April 2008: Thailand's ambivalent attitude - ambivalent, that is, in the eyes of the West - to homosexuality is well-known. On the one hand it has one of the world's most open and welcoming gay scenes and no legal restrictions on same-sex activity; on the other hand public attitudes towards gay men and lesbian women lean heavily towards condemnation and ridicule - it is almost unthinkable for any Thai in the public eye to openly discuss their homosexuality.
The key issue is the division between private and public life. Although attitudes are changing in the 21st, globalised, century, Thais, like many other East Asians,
from the film Club M2
traditionally avoid conflict and are reluctant to upset the apple cart. Being openly gay contravenes the social contract where marriage and child-rearing is the norm. At the same time, Thais are realists; many men like other men, some women prefer women, and some men want to live as women. No problem; do what you want, but keep it private.
The result for many Thai men, and women, is a world where friends and family know they are gay but the subject is not discussed. While the range of responses from parents varies from "my son is gay and has a fabulous boyfriend" all the way through to "if my son told me he was gay, I would kill him", the most common is along the lines of "Our 30 year old son shares an apartment in Bangkok with an older friend who seems like a very nice man; that's all he will tell us and that's all we need to know. It would be a problem if we didn't have other children who can look after us and who have given us grandchildren, but live and let live." These attitudes are slowly changing but remain prevalent throughout Thai society.
Thai films - like those of every other culture - reflect the society that creates them.
The industry is relatively large - the major Thai studios bring out 60 - 70 films a year for a nation of 60+ million inhabitants.
(The only other country where Thai is widely understood is Laos, but the commercial market there is minimal.)
But although gay men have appeared, at least in bit parts, in mainstream Thai cinema since at least the 1970s, the studios have only very recently decided to make gay men - and their desire for other men - the focus of films. Meanwhile, independent filmmakers have also made films about and for gay men, with varying results. (There is also an illegal industry making gay pornographic films; these are not discussed here.)
Gay and katoey films
Thai films featuring gay men and films
featuring katoey (= transgenders / ladyboys; for an insight into katoey in Thailand, click here) are frequently discussed as if they covered the same
issues and appealed to the same audience. But although there is a
strong overlap, the concerns and passions of gay men are often
very different from those of transgenders.
As a gay man, I am
usually more personally involved in a gay film than in a movie about
katoey. In the gay film I am more likely to see reflections of
my own experiences and to be attracted to some of the protagonists.
In contrast, I have no experience as a katoey and I am not
emotionally or physically drawn to men who live as women.
Of course a good film involves its audience, no matter how
far removed they are from the individuals and events portrayed on the
screen, but the distinct difference between the gay experience and the
katoey experience means that they should be categorised separately
rather than as the same.
There is often a further difference in the conscious or unconscious
attitude of film makers towards their characters. Gay films,
especially those made by independent producers who are often gay themselves,
are more likely to show some depth of character and to engage the audience's
empathy for their protagonists. With a few exceptions, katoey in
films are usually either very beautiful and feminine, but with a tendency
towards crime and evil, or bumbling Ugly Sister types.
The Ugly Sister is a staple of television soap opera, providing comic
relief between the melodramatic events that characterise the
love affairs of the young and beautiful. She also appears three or four
times a year as the protagonist in mass-market comedies where the humour is
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