She attributed this to the class and level of education achieved by the members-although there are Anjaree members around the country who receive the organization’s newsletters, most of the women that attend social events are middle class, financially stable, single women living in Bangkok. A woman who attended Anjaree’s monthly event at the Bangkok cafe targeting gay clientele, Utopia, enumerated what makes the members of Anjaree different from what she “normally sees”: the number of women present at the events, the age of the active members, and the class of women in attendance.
Furthermore, she stated: “All of the lesbians I know who participate in non-government organizations are activists who don’t express themselves through certain styles of dress or hairstyles. Anjaree has opened up a space for another kind of identity that is neither Tom nor Dii. You can look like an ordinary woman or not, you can dress up or not, you can take care of your hair or leave it” (personal interview). Attracting this older clientele that includes many grassroots non-government organization activists, this Anjaree function showcased more than Toms and Diis. Anjaree membership engenders a new kind of community that is larger and more inclusive in terms of age and class.
Diverse representations of yingrakying are in the process of consolidating. While Anjana supports members who wish to redefine their identities, she does not directly promote it. The majority of members still identify themselves as Tom or Dii, but an increasing number no longer fell that they belong in one of these two categories. They consistently use Tom and Dii constructions, however, in their explanations of how they imagine themselves, positioning themselves somewhere in between or combining stereotypical features of both.
The continued use of Tom and Dii to describe positions that do not adbere to the ways in which these categories have been constructed illustrates a dearth in the number of words available to these women to define themselves. While the terms lesbian or women who love women may seem viable alternatives, Thai women continually resist using them when characterizing themselves. While most women employed Tom and Dii exclusively to describe Thai women loving women when speaking in English, some women would use the word lesbian when talking about a group; this may be because they did not know alternative words.
Only one woman I interviewed reported that she was a lesbian, but she also located her identification within the Tom and Dii dynamic. Anjana believes that her identity does not represent other Thai women in same-sex relationships. Because of her tenure at the Hague and her extensive contact and involvement with women from Western, as well as non-Western, cultures, Anjana describes her experiences and identification as atypically Thai. All of her serious relationships have been with Western women, and she does not place herself in either the Tom/Dii or Western lesbian categories.
Attempting to describe her position, she uses the existing, ineffectual vocabulary, stating that while she is neither Tom nor Dii, “I am more in the Dii category. I was pushed into this category because everyone wanted me to be in one or the other. I couldn’t make a choice” (personal interview). Anjana frequently discusses the difficulties she has imagining herself with the available vocabulary to Anjaree members, providing a model for other women to construct and question their identities in relation to their individual experiences. Providing an environment conducive to reimagining one’s sexual identity is only one of Anjaree’s projects.
Anjana and other members of the administration envision Anjaree’s primary goals as follows: community building; providing members with resources and information so that they do not feel abnormal, isolated, or alone; and offering support and advice to women who write letters of inquiry to the newsletter, Anjaree Sarn.
Because a substantial number of members do not belong to the middle class or live in Bangkok, they may hot have contact with other yingrakying or access to information about Tom and Dii identity construction. For working class women and those who place themselves strictly within the Tom/Dii dynamic, Anjaree provides opportunities to form liaisons both written and social by publishing a newsletter that encourages members to read, write, and respond to others’ writings and organizing social events where women can meet. Writing plays an important role in establishing friendships: the newsletter is filled with letters encouraging responses and social events always conclude with address swapping. I consistently received letters from women I met at Anjaree events.
Despite Anjaree’s quickly augmenting membership, women frequently write that they feel that they are, according to Anjana: the only woman who loves women “in the world or in Thailand.” Since this role is manifesting itself differently than in the past, Anjana believes that many women have no examples or role models, and they can’t ask for advice from their parents.
Toms in many parts of Thailand tan create bonds through Anjaree Sarn, writing about the problems they face, conflicts and confusions, as well as asking for pen-pals. Writing from a distance, they are able to participate in the construction of new kinds of identities and form communities beyond the boundaries of their towns and villages without physical displacement.
In addition to organizing and leading social events, setting up organizational meetings and delegating tasks, coordinating the publication of the newsletter, publicizing the organization, and keeping track of the increasing number of members, Anjana expends significant time and effort linking Thai women to international lesbian communities. She has shared efforts and information with international organizations that work to promote community building and communication at the international level as well as supporting efforts by and speaking on behalf of organizations that link lesbian rights with human rights.
She has organized two Bangkok-based international forums (1990 and 1997) that focused on women who love women in Asia, patiently answering any questions, even those that are hostile or homophobic, Anjana has provided over one hundred interviews to Thai and international journalists, researchers, and academics both inside and outside of Thailand.
One reason why Anjana consistently serves as the sole voice of Thai women loving women is her ability to speak English and provide explanations using English language conventions. Often these conventions stand in stark contrast to the ideologies of “Thai-ness” found in numerous spheres of Thai society and culture.
Traditional Thai identity, or “Thainess,” is promoted in Thailand by many sources. Most families, schools, and temples teach Thai children from a very early age to see themselves as part of their extended family, community, and nation, encouraging acceptance of duties and obligations to family, society, royalty, religion, and each other. Membership and commitment to these intersecting groups, not the sense that one is an individual possessing certain rights and freedoms, is described in introductions to Thailand from every source: guidebooks, cultural introductions to Thailand, and material developed by the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT).
In much of mainstream Thai society, tolerance exists for actions as long as they are not outspoken, inviting reactions; the practice of verbally coming out is considered unnecessary, undesirable, and specifically Western by Thai women who know of the process. Respectful behavior in Thailand includes not telling the truth rather than saying something that would offend the listener or disrupt societal expectations.
Expressing dislike or discomfort of outspoken political interventions such as protestations against homophobia or human rights assertions, these women similarly do not want to speak out about their nontraditional identities or non-mainstream actions. Increasingly, however, English language representations enact outspoken examples that run counter to Thai conventions.
Images of sex and sexuality, as well as enunciations of desire or identity, originate from Hollywood, Western advertising firms, or other non-Thai sources. Global communications have provided access to the English language, and as a result, Western ideas. Both imported and Thai-produced goods and services reflect interests in trends and practices that occur outside of Thailand’s borders.
Professor Doctor Suwatana Aribarg explains the Thai practice of silence in a 1995 interview: “Homosexuality is inherent in every culture, every society. It’s not a result of Western influence as some say.” Homosexuality may be less of an open presence in Thai society … because “Thais regard sexuality as an embarrassing matter that shouldn’t be openly discussed or flaunted” (“Seen”).
However, as a result of the prevalence of Western products and ideas, sex and sexualities in the Western sense have become subjects sanctified for scrutiny and discussion. English thus provides a medium where Thai practices of silence about sexuality and desire can be broken.
Dennis Altman emphasizes that communication affects the way in which women construct their identities: “Clearly, Asians who adopt lesbian/gay identities are conscious of and in part molded by these western examples. In both North America and Europe gay liberation grew out of the counter-culture and other radical movements, particularly feminism. To some extent, this is also true of developing gay worlds of the south, but more significant is the global explosion of communications” (“Global” 426).
Many of the women I interviewed found it much easier to discuss their identifications and desires in English than in Thai, and many of my Thai friends preferred confessing desire to me than to their other Thai friends. Anjana imagines herself and her organization in accord with English language conventions when she describes sexual actions or decries homophobic practices. Many of the Toms and Diis in Bangkok who are not members of Anjaree do not know of the organization; some are reluctant to get involved.
At least ten middle class women living in Bangkok with whom I discussed Anjaree showed no interest; women whom I regularly socialized with refused to attend an event sponsored by Anjaree. These women provided a variety of reasons for their reluctance: no time, enough friends and/or social events, no interest in meeting strangers with unknown backgrounds, no interest in community building, fear of meeting the members, fear of being discovered participating in such an outspoken organization clearly premised on sexuality.
Aligning oneself with an organization premised on sexuality violates Thai norms requiring silence about sexual practices, so Anjaree was considered taboo by women who perceived it as sexuality based.
These women. like Pui, whom I quoted portraying herself as an inferior imitation of man, are more likely to locate themselves squarely within the established categories. In contrast to this. women who have had more exposure to Western imagery and ideas as well as those proficient in English often engage in the process of changing identifications in order to relate their specific situations. While this engagement is in dialogue with exposure to non-Thai ideas and the English language, it does not merely duplicate these sources. Instead, these experiences offer a means to redefinition that does not directly violate Thai values put forth and embedded in the Thai language.
English provides the distance necessary for reevaluation, not the models for replication. Anjana insists that she has reevaluated her position as a result of being involved with a farang, living and traveling in Western countries, doing extensive research about Western feminist theories, and establishing international dialogues; she has not become a lesbian per se, but has realigned herself and encouraged other yingrakying to do the same.
Her strategies reflect her recognition that she locates herself as a member of a population that may benefit from dialogue with other women who love women outside of Thailand. She also recognizes that entering this forum may lead to the sublimation of local concerns. Local conditions are her primary focus: yet her knowledge of external practices informs her actions and the advice she gives to yingrakying.
I do not mean to assert that all Thai-farang interactions lead to changes in the way one imagines oneself; conflicts and confusions may reduce one’s possibilities for self-depiction. Lek, for instance, highlights the extensive difficulties she encountered during her relationship with a farang woman: “different language, different way to interpret, culture, and many factors.” She states that her farang faen “didn’t understand [her] kiss.” In addition, “[i]t takes many energies to explain things to a different culture.” Her relationship also confounded her friends and family: “[m]y friends asked why I want a farang faen.
Thai people still have communication problems-how can people from two different cultures get along?” She feels that her faen was very different from her and did things that were sometimes unacceptable to Thais. For example, when they moved into a new apartment, there was a video/radio shop nearby. This shop would play their movies and music so loud that it disturbed them in their apartment down the street. Her faen went to the shop and demanded that they reduce the volume.
This assumption that one individual’s comfort was worth disrupting what appeared to be a compatible society as well as the boldness she displayed by scolding a stranger was inconceivable according to Thai values. Despite Lek’s shock and disapproval of her faen’s actions, she did internalize certain aspects of it.
Our interview took place in a restaurant where the music grew progressively louder. Atone point, Lek asked the waitress to turn down the music. As Lek had already explained, this presumption of individual rights is surprising and unconventional by Thai social standards. However, she did not comment on her actions, nor did she act as if she had just done something out of the ordinary.
While she clearly resists changing the ways she identifies herself as a result of this relationship, the residue of her interaction creates conflicts between her actions and those she describes as accepted Thai values and mores. Her speaking about the relationship while refusing to accept her Western faen’s assumptions creates opportunities for discussion, critique, and resistance, whether by expanding notions of identity, community, or the processes of disidentification, or resisting those of outsiders.
The emergence of women who speak about and reimagine yingrakying opens up new avenues in which to think of Thai women who love women articulating their multiple desires and identifications. The proliferation of new interactions with the terms and accompanying stereotypes of Tom and Dii, or the realignment identities within and beyond these categories as practiced by members of Anjaree, enables yingrakying to carve out previously unavailable identifications and identities that are in dialogue with their contemporary situations.
The increasing number of outlets, such as writing in English or opportunities to write for the press and the Internet, encourages women to participate in conversations about how they imagine themselves and construct their identities, translating farang and other concepts, and updating Tom and Dii to make them meaningful to their own situations.
Enteen, Jillana. Postcolonial, Queer: Theoretical Intersections: Chapter 4, pages 99-117. State University of New York Press, 2001.
Anjaree: toward lesbian visibility. (Thailand’s lesbian activist group)
People’s Translation Service
Two recent letters were received by Anjaree. This first letter was sent by a Bangkok college student to the Thai lesbian activists’ group, Anjaree.
May I tell you something about myself? My name is Kaew (a pseudonym). I have long hair and don’t look like a tomboy at all, but I do feel like a man. I love girls! I feel ashamed to let my parents, my brothers and sisters or even my friends know about this. I dare not turn to anyone for advice. At this point, I feel lost, not knowing what to do.”
Another letter came from a father who works as a guard. It reads:
“Dear Members of the Anjaree Group,
Would you mind if I call you daughters? I have a big concern now for my friends say my daughter is a lesbian. I don’t know what it really means to be a lesbian. I only know that my daughter has girlfriend’s and they behave like lovers. I never intended to go against my daughter’s will. I just want to know more about lesbianism in order to be able to understand her better.”
Anjaree has received quite a number of such letters, since it took the courageous step recently of going public through media exposure and involvement in the preparation of a proposed agenda for the NGO Forum and UN World Conference on Women to be held in Beijing in 1995. Most letters are from girls and women who want to share their experiences and feelings, others are from parents and teachers seeking more information about lesbianism.
The Anjaree Group was first established in 1986 by a small group of Thai lesbians calling themselves “women who love women.” Today, the group has about 150 members.
“Most of us ‘women who love women’ are obliged to live in disguise,” said Anjana Suvarnananda, 36, one of the group’s founders. “Many of our lesbian friends are obliged to hide the nature of their sexuality; sometimes without asking themselves why they need to do so.
“I’m not a criminal . . . and I have no reason to hide,” insisted Anjana, who is also coordinator of the international Lesbian Visibility Project.
“Lesbians are different from other minority groups in that there is no biological aspect of our appearance that singles us out as lesbian. We can keep our sexual identity a secret if we want to, and the majority of us choose to do so. As a result, the numbers of lesbians are underestimated in most societies and discrimination against them may go unnoticed.”
In the end, it was the desire to relieve herself of the burden of secrecy and to fight this discrimination that led Anjana to bring herself and the group to public attention.
“It’s not that I’m not afraid of the backlash that may follow this move of mine,” said Anjana, adding that she is lucky to have a loving, understanding mother. “I just hope revealing the Anjaree Group and myself to the public will give other lesbians the courage to come out and assert their choice of lifestyle.”
In order to draw a picture of lesbianism in Thailand, Anjana talked about her personal experiences.
“As far as I can recall, I was fond of women long before I knew there were verbal terms to categorize people by the nature of their sexuality. It was long before I knew humans could be called heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian.”
The activist also argued against a common Thai myth that regards homosexuality as an aspect of modern culture imported from the West.
“I can’t recall any Western influence that pushed me in the direction of other women. The only thing about sexuality I learned from Western films and novels as a teenager was about relationships between heroes and heroines, men and women. I would say that any influence from Western culture led me to think that I should be interested in men, not women.”
Numerous historical sources show that lesbianism has existed throughout Thai history, says Anjana, who adds that historical evidence exists for lesbianism in many other Asian countries, too.
Supot Chaengrew, a contributor for Art & Culture magazine, writes in one article that lesbian courtships, referred to as “len phuen” (“playing with friends”), were common in ancient Thai royal courts, despite the threat of punishment.
Despite academic work such as this, throughout society at large, and even among some psychiatrists, there is little understanding of lesbianism and it is still often regarded as abnormal or wrong. Most academic studies in the past were carried out on the premise that homosexuality was something weird that needed to be controlled. However, positive changes regarding concepts of homosexuality can be traced to changes at the international level.
Examples of the fundamental shifts in thinking at the international institutional level started as far back as decades ago. In 1974, for instance, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of pathological diagnoses. The World Health Organization, in 1988, redefined the word “homosexuality” by withdrawing it from the category of “disorder.” Amnesty International, an organization monitoring human rights issues, has decided to protest against state punishments handed down on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation.
“The rights of homosexual people, like other social issues, such as women’s rights and environmental conservation, have become a current issue of wide concern,” Anjana said. Lesbian and gay studies are now relatively common and have been initiated in several famous universities, such as Yale and Cornell, and these are paving the way towards wider acceptance and understanding of homosexuality and gay people, she said.
In Thailand, Anjana said she has observed a difference in the level of social acceptance experienced by gay men and women.
“Ask people to cite just some names of famous gay men, and most of them can do so without difficulty. There are quite a number of Thai gay men who come out and allow their sexual preferences to be known. But this is not the case for lesbians. There must be a good reason for this,” said Anjana.
She cites double standards for men and women in Thai society as the reason. Thai women, unlike men, are taught they should not expose their sexual desires or talk about sex.
“Women are taught not to think of themselves as human beings with various facets, including sexual desires. If a woman talks about her sexual preferences, particularly for people of the same sex, the chances are that public attention will focus only on this one aspect [of her personality], her sexuality, as if it is the only thing that matters in her whole life.”
The differences between gay men and women also lie in the unequal opportunities for men and women in general, said Anjana, who has had years of experience working with local NGOs on women’s issues. Gay men, as males, tend to be more self-reliant in terms of occupation and income. Thus, they tend to care less about the repercussions of being open about their sexuality, she said.
“Women still have a lot to prove career-wise. With all the other uncertainties in their careers, lesbians may be discouraged from stepping out and making their lifestyles known to people around them.”
The Anjaree Group was established because, “We believe lesbianism in itself is not a problem. Instead, it is imposed social values that cause lesbians trouble,” she said.
The lesbian activist admitted it isn’t easy to get Thai people organized for social action. Characteristically, Thais tend to avoid direct confrontation, she said.
In the case of lesbians, many feel safe and satisfied within the confines of their small group of friends. Such people don’t want to become involved in any social action, fearing their current status might be affected. However, according to Anjana, there are also many lesbians who are suffering, and they can’t wait to join the group, once they find out about it.
“Most of the lesbians I get to know felt daunted or like dissidents because their sexual orientation is different from what is socially accepted. Some felt like they were alone in this world. Some even tried committing suicide,” Anjana said.
Lesbians whose sexuality is denied by their families are often the hardest hit. Through her work with the group, Anjana said she has come across several women who have run away from home because of the hostility of their families. Some drop out of school or university, and others have been forced into marriage.
“The Anjaree Group was first set up with the aim of giving moral support to our lesbian friends so that they can be more confident about their life choices. We are a grassroots group set up to attempt to solve the problems caused by social values.”
According to Anjana, several of the group’s active members are blue collar workers, and more than half the members live in the provinces.
“When we talk about lesbians, some people may think such a phenomenon is confined to urban areas. In fact, there are a lot of us in the provinces. Lesbians living with their families in rural provinces may find it harder to exercise their chosen lifestyle. These rural lesbians tend to suffer more from isolation as a result of their sexual identity.”
The Anjaree Group took the brave step of organizing the first Asian Lesbians Network Conference in Bangkok in 1990. About 40 lesbians from 15 countries aftended. It was the first-ever formal cooperation between Asian lesbians.
To date, the Anjaree Group has been successful in organizing bimonthly meetings and issuing newsletters in which members have the opportunity to share their experiences, feelings and ideas on various issues. However, the group doesn’t intend to stop there. It is fighting to put lesbian rights on Thailand’s proposed agenda for the NGO Forum in Beijing.
“We feel it is necessary to correct social misconceptions regarding lesbianism. We want people in our society to understand homosexuality is not a matter of abnormality. It is the right to choose one’s path in life,” Anjana said.
She called on lesbians to try to provide accurate and positive information about lesbianism to society. This would help generate better understanding of lesbianism. In addition, lesbians would be able to learn more about how to deal appropriately with common misconceptions held by others, she said.
“The people of our society are already bowed down by established social values. I’m going against the tide now,” said Anjana. “Those who never stand up against the mainstream will never understand how strongly social values press down on all of us.
“With more information about lesbianism disseminated through the mass media, I hope people in our society will eventually understand lesbianism is a normal form of sexual orientation. It is different from the mainstream, of course, but belonging to a minority group doesn’t necessarily mean you are inferior or abnormal. Human beings can differ in many ways, including sexual orientation. With mutual respect for peoples’ differences, we can live together in peace.”
For information about the group and its activities, please contact:
Anjaree P.O. Box 322 Ratchadamneun, Bangkok, 10200 Thailand