Saturday, July 16, 2011

Making a chai tae out of a kathoey, or real man out of a fag

Got a sissy-boy child? Send him to a reparative therapist who attests he or she can “straighten” your boy out. Even if it kills him. Literally.

These types of “clinics” and “therapists” were fairly common in the not-too-distant past in the United States, but for the most part have been professionally ridiculed as not only ineffective, but as psychological quackery and mental torture. There remain a few who still push this dangerous fake therapy, the most infamous being the laughable George Rekers.

More recently, similar clinics have turned up in Malaysia, which is led by a homophobic Islamic (is that redundant?) government that has for years been trying to convict a dissident of sodomy. These clinics were for “sissy boys” and asserted they could turn your sissy boy into a real man. Unsurprisingly, many reparative therapists took up the torch – oh, how ironic – to practice this voodoo psychology in Malaysia where they found a willing client: The Malaysian government, which allegedly forced boys into the treatment centers. Despite international condemnation, the Malaysian government essentially replied with a hearty “fuck you.”

A side note: To really understand Malaysia’s antipathy toward gays, you need to know the history behind the government’s attempt to denounce and prosecute dissident Anwar Ibrahim. The government wants to get rid of him so badly, but the only thing they can come up with is an accusation of sodomy.

But I digress. Because that’s not the end of it. While it may not surprise you that conservative Christian groups and Islamic groups continue to support efforts to change one’s sexuality, it may surprise you to learn that Buddhist organizations, teachers and even various Sanghas have been involved in reparative therapy as well. And a recent news report of a particular Thai Sangha’s involvement in treating so-called “ladyboys” infuriates me no end, as this strikes me as a complete corruption of the Dhamma as well as some of the worst kind of homophobia I’ve seen.

To get a good grasp about how this issue operates in Thailand and most of Southeast Asia, one needs to understand both how the Sangha fits into Thai culture, as well as understand the history of the kathoey, or ladyboy, both in Thai culture and Buddhist history. For this explanation, I’m going to rely heavily on a work by Peter A. Jackson called “Male Homosexuality and Transgenderism in the Thai Buddhist Tradition.” Granted, this work dates back to 1993, but it nonetheless presents excellent background on this issue.

There remains a very strong link between the Sangha and lay community in SE Asia, where families in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia send their boys to the Sangha for short periods where they learn Dhamma and live as a novice monk. Some decide to stay. Most return to their families and lay life. This is such a strong tradition that a recent survey revealing that many Thais no longer support the Sangha like they had in the past has made headlines in the local press.

Many may have a perspective that Thais are generally very tolerant and accepting of homosexuality. After all, sex clubs have been ubiquitous in Bangkok and Pataya (not as much so in Phuket), and if you type the search terms “ladyboy” and “Thailand” into Google, you’ll get a plethora of results for various websites offering a variety of services performed by such ladyboys.

True, there are no laws against homosexual activity in Thailand as there are in Malaysia to the south, but to conclude that homosexuality is widely accepted in Thailand would be very unskillful. It’s not uncommon for Thai police to raid gay bars just for the hell of it, much like police did in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s. What made the attitude different in Thailand from that in the West, Jackson points out, was the Thai attitude toward homosexuality was largely diffused: it lacked a specific target. The AIDS epidemic in Thailand changed all that; it gave people who initially harbored vague feelings of antipathy toward homosexuals an opportunity to target aggressive hatred.

But where did this seed of homophobia come from? Believe it or not, it came from several Thai Buddhist teachers from the past whose homophobic interpretations of the Tipitika have been carried forward by more recent members of the Thai Sangha. As was largely the case with Christianity and Biblical texts, the Buddhist canon contains sections referring to certain, specific sexual activity and attitudes. But given the fact that there was no Western concept of homosexuality 2,500 years ago in Asia, modern Buddhist “interpreters” have tended to force the concept of homosexuality onto Pali terms and descriptions of activity that appear similar to what the Western mind labels as “homosexual.”

Another thing to keep in mind is the Pali canon, and Thai Buddhism in particular, contains a very strong anti-sex message directed specifically toward monks.

“That which is called methunadhamma is explained as: the dhamma of an unrighteous man (asattapurisa), the conduct of the common people, the manners of the low, dhamma which is evil and crude, dhamma whose end is but water, an activity which should be hidden, the dhamma which couples should perform together.” (Vinaya, Vol. 1, p.49)

While the message was strident, it did not differentiate between forms. All types of sex were covered: it didn’t matter what a monk stuck his penis into, such activity always carried the same result – the monk had failed and was usually expelled from the Sangha. But a distaste for all forms of sex, even among the laity, found its way into the commentaries of many Thai Buddhist writers. Jackson writes:

“Significantly, contemporary Thai Buddhist views on laypersons' sexual behaviour are often more proscriptive and extreme than attitudes reflect in the Pali canon or in traditional or popular Thai accounts of Buddhist doctrine and ethics. Phra Buddhadasa's work has been especially influential among educated and middle class Thai Buddhists. However, his views on sexuality are at variance with Thai Buddhism's traditional distinction between lay and clerical ethical conduct. The ethical extremism of Phra Buddhadasa and other contemporary Buddhist reformists in Thailand such as Phra Phothirak results from a clericalising trend whereby ethical demands traditionally made only of monks are now increasingly also being required of laypersons.”

This anti-sex attitude remains to this day not only in the Thai Sangha, but to a large extent within general Thai society among the laity in the form of homophobia.

The term "kathoey" in Thai loosely translates as "ladyboy" and has a somewhat interesting history in Buddhist literature. The term has been translated to include everything from hermaphrodites to being a descriptive term for a weakling or eunuch. The Pali term pandaka has been used to describe virtually any sexual deviant, but was most frequently used to describe homosexual activity. Jackson writes:

“But whether or not Buddhism has been instrumental in influencing the development of the popular Thai notion, a very similar mixing of physical and psychological sex, gender behaviours and sexuality occurs both in the Pali terms pandaka and in the Thai term kathoey. Both terms are parts of conceptual schemes in which people regarded as exhibiting physiological or culturally ascribed features of the opposite sex are categorised together. If Buddhism was not the source of the popular Thai conception of kathoey then at the very least it has reinforced a markedly similar pre-existing Thai cultural concept.”

Jackson further states that the term kathoey has largely transformed in general Thai vernacular to be used to describe any gay man, whether a cross-dresser or straight-acting, so nowadays it essentially translates as "fag."

It is unfortunate that so many Thai commentators and their subsequent followers developed and promoted such anti-gay sentiments as there are some very interesting references in the Pali canon to the Buddha showing great tolerance toward those whose sexual identity did not follow the norm.

There was Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and personal attendant, who allegedly was born a kathoey in many previous lives and who became an arahant shortly after the Buddha became enlightened. And there is the story of Vakkali, who was enamored with the Buddha. The Buddha rebuked Vakkali for constantly staring lustfully at the Buddha, but his rebuke was not a “stop looking at me that way gay boy,” but rather, stop falling into the trap of sensual attachment. Nonetheless, the Buddha told Vakkali to go away. Jackson writes:

"Vakkali was so shattered by this command that he attempted to kill himself by jumping off a mountain. But deva or spiritual beings informed the Buddha of Vakkali's dejection and he quickly went to the monk's aid in time to save him from committing suicide. With an extremely brief exposition of the dhamma, 'The eyes see dhamma,' the Buddha gave Vakkali the insight he needed in order to attain enlightenment and he immediately attained arahantship."

Nonetheless, there is a proscription against ordaining a pandaka that is attributed to the Buddha based on a tale in the Vinaya about a monk who was running around the Sangha asking the young monks to “fuck me, fuck me.” When they didn’t oblige, the pandaka went to the elephant stables and again pleaded with the men there to “fuck me, fuck me.” When the Buddha heard about this, he expelled the pandaka because he was concerned what the lay community might think about the Sangha. This has created considerable controversy today over whether openly gay men should be allowed to be ordained.

Now we arrive to the year 2011 when effeminate boys are being sent to Sanghas where monks are attempting to transform them from being pandaka or kathoey into real men, or chai tae. At work here is probably centuries of indoctrinated homophobia.

The renunciation of sexual desire, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, is for the monastic community and has everything to do with renouncing sensual pleasure of all types. For the monks to teach these “ladyboys” to become "real men" would mean guiding these boys in the ways of hetero sex. The fact that monks would even venture into that territory at all with young novices strikes me as a serious corruption of Dhamma, as well as a particularly virulent form of homophobia sustained by reactionary abbots who don't know what to do with the ordained ladyboys in their midst.

And again we come back to the psychological trauma such reparative therapy can create in young minds. This isn’t the ending of suffering, this constitutes the nurturing and encouragement of suffering. Many of these boys will simply reject the efforts and return to their previous ways after they leave the Sangha. But others may likely be so traumatized that they commit suicide or develop seriously self-destructive behaviors. From being happy, these boys are “transformed” into miserable waifs.

Shameful. Shameful. Where is Rahula when you need him? Where is the water dipper?


  1. Thank you for providing much needed context to this situation. I was unclear whether the issue was regarding vinaya regulations like not wearing adornments etc or the more sinister and damaging possibility of enforcing gender complimentarianism (my new word of the day meaning "for every manly man there is a womanly woman" etc)and general heteronormativity.

  2. Thanks NellaLou, really amazing the historical background on how some Thai Buddhist commentators perpetuate this stigma.

  3. great post. I like it when you write political stuff. The ladyboy culture is fascinating to me and has so many beautiful aspects, and is still more accepting than other cultures (I think). Are women who dress as men and assume "masculine" identities as welcome?

  4. Hi bookbird, I'm not sure how well accepted in Thailand women who dress or identify as male are. There is something in the Pali canon, however, about ordained monks who later identified more strongly as female, and nuns who identified more strongly as male. The Buddha had no problem with these monks moving to live with the nuns, and the nuns moving to live with the monks, saying they had taken and kept the vows, they were living the holy life, there was nothing else of concern. However, in more modern times, when the nun lineage disappeared and the traditional monks were too uptight to re-start it, this practice disappeared also.

  5. There was recently a very interesting documentary on National Geographic Channel about the kathoey. It discussed the hardships of that type of life in light of religion, but it painted the kathoey in a positive light. Prior to seeing this documentary, I knew very little about the kathoey world.

    I think it's sad how many people cling to the idea that being gay is a "choice". Even sadder is the US laws that allow more people to marry their cousins than their gay partners. Hopefully the momentum is shifting.

    Thanks for sharing such an insightful article with us.

  6. Hi Lola, thanks for the information about the NGC documentary. I'll keep an eye out for it as they often repeat.

  7. Thank you for this information! I was not aware of this situation in Buddhist sanghas in Thailand, nor of the history of the Buddha's attitude to (at least one particular) pandaka.

    I once wrote a piece on Buddhism and homosexuality for (you can read it here):

    While I attempted to be level-headed, clearly my approach was a little bit parochial and Western-centric (and of course, even then, it is not as if there are no homophobic/heteronormative Western Buddhists). I think it's humbling to keep a three-dimensional view of Buddhism(s) and to keep holding ourselves accountable. Thank you.

  8. @shinenigan, thanks for the article link, I love the stories from the other traditions! It's helpful to hear and read them because during my recent review of the Vinaya, I am learning that the Buddha established a method of verifying how "rules" should be followed, and one of the guidelines is to first take a holistic view of the entire Tipitika. Anyone can cherry pick what they want out of any religious canon, but it is more difficult to view something through the entire spectrum of a canon and takes not just wisdom, but basic common sense to understand the context of how a rule arose and the circumstances at the time. Those circumstances may no longer be applicable.

    I love your piece! Thank you for sharing it!