Isaan Lives: A rainbow heart under the monk’s robe

Guest contribution by Courtney Robinson

“With these thoughts I have and the things I want to say, it’s better to quit now than get fired in the future,” Chayootm Sirinantpaiboon says with a slight laugh, looking at his fellow monks as he told them of his plans to leave the monkhood.

A devout Buddhist, the life of Chayootm offers a startling contrast to the faith that boasts peace and acceptance. The 43-year-old monk’s biography mirrors his nickname, Bump, constantly overcoming the hurdles, and bumps, he’s faced along the way.

Chayootm Sirinantpaiboon at Lao Aphon Temple in Yasothon Province, the last monastery he lived at before leaving the monkhood earlier this month.

Childhood abuse

Chayootm was raised in the household of a violent and alcoholic grandfather in Petchabun Province, a four-hour drive from Suphan Buri where he was born.

One incident involved his grandfather tying him to a tamarind tree and beating him with fruit from morning till evening.

But the abuse hadn’t start there. A cousin, five years older than Chayootm, had forced him to give him oral sex and sexually harassed him for years on until he became old enough to say no.

These traumatic experiences were just beginning of a difficult life, yet they laid out a foundation for the strong individual Chayootm would become.

Teenage struggles

Chayootm dropped out of high school in ninth grade to help his family when his brother needed brain surgery. Yet the shortcomings of his education did not hinder his desire and will to keep learning, growing, and working.

He picked up odd jobs in various restaurants and places like the Ayutthaya Riverside Hotel in Ayutthaya Province and the Ginza Restaurant in Bangkok at the age of 16. Karaoke with his fellow employees at a New Year’s party led him to a newfound love for singing.

It was the beginning of an almost 15-year singing career filled with classical Thai music and pop songs until he reached the age of 30.

Coming out

For the duration of his early adult life, Chayootm struggled to balance the battle of his past and his own identity. Without wanting to label himself, he talks openly about his sexual explorations and relationships with males.

“To tell society, a lot of the times you have to pick what you are. You have to say which one. For me, it’s about who the other person accepts me to be,” he says.

Rejecting labels, Chayootm calls himself “A human. A male human. I just wanted to be a male who dated a male. Maybe dated women before.” But it took a while for him to reach this level of acceptance.

Until his young adult life, he had come to understand that being gay meant contracting HIV. It wasn’t until he went to a few seminars about the issue that this idea proved wrong in his eyes.

“I developed a new understanding that HIV and being gay don’t have any connection. It has to do with risky behavior,” he remembers. “I began to work as a volunteer, handing out condoms, trying to go out and give understanding about sexuality and HIV. I began to feel proud of being gay.”

He later became a staff member at various organizations advocating for safe sex and hosting panels on sex, gender, and sexual orientation until the military coup in 2014. Around the same time, his parents passed away.

Becoming a monk

When his mother passed, Chayootm took it upon himself to carry out her last wish for him to become a monk. In 2015, he ordained for five months, but then quit to take care of a friend’s paralyzed mother. He ordained again a year later in 2016, and hopped around different monasteries. He got kicked out of one because he tried to ordain a novice monk, which is the sole role of the abbot, and he also had trouble coping with other rules at the monastery.

In his view, there is an imbalance in power in the monkhood, and they will not preach anything that threatens this system.

“Being a monk, you somehow work as a law enforcer but with the people on the wrong side of the law,” he says.

Chayootm felt almost imprisoned by the constant rules and expectations surrounding him, and he was told to “act more like a man.” In response, he pointed out that the simple, orange robes they flaunt could easily be taken as a woman’s dress.

“I just can’t find any reason of why being a monk requires you to act manly,” Chayootm argues.

This line of questioning became a trademark of Chayootm’s personality, having both negative and positive impacts.

Within the monkhood, he was looked down upon, but outside the walls of the wat, people respected him for being open with himself and his thoughts, whether they agreed or not.

Due to his background as an activist working with sex and gender issues, men living with HIV who wanted ordain or who are simply struggling with their identities have come to him for advice.

Leaving the monkhood

At the Lao Aphon Temple in Yasothon Province, run by a progressive abbot, Chayootm found a place that better fit his colorful personality in May 2017.

Despite the advantages and successes the temple gave him, Chayootm, who had never really chosen to be a monk himself, decided to leave his position and try something different.

When he left last month, his fellow monks were sad to see him go, but understood he was in pursuit of other ways to help the people around him.

The monkhood did not really help him cope with his childhood trauma or the burdensome ordeals of his life, he now says. It rather strengthened his desire to be more like his birth father: a man who believed that mistakes are meant to be made in a society that teaches you the opposite.

A photo Chayootm took of himself in the beginning of November, depicting himself without the robe of a monk and a smile on his face.

Future plans

Chayootm has a vague plan of becoming a non-religious preacher that allows him to choose his own skills, his own campaigns, and to teach what he feels is right. He plans to continue providing support to people struggling with their sexual identities.

“You have to ask yourself what you are feeling confident enough to b because you can be whatever you want as long as you’re confident on what you choose to be,” he says. “You don’t have to choose to be a tomboy, or gay, a man, a woman; you can be anything you want as long as you have confidence and you have pride.”

He wants to study psychology, sexuality, and HIV at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok, while also playing with the idea of creating an online platform for jobless people to sell goods and receiving all of the proceeds without any fees.

“I will be more beneficial to society without this robe,” he said while still a monk, gesturing to the cloth he was adorned with.

“ I don’t expect people to accept me or anything. I don’t need disciples. I just want the freedom to live a life that will be beneficial to both me and society.”

Courtney Robinson majors in Global and International Studies with a focus on human rights at Pennsylvania State University. This semester, she studied about development and globalization issuesin Khon Kaen.