Thailand: Gayness, Bar Boys and Sex Tourism
Peter Tatchell looks at the myths and realities of the country that many call a gay paradise.
There are no laws against homosexuality in Thailand. The capital, Bangkok, boasts over 60 gay bars and sex establishments. It's not uncommon to see gay men walking arm in arm in the street. No-one seems to bat an eye-lid.
This, together with the abundance of beautiful Thai youths, has led many westerners to describe the country as a "gay paradise."
The reality is, alas, somewhat different and more complex. In the opinion of Noi, a 24 year old male nurse at a Bangkok hospital: "European gays are mesmerised by all the pretty boys and night-clubs. They mistakenly assume that this means there is equality for homosexuals in Thailand. In fact, the social integration of gay people is quite ambiguous, even precarious. The toleration of so many gay bars has as much to do with maintaining the profits of the tourist industry as with the social acceptance of homosexuals."
The idea that Thai society has a somewhat contradictory attitude towards homosexuality is echoed by Chuan, a gay university lecturer:
"In Thailand, the distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality is more blurred and tenuous than in the West. Our culture is very gentle. Thai men are much less macho. A lot of them are open to homosexual experiences and these are fairly well tolerated by our society."
"Yet there's little public discussion about homosexuality or awareness of lesbian and gay issues. It's a curious mixture of tolerance, ignorance and evasion."
On a personal level, these conflicting attitudes are most directly experienced within family life. The prevalence of homosexuality, and the pattern of large families, means that almost every Thai family has a gay son.''They're generally accepted," claims Chuan,'but their gayness is never talked about." This contradiction, between the acceptance and avoidance of homosexuality, suggests that tolerance is not always based on full acceptance and that it probably has more to do with the Thai tradition of family loyalty than with a liberal sexual morality.
In the view of one of Thailand's leading gay activists and AIDS campaigners, Natee Teerarojjanapongs: "The problem for lesbians and gay men in Thailand is not one of direct state repression. Rather, it is a question of subtle negation through invisibility and a lack of social awareness about homosexual people."
"There's very little overt discrimination against lesbians or gay men. Nevertheless, though many people acknowledge the existence of homosexuality, they are still not used to the idea of openly gay people. Even fewer have any understanding of the notion of lesbian and gay rights."
Quite so. Any attempt at public discussion about homosexual emancipation is usually greeted with laughter and incomprehension, even by most Thai gay men. In a society with no history of anti-homosexual repression, and little public debate about sexuality, the need for "liberation" is not so immediately obvious as in the West.
As a result, there's no organised lesbian and gay movement in Thailand. Activity is confined to a fairly small group of individuals and is primarily focused around campaigns for AIDS prevention; though there are tentative plans by Natee and his friends to launch a gay rights lobby later this year.
"Paradoxically, the western-influenced and overseas-educated Thai are both a source and a solution to the problems of gay people," says John, a British-born gay man who works for the government health service in Bangkok, "The upper class Europeanised Thais are inclined to be the most homophobic, having internalised many of the western prejudices against gays during their sojourns abroad. In contrast, other Thais who have had contact with the western lesbian and gay movements are now in the forefront of the efforts towards greater public visibility. So, for Thai homosexuals, foreign influences have been a double-edged sword, both for ill and for good."
For the few lesbian and gay activists in Thailand, their tactics are very different from the confrontational approach of their western counterparts. This is largely due to Thai cultural traditions which attach great value to conciliation and consensus.
"Aggression and anger are deemed to be acutely embarrassing and very bad manners in our society," according to a 28 year-old designer named Lek. "It would be counterproductive to adopt the militancy of western gay liberationists."
The upshot of this view is that most of the Thai gay activists have embraced the strategy of "the good gay" as a way of winning greater social acceptance.
In an interview in the Thai gay magazine, Midway, one of the country's leading homosexual actors, Varayut Milintajinda, advised the gay community: "Everybody loves good people. So be good people. Do some good work for society, and society will accept our lifestyles."
In recent years, the taboos on the public discussion of sex have begun to break down and gay people have benefited from this. There have been a number of television and newspaper interviews with openly gay people, notably Dr. Seri Wongmontha. A well-known actor, Seri has nevertheless been strongly criticised by other Thai gays for the negative public image he presents of the gay community.
"There's always a pleading and apologetic tone about what he says," reports Lek. "He paints a completely negative and depressing picture of gay life, always focusing on gay people's suffering. Because he never indicates that homosexuals can lead happy and worthwhile lives, he just reinforces the attitude that it's bad to be gay. Perhaps that's the reason he's always being interviewed."
Apparently, like every other positive aspect of gayness in Thailand, the increasing public profile of gay people also has it's down-side.
Bangkok has a huge and thriving gay scene consisting of five discos, seven saunas, ten restaurants and more than forty bars.
"Most of this gay scene revolves around bar boy prostitution which caters for rich Thais and foreign tourists from the West and Asian in countries such as Japan, South Korea and Malaysia," says John. "Indeed, in all of Bangkok, there's only one gay bar which doesn't have men for hire, the Telephone Bar. Even there, a fair proportion of the Thai gays are freelance'money boys.' The same freelance system also operates at discos such as Harrie's Barand the RomeClub.
At the "sex for sale" bars, there are 20-60 bar boys. Dressed in G-strings, they take it in turns to dance on an elevated podium; each with a number for easy identification by interested customers.
Some of the raunchier bars, like the Twilight, also put on "live fuck shows" and "big cock parades."
According to Eric Allyn, author of the gay guide, The Men of Thailand, "There are an estimated 2,000 bar boys in Bangkok, most aged 18-25 and either gay or bisexual. A survey in July 1988 by the Thai gay magazine, Morakot, recorded that 30 percent of the bar boys are gay, 30 percent straight, and the rest bisexual."
Apart from some of those working at the "live sex" clubs, there's nothing sordid or trashy about the bar boys. They're clean cut, handsome, and mostly very warm-hearted. To these men, being a bar boy is a professional business and they do their job with efficiency, friendliness and obvious pleasure.
Thai social attitudes towards the bar boys have a distinct class bias. Well-off professionals are often highly critical of the sex industry. They can afford to be. Poorer people, while not necessarily approving, are more likely to have a "live and let live" attitude.
"Bar boys tend to be viewed with shame by many middle class people," says Natee. "But the response of the ordinary Thais is usually never mind." They're more understanding because they realise that most of the boys have no alternative employment."
In Eric's opinion, though the job of a bar boy is''mildly stigmatised," a majority of people accept it as "an appropriate job for the poor." Indeed, among working class Thais, it is often seen as a "glamorous and lucrative profession."
For many, being a bar boy is the difference between poverty and a good standard of living. Most earn around 4,000 Baht (£100) a month. This is nearly twice the average city wage and three times the typical rural income of 1,300 Baht. Top bar boys can earn over 10,000 Baht (£250) a month (nearly twice the salary of a university professor).
The principle reason for working in the sex industry is poverty. "There's a lot of unemployment and jobs usually pay very little," says Lop, a 20 year old bar boy. "It's a good job and much better than going hungry."
Around three-quarters of the bar boys are from the impoverished peasant communities in the north of the country near the borders with Burma and Laos. The Morakot survey in July 1988 found that half of them ended up working in the bars because they couldn't find any other employment. Most used their bar income to help support their families and a sixth were using it to fund a college education.
"It's the only way I can afford to go to school to get qualifications," reports Jo, a student at Silapakorn University. "My parents could never afford to send me to college and 1 could never get a job that pays this well."
For some bar boys, working in the sex industry is also a way of expressing their gayness. "In my village, there are no gay bars" says Lop He came to Bangkok from the north-east region near the city of Udon Thani in 1987. He adds: "There was no chance of meeting other gay people and having sex. In this job, I meet lots of gay people, have plenty of sex, and get paid for it."
Natee believes that some of the ostensibly straight men who work in the gay bars are repressed homosexuals who haven't been able to come to terms with being gay: "Working as a bar boy is a safe way of legitimising their submerged sexual desires. They can rationalise having sex with other men as a purely business arrangement."
Thailand is renowned for sex tourism. The issue generates tremendous passions, both within the country and abroad; though surprisingly few Thais, even progressive ones, rush to condemn it out of hand.
"Sex tourism is a complex question," says Natee. "It's bad in principle, but for the foreseeable future it's vital to the country's economy and essential to the many poor people who would otherwise have no jobs."
"What choice do the bar boys have?" exclaims the manager of the Garden Bar. "They don't want to go hungry or become beggars or criminals. They have to do this to survive and in many cases their families also depend on their income. Those who criticise sex tourism and the bar boys, those rich and educated Thais, they do not understand the realities of life faced by the poor."
"Either I sell, my body or I live in the gutter," retorts Chai. "It's wrong for people to condemn me." A nineteen year old who has worked as a freelancer in the Telephone Bar and Rome Club for the last three years, Chai says his family know about his work: "They accept it because it's the only way we can have a better life."
In recent years, the Thai sex industry has been sharply criticised by many people in the West who see it as exploitative and degrading. However, according to a journalist on the Bangkok Post: "`What right do liberal Europeans have to condemn the sex industry? Them telling us what to do is just plain neo-colonialism. It's up to Thais to sort out our own problems."
In response to the suggestion that working as a bar boy involved a loss of dignity, Jo replied curtly: "Where's the dignity in doing back-breaking labour seven days a week in a rice field for next to nothing?"
Chuan takes a broader view: "The real problem is not prostitution or sex tourism but the fact that Thailand is an under-developed country with a huge gulf between the very rich and the very poor. The sex industry is merely a symptom of deeper inequalities. Until there is greater economic development and social justice in Thailand, many poor people will have to participate in the sex for sale business. There's simply no other way for them to escape from dreadful poverty."
Chuan sees the bar boy scene as also having another positive side to it: "It is, to some extent, an expression of the resourcefulness and determination of poor people to survive in the face of immense adversity and limited options. Some of the freelancers have shown ingenious entrepreneurial skills; having used their sex earnings to set themselves up in legitimate businesses. The importance of sex tourism to the Thai economy cannot be under-estimated. It's a huge earner of foreign exchange.
In April this year, when the US Seventh Fleet called at the coastal resort of Pattaya, it's estimated that in four days American military personnel spent $US 8 million on sex alone ("A total of 20,000 fucks," according to one US naval officer) and spent a further US $12 million on hotels, restaurants and souvenirs.
In the southern city of Hat Yai, John recalls that Muslim religious pressure led the local authorities to close down all the sex establishments: "It created economic ruin in the region," he says. "Eventually, the bars were ordered to be reopened by the Minister of Tourism because their closure was driving the tourists away and undermining the economy."
"Are the bar boys exploited?" asks Lek. Answering his own question, he replies: "Foreign tourists come here, fall in love and leave broken-hearted. The boys earn a standard of living they could never otherwise enjoy. So `who's exploiting who?"
"I don't feel exploited," says Lop. "I offer service which the customers pay for. I don't see it as any more exploitative that the relationship between a hotel worker and a foreign tourist."
Looking around the bars, most of the boys certainly appear happy and full of life. In the Garden Bar disco, about 40 boys work freelance. There's an atmosphere of exuberance and camaraderie. They dance and cuddle together with obvious care and affection for each other. Many share apartments and swap clothes and records.
The club's owners allow the boys to work there free of charge and don't take a cut from their earnings. They also provide "safer sex" information and act as "agony uncles", sorting out personal problems.
"Some of the boys are still in school," says the manager. "We encourage them to get an education and arrange their working hours to fit in with their studies."
"The bars are like a big extended family," according to Lek. "Life for the boys is a far cry from the hardships they'd be suffering if they didn't have these jobs."
John concedes that the gay bar owners make a profit out of the boys: "But if the boys worked outside the sex industry, their employers would still make profits out of them. Making profits is a fact of life of any commercial enterprise. Is making profits out of sex any worse?
Lek feels that compared with the straight sex industry the atmosphere in the bar boy scene is much better: "There's no organised crime or corruption and the boys are treated much better than the girls who work in the heterosexual establishments."
On the question of exploitation, it's tempting to conclude that there's a strong element of puritanism in the way some westerners single out sex tourism for special condemnation. After all, Thailand is a country of many exploitations, most of which arouse far less wrath. Is sexual exploitation any more odious than sweatshop labour, the destruction of tribal communities, or the ripping out of natural resources by multi-national companies?
John believes not. "The sex industry has to be seen in the context of a country with many excesses. Thailand is a free market economy at its most extreme. The huge prostitution business is merely an extension of free market economics into the sexual sphere. It's just one excess among many."
Many European gay men who visit Thailand expect to find a western-style gay scene and end up disappointed. They complain that the bar boy system has completely screwed up Thai gay life. However, the scene in Thailand has never been any different. Indeed, it is the sex industry which has prompted the proliferation of gay clubs.
"It's possible to meet non-commercial Thai guys," says John, "but it's not easy. Furthermore, because this is a poor country, any relationship between a European and a Thai is always going to have a hint of patronage. Truly equal relationships are virtually impossible."
A 32 year old American airline steward, Hugh, who regularly stops over in Bangkok, argues that there's no reason why westerners should expect to get sex without payment in Thailand: "We live in a very unequal world. It's perfectly understandable that poor Thais should expect financial support from rich foreigners. Why shouldn't we pay for sex? We can afford it. When I buy sex in Bangkok, or give gifts to the boys I like I simply put it down as a contribution to the global redistribution of wealth."
Perhaps the saddest aspect of the sex industry is the way in which some Thais, despite genuine desire and commitment, are put off having relationships with Europeans for fear of being thought of as bar boys. This seems to be a particular problem for gay men from middle class backgrounds where the social stigma against prostitution is strongest.
A 21 year old student, Thuch, says: "I like western men, but I'm afraid that if I'm seen with them, everyone will think I'm bar boy. So I end up staying alone."
A gay paradise? Make up your own mind.
The Men of Thailand guide is available from the Long Yang Club,
BCM/ Wisdom, London WC1N 3XX. Price £14.50.
Gay Times October 1989
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