GENDER IDENTITY IMPOSED FROM AFAR
A recent seminar at the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre revised my concept of being gay. This was part of an ongoing series of discussions, and it’s worth following.
I define myself by sexual orientation, as a gay man – the most important fact in telling others who I am. Gender is central to life, guiding how we think and react. Women see a football match and turn away – it’s not “their” game. Gender guides their preference.
It’s not so simple for LGBT people, who routinely do the opposite of what their genitalia suggest they should do.
At the seminar, scholar Narupon Duangwises posed a question about why the Western “binary” system of couples is in conflict with self-identity.
European countries spread the heterosexual “ideal” through colonialism while disparaging any local habits containing elements of homosexuality. Such practices became infused with guilt.
As well, the West, as it modernised, placed sexual identity at the core of human identity, insisting that people needed to behave according to their gender – males had to be masculine, females had to be feminine.
But how do we identify our gender? By genitalia, lifestyle, attraction to a certain gender? If I’m sexually attracted to someone of the same sex, I’m suddenly abnormal, according to this Western ideal. The chief problem today isn’t about sexual preference, but rather that we place too much trust in gender identity. We can’t see further than “man, woman, gay, katoey, tom, dee, lesbian, bisexual or transgender”. We can’t see the complexity that often weaves these terms together.
Of course our gender and sexual preferences needn’t remain fixed. Change happens. In some places homosexuality was long an accepted tradition until the European invasion.
Was Thailand this way? We’ve never had a scholarly history of sexuality in Thailand, so we don’t know. But nor can we claim that being straight is the genuine Thai way and that anything else is a stain on society.
Meanwhile it’s helpful to realise that sexual choice and gender are complex and that they’ve been altered by Western influence. Every culture is entitled to its own perspective on sex and, unlike the European colonialists, we must respect that, not impose judgement.
The point of the seminars is to challenge the modern definition of sex and break ground for fresh research into Thai sexuality in the past. If you’re interested in cultural pluralism and sexual diversity, there are five more sessions. Visit the Princess Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre website.