Jay Hasbrouck: Jay Hasbrouck is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Southern California.
This work is a revised and expanded version of Jackson's 1989 book, Male Homosexuality in Thailand: An Interpretation of Contemporary Thai Sources. Both are analyses of a series of letters to “Uncle Go Pak-nam,” a Thai journalist (1) who writes an advice column titled “Chiwit Sao Chao Gay” or “The Sad Life of Gays” in a National Enquirer-like magazine called Plaek. According to Jackson, the newer work, while still focused on letters from homoerotically-inclined Thai men and Uncle Go's responses, offers readers more informed and in-depth analyses.
Jackson's intent is to use the letters and Go's responses as “building blocks” for readers to piece together a “broad picture of male homosexuality in Thailand” (Jackson, 1995: 18). The letters were chosen and translated by Jackson to exemplify issues he deems relevant to homoerotic experience in Thailand today. This approach offers a number of valuable insights into Thai sexuality that help define, in part, one view of the contemporary Thai construction of homoeroticism.
Most of the book is organized according to the topics of concern expressed in the letters to Go. They include a general chapter contextualizing male homoeroticism within Thai culture, Thai socio-economics and attitudes toward homoeroticism, an analysis of Uncle Go's political inclinations, homoeroticism in the context of traditional Thai values and social hierarchy, the absence of homophobia in Thailand, kathoeys: Thailand's third sex role, Thailand's emerging gay identity, and HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, this account does not offer a great deal of insight into the lives of homoerotically-inclined Thai women (2).
Jackson begins with a brief discussion of the terminology he uses in the body of the work, including his own definitions of homoeroticism (human potential for same-sex erotic interest subject to social and psychological constraints), homosexuality (which he uses cross-culturally to denote the “psychological, emotional, and non-genital aspects of eroticism”), male-male sex (literally sex between men), and “gay” (a term used cross-culturally to denote a male “who consciously acknowledges his predominating sexual interest in other males” and shapes his life accordingly (Jackson, 1995: 21). In Jackson's scheme, “homosexuality” is not seen as a specific term applicable only to those whose construction of sexuality is rooted in Western ideology, but a far more broad term that might include any form of homoeroticism in any culture (3). This is followed by a brief section on Thai terminology for homoeroticism and an introduction to Uncle Go and the Thai print media.
Jackson's first chapter skillfully positions male homoeroticism within Thai culture. Male homoeroticism is first introduced in terms of the disparity between public image and private actions, or the cultural system of saving and losing face (na). In this system, Thai male friendships are often openly homosocial, but to be publicly identified as “homosexual” is considered shameful, which results in the loss of face. Jackson is careful to point out that there is a marked difference here between the more open rural, ethnic Thai attitudes toward homoeroticism and those of urban, Chinese, and Western-influenced Thais, whose attitudes he describes as more “prudish.” However, at all socio-economic levels, Buddhist influences on Thai perspectives of homoeroticism are significant (approximately 95 percent of Thais are Theravada Buddhist). Based on some people's belief that homoerotically-inclined people are suffering the karmic result of some transgression in an previous existence (usually adultery), Thai Buddhism promotes an attitude of tolerance or pity rather than condemnation.
Jackson also introduces the complex relationship between gender and sexuality in the context of Thailand's male-dominated formal social and political structures. He describes how Thai masculinity (especially among ethnic and rural Thais), is somewhat similar to Latino machismo in the sense that homoerotic behavior does not necessarily mean that a man will be identified as ‘homosexual'—assuming that he retains his masculine gender identity and ultimately plans to marry a woman (or at least conveys the impression that he could marry). Within this conception, the gender noncomformity of kathoeys is conflated with what is seen as genuine homoerotic sexuality, even though their sexual behavior might be similar to that of a masculine-identified male who behaves homoerotically.
In his examination of socio-economic backgrounds, Jackson uses letters from troubled men to demonstrate how Uncle Go offers different advice to correspondents based on class. Often times, Go is more willing to accept a lower class person's homoerotic inclinations as an indication of gay identity. Jackson interprets this as Uncle Go's “liberal conservatism,” which supposedly involves a kind of double standard based on the assumed greater moral and social responsibilities (marriage, children, etc.) of those in upper classes. Among all classes, “appropriate” gender role behavior is prescribed by Go. Although not emphasized in Jackson's analysis, it is worth noting here that Uncle Go, the editor and chief journalist for Plaek, has a wife and two children, is probably a member of the urban elite, and has never had a homoerotic experience.
An examination of ‘traditional' Thai values is also explored in the book. Jackson poses that traditional patron-client relationships described by scholars of Thai culture continue to provide both ‘social insurance' for members of the lower class as well as an environment that more readily lends itself to homoerotic relations. He uses an example of a lesbian-like patron-client relationship to illustrate his point here. In this context, Jackson explains how homoerotic relationships that ordinarily might be met with disapproval, are often accepted within the patron-client paradigm. However, this level of acceptance is apparently limited to relationships that do not involve patrons under Thailand's age of consent (15) or before puberty, or those relationships that do not appear to ‘contaminate' student/teacher trust and respect. This is reflected in Go's negative responses to teachers and other community leaders who confess to sexual involvement with their young students or trainees.
Jackson also asserts that the lack of overt homophobia in Thailand is conducive to homoeroticism as well. He states that “anti-homosexual violence is as uncharacteristic of Thai society as it is characteristic of traditional Western societies,” and then adds that a “greater preparedness to engage in male-male sex and the relative absence of homophobia are clearly related phenomena” (Jackson, 1995: 161). While this could be the case, Jackson offers no empirical or even anecdotal evidence to support this position.
Jackson's view of the kathoey role is also worth noting. The book includes a considerable description and analysis of the role and how kathoeys fit into Thai interpretations of gender and sexuality. A chapter dedicated to the subject includes a history of kathoeys in Thailand, the various ‘types' of kathoeys (prostitutes, upper class, performers, etc.), and the cultural context for the general level of acceptance they experience in Thailand (with the exception of the sexual violence to which some kathoeys are subject). Jackson then offers a theoretical analysis for the kathoey within what he calls the Thai “sex/gender system,” where kathoeys are traditionally seen as the ultimate demasculinized role to which homoerotically-inclined, masculine-identified men might ‘slip.'
From this, Jackson posits that Thai manhood is “unstable” because it is “susceptible to potential inversion into its unmasculine opposite” and that “the kathoey is considered to be the more stable male sex/gender identity” (Jackson, 1995: 221). Therefore, he argues, Thai male masculinity “is defined relationally with respect to other males, rather than with respect to females” because “the true opposite of the Thai male is not the female but a kathoey, not femininity but unmasculinity” (Jackson, 1995: 225). A kathoey, according to Jackson, is not a “model of genuine femininity,” but “a stereotype of unmasculinity” (Jackson, 1995: 225).
What this argument misses is that kathoeys appropriate from femininity as their model. Although their cultural role is clearly different from Thai women, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that the kathoeys' unmasculinity functions because it is a performative femininity. Jackson's analysis does not offer insight as to why, in male-dominated Thai formal culture, this particular challenge to masculinity is so powerful. Furthermore, he does not consider those forms of gender noncomformity that might be expressed outside of the emulation of femininity (androgyny, for example). How are these transgressions of masculine and feminine gender received in Thailand? Jackson's analysis also conflates gender and sexuality into a “sex/gender system” where all sexuality is always assumed to be gendered and gender, in its expression, is always assumed to be a means of marking or establishing a category for an individual's sexual orientation.
The last three chapters of the book deal primarily with the emergence of Thai gay identity. In these sections, Jackson clearly delineates the differences between Western conceptions of ‘gay' versus those that are beginning to form in Thailand. He covers all facets of Thai contemporary gay existence, from bars and magazines to gay-identified leaders and HIV/AIDS. What are perhaps Jackson's most valuable insights are included here as he describes the Thai gay identity. He states:
Thai gayness has erupted from within the traditional sex/gender system and challenges that system by making public what was previously private and by seeking popular approval for the conferral of masculine status upon exclusive male homosexuality…
This final analysis of Thai gay identity and some of the earlier arguments in the beginning of the book provide an interesting view of male homoeroticism in Thailand. However, Jackson, might have supplemented his research with accounts of some other homoerotic experiences as a counter-balance to the pathologic (and often repetitive) representation of Thai homoeroticism that the letters to Uncle Go, and their analysis, provide. His selection of letters, Jackson confesses, do not represent a random sample, but are “typical of letters and replies that generally appear in Go's columns” (Jackson, 1995: 18). Yet, it seems that Jackson analyzed what might be interpreted as a clinical sample of only those people with some “problem” related to homoeroticism. With the exception of brief biographies of emerging Thai gay leaders and a short chapter titled “Thailand's Non-Homophobic Male Sexual Culture,” (described above) most of Jackson's analyses do not incorporate the positive views of homoeroticism that are held by many Thai homoerotically-inclined men, either urban or rural.
In relation to this, many of Go's correspondents request that he provide them with a category for their sexual orientation. “What kind of gay am I?” is a common question in many of the letters. Go's responses are most often shaped by the sexual behaviors described in a letter, by which he decrees the person a “gay-king” (dominant, active, and often perceived of as more capable of leading a heterosexual life), “gay-queen” (passive, more closely affiliated with the role of kathoey and ‘genuine' homoeroticism), and bisexual (whom Go often calls “lucky”). Occasionally Go also cites the categories of “toms” (gender nonconforming women whose sexuality is ‘truly' homoerotic) and “dees” (women with ‘appropriate' gender behaviors who might be homoerotically inclined but could quite possibly be “wayward heterosexuals”) (Jackson 1995: 98-99).
These correspondents' obsession with identifying categories of sexual orientation is contradictory to the kind of fluid sexuality Jackson describes as the homosocial environment of Thai men, where sexual desire is conceptualized as “mood.” In fact, in contrast to the rather ‘neurotic' nature of most of the letters, Jackson states that “homosexual preference need not lead to homosexual identity, since acting upon that preference may not be perceived as ‘having sex,'” according to a national survey of 3,000 Thai men and women (Jackson, 1995: 56). The letters also seem to be in conflict with the Buddhist notion of “anicca,” or impermanence, that Jackson claims has a significant influence on how Thai's view sexuality and gender. He states that “sex/gender identity in Thailand is widely regarded as being subject to unpredictable influences” (Jackson 1995: 220). This calls into question the validity of using the letters to Go as anything more than the reflection of a specific, pathological perspective of a certain subgroup of homoerotically-inclined Thai men. Although it is possible that Jackson could have argued that the letters represent the emergence of a new trend toward the use of Western identity categories, this is not evident as the work currently stands, especially in light of his final analysis of Thai ‘gayness.'
This work might also benefit from a more detailed consideration of the distinctions that exist between conceptions of gender and those of sexuality in Thai and Western cultures. As many queer theorists have recently argued (4), assumptions that sexuality and gender are inextricable often excludes analyses that offer areas of opportunity for new forms of political and cultural resistance. In addition, it is important for works like this to supplement analyses with open, reflexive expositions from their authors in an effort to both substantiate arguments and to counteract heterosexist ‘norms' that evasively occlude homoerotic discourse (especially on a personal level) within academia. Although Jackson is a historian, and this work is not an ethnography, it would seem that his own observations over the course of his daily life in Thailand (even casual ones) might have offered an insightful counterbalance to his analyses of published Thai texts.
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