By Kaona Saowakun
In a journey of learning, self-discovery, and choosing the gender identity of a person growing up in a land named Isaan of Thailand, the experience they would have to face as an LGBTIQ+ would probably not be so much different from other areas of the country. However, the values of family and community form the heart upholding Isaan society. Do these values also embrace those who are gender diverse?
There’s a common experience of the LGBTIQ+ living in Isaan, that I’d like to introduce, as follows.
The sun is setting. A family heats up some sticky rice for dinner. Everyone takes the rice from the same container, dipping it in chilli paste, or jaew bong. Siblings chat away while dad, mom, grandma, aunties, grandchildren sit together on a mat. It’s an ordinary life in an ordinary home.
Family is a core of the Isaan community, the root of strength, personality, and support in one’s locality. Abandoning your home to make a living is more understandable than having to leave it because the people there take issues with your gender. That situation is common in Isaan homes. Pressuring, ridiculing, gossipping about it, even up to physical and verbal abuse on gays, is still prevalent.
Many LGBTIQ+ people who could not hide their gender identity from their family, or manage to make them become more understanding, continue to live in awkward silence. They might not say it out loud, but it is still known by people, seeing it from their appearance, or finding it out from gossip.
Being a LGBTIQ+, acceptance comes with economic prospects. One needs to be related to an influential figure, have a good job, or something else. Not many are accepted just because they are seen as a fellow human being, or respected for their rights to choose.
For example, a gay son must be able to provide for his family to be accepted. A daughter who dates another woman cannot make their parents as proud as the one who marries a man. A gay son is usually less favored by his mom compared to a straight son. It’s not something that happens only in your head, but it’s the reality you would have to face when you cannot leave your family behind. A definitive gender role is expected in every corner of the Isaan community, especially in a family.
It’s a place providing knowledge, and defining civic duty and role, including the gender of a person.
Thai schools teach people to fit their gender into a binary system: a woman or a man, your birth sex. A heterosexual relationship is also reiterated. Anything deviant from that expectation would be put on a spotlight, and become a subject of mockery. Being shamed or chastised by teachers is a common experience among almost every LGBTIQ+ child. They are traumatized in schools. It is also common in Isaan. This value is so deep-rooted. It’s even mentioned in school textbooks that deviant behavior, such as a romantic relationship between two women, or two men, or acting like your opposite sex, is something to be avoided.
I’ve heard a story from a LGBTIQ+ friend, who was barred by a teacher from applying for the position of student president, simply because his being a “toot.”
This is blatant “discrimination.” However, no complaints are made, and no justice is served, because society remains ignorant.
Gender roles—defining what it’s like to be a man, what it’s like to be a woman—is ingrained in rural communities, especially in their temples. Female patrons of a temple are labor for religious events, while the men are allowed to drink heavily and socialize with the monks.
Clear gender roles like these don’t leave a space for LGBTIQ+ people, except for activities in entertainment events. Religion is deep-seated within the Isaan way of life from the moment you are born until the moment you die: birth, death, virtue, the way of life through the lens of Buddhism.
Being an LGBTQ+ is often branded as bad karma, being a sinner and adulterer from past lives. Buddhism’s understanding about genders is probably the biggest obstacle, the most challenging, and the least questioned. However, it hugely impacts their lives and the social acceptance of gender diversity because bad karma is a sin, an atrocity undesirable to the family, the community and the temples, affecting their self-esteem, and creating a hostile environment around them.
Isaan-ness moves along within Thailand’s economic and political context. Developed from impoverishment to an upper-middle income nation, Isaan people keep flowing into the labor market, especially the blue- and white-collar workers. Economic struggle causes money to become an important factor. A mother can hold more power in her household if she earns more money. A father’s role can be diminished if he’s not a breadwinner.
Economic and financial power is an extremely important leverage for a LGBTIQ+ person to be accepted in his or her home and community.
Money matters push young LGBTIQ+ to leave home to provide for their parents but they remain attached to their roots. However, most jobs they can get are blue-collar ones, such as independent labor or other freelance jobs that are not really quite secure. It’s the same story for people from other parts of the country. If you’re born in a lower income family, your chance of becoming a college graduate decreases. When you don’t have a college degree, it becomes more difficult to find a job in organizations with higher security.
Instead, LGBTIQ+ people face prevalent discrinimation in the traditional job market. Therefore, they’re likely to opt for working independently as a small business entrepreneur or freelancer.
Word choices and gender diversity
In older times, there were not so many words to define people who’re gender diverse. Those who’re born a man but act like a woman would be called “ka-toey,” which has the same meaning as the word “ka-toey” in Khmer. This word has existed in Thai for a long time, and there is literature evidence of it. The word gay and others became more common after the concept of gender diversity from abroad was adopted in 1959. Therefore, even people in rural areas know words like “tom,” “lesbian,” and others.
Over the past 20 years, the concept of gender has been broadened beyond male or female genitalia. Sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual expression have all been introduced. Therefore, gender started to be defined according to identity and expression, such as ladyboy, trans man, trans woman, non-binary, Intersex and queer. Genders defined by sexual orientation include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer. The traditional binary system has been loosen up.
The phrase “gender diversity” was only adopted about a decade ago. It’s a phrase that tries to express how gender can vary. It’s something people need in order to reshape their understanding.
I think Isaan society itself is shifting more toward modernity. Although we know that families, communities, villages, temples, and schools still strongly reproduce the old set of ideas, changes are imminent and cannot be stopped.
The rise of social media and easy access to the internet has allowed a fast flow of an immense amount of information, leading to questions about long-established traditional values, including those about gender. Many young Isaaners are confident and proud to speak out about their gender identities. That doesn’t mean the environment in their homes, schools, or communities supports them to do so. It’s because they’ve been connected with their peers through social media, whether it’s YouTube or on other online platforms. Being brave enough to come out leads to recognition within their sphere.
Social media, online media, and internet access can definitely accelerate the process of reshaping Isaan people’s understanding of genders.
“A better life” for LGBTIQ+
When a society starts to recognize, learn about, and accept LGBTIQ+, it will lead to creating a social standard—a law. It’s a milestone indicating whether a society truly accepts LGBTIQ+, not just by word of mouth and nothing concrete. A law is a standard, a principle, a code of society. We need a law to protect and recognize LGBTIQ+ rights, for a dignified, equal life.
At the same time, equally challenging and important is the acceptance by families: how to embrace their LGBTIQ+ children, allowing them freedom in finding themselves, allowing them a chance to live their fullest lives. It can happen from the strength within their home and community, to help create a safe space for LGBTIQ+.
Isaan-ness is about embracing others like one of their own, taking family and community as a priority. I believe our Isaan people in the future will definitely be able to accept, love, and be unprejudiced toward LGBTIQ+, and support them for a better life.
Tomorrow please check in the Isaan Record to read the next installment to our series, about the legal landscape of Thai LGBTIQ+
Kaona Saowakun (Toto) was born and raised in Khon Kaen. He is a trans rights activist, a co-founder of TEAK – Trans Empowerment, a Vice President of ILGA (Aisa) Foundation.
Note: The views expressed on The Isaan Record website are the views of the authors. They do not represent the views of the organization, its editorial team or any of its partner organizations.