A new exhibition at Museum Siam sets out to rid us of our incorrect perceptions and prejudices towards LGBTQ society
Wandering through the exhibition “Gender Illumination” at Museum Siam, Kanasit Puangampai comes to a sudden stop in the “Scene of Life” zone. More than 100 items contributed by LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning) people are displayed here along with a note of what the particular item represents. Kanasit doesn’t go anywhere for a while then asks his friends to take a photo of him with a flannel shirt that has ruffles around the collar.
“It’s mine,” says the young man proudly. A working member of the Non-Binary Thailand group, Kanasit is eager to share the story of his shirt, telling me that it marked the beginning of his coming out to society.
His message beside the shirt reads: “I am very happy that I was encouraged to wear this outfit. In the past, I could only look and thought I shouldn’t be wearing these clothes because society doesn’t deem it appropriate. I had to put up with wearing outfits that people said are appropriate for me. Every time I looked in the mirror I saw someone who looked appropriate but it never was me.”
Kanasit Puangampai and his shirt.
Kanasit spotted the shirt while walking in the market with some of his college friends who encouraged him to buy it.
“It is not the most expensive shirt I own but to me, it is the most meaningful. And even though I now have plenty of favourite shirts with a ruffle, I asked the exhibition organiser to take care of it because I want it back,” he says with a smile.
Thai-African American actor Rusmeekae Fagerland has selected three pieces to tell his story – two photographs and a pair of sneakers. The two photographs show the scar on his back. “It’s a reminder that I was tortured when I was young. I want to keep it to remind me about the nightmare even though it can be removed with plastic surgery,” says the 31-year-old. He also apologises that his priority in choosing these three items had less to do with the gender issues highlighted in the exhibition than discrimination because of his colour, explaining that he has experienced racism for as long as he can remember.
The sneakers have a slightly happier story behind them: they’re the ones he wore to run 200 kilometres alongside Artiwara “Toon Bodyslam” Kongmalai during his charity marathon from the country’s southernmost corner to the northernmost tip to raise funds for state hospitals.
“With my Afro-American looks, I was constantly bullied and teased about my colour. And even now that I’m an actor and people recognise me, I still get discriminatory comments. While I was running in the charity run, spectators called me katoey (ladyboy) and ‘dam’ (black), I just don’t get it. We are in the year 2018 yet we might as well be back in the middle ages where people were constantly bullied because of their colour and gender. I don’t have the answers. My question is: when we confront this racism and discrimination, should we respect each other’s difference in race or gender or use the eye for an eye approach towards those who show racism and discrimination?”
Rusmeekae Fagerland's collection
“Gender Illumination” is spread over 715 square metres of the exhibition area, both indoors and outdoors, and features well-rounded contents about sexual diversity such as history, social norms, context, circumstances and society’s perceptions.
Curator Chonchanok Phonsing says that she has opted to move away from the norms of curatorship and adopt a different approach. “Usually the curator manages the project from his or her own perspective but this is a collaboration with ordinary people in our society. It took more than 19 months to complete this exhibition. We connected with people through our campaign and social network, asking them to submit any items that told their own stories,” she says.
The team then undertook some research, interviewed prospective contributors and gathered collectibles from people all over Thailand so that the exhibition truly reflected the diverse stories, perceptions, feeling and attitudes of society at large.
Visitors are invited to take time in the various zones starting with the Gender Maze in the outdoor area where people can walk through a maze of questions and rethink their perceptions of gender stereotypes generated by Thai and English slang including such commonly used works as “gentlegay”, “brawny”, “camp”, “dad bod”, “50 shades of gay” and “arm candy”.
The first zone looks at the Genderless Restroom, asking whether the standard men and women images are essential in this day and age and if it might be better to introduce gender neutral restrooms. The Siam Gender Record zone chronicles the history of sexual diversity in Thailand, from Ayutthaya to the present through a timeline of significant circumstances, and examines how print and social media have given rise to LGBTQ expressions. Here we can see how some of the slang words came about, for example tua dam, which emerged from news about a boy’s brothel in 1935. Literally translated as black bean, it has become slang for the performance of anal sex on a male by a male. The mezzanine is home to paintings by children depicting their perception of gender and leads to an exhibition of LGBTQ social activities.
The video installation portrays LGBT life in the south of Thailand.
The Scene of Life zone is on the first floor and is itself divided into three parts covering everything from family life to debatable topics. Along with the collectibles and collections of photos and items, everyday objects tell the story, value and significance of LGBTQ expression, acceptance, and even rejection within both public and private spaces. There are also short films explaining sexual diversity, teen artworks reflecting sexual diversity issues and the story of social movement in Thailand.
Chonchanok explains that some of items submitted have not been included, among them sex toys, as she felt these could overshadow the other items, such as Kanasit’s shirt, a school report and a cassette tape, and a photograph of a kindergarten lad wearing makeup. She also worried that they could be misleading.
The Gender Bread Model is a corner where visitors can gain a better understanding of what “gender” is through a body scanner model that describes the differences between gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation and emotional attraction, and explains a person’s gender can be changed and is fluid, not following the stereotypes of society.
Cover Up takes visitors deeper into the life of sexual diversity. Designed like the backstage of a theatre, here people can freely experiment with gender-neutral clothes and LGBTQ’s wearables such as wigs and makeup.
The final zone, Draw your Dream, polls opinions on the rights of the LGBTQ in Thai society today. Visitors are asked to vote yes or no on such as issues as: “Should we have genderless restrooms in our country?”; Should same-sex couples be able to legally marry?’; and “Would you mind your family members being gay?”.
And there’s also a wall that allows people to share their gender spectrum by painting a paper gender ticket.
The Gender Illumination exhibition is open daily Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm. Admission is free.
Museum Siam is at Tha Tien, Bangkok.
For more information, call (02) 225 2777 or visit www.museumsiam.org.