“... some people had stones thrown at their head, a knife pointed at their throat or a knife aimed at their belly (these are experiences that I myself had directly). Some have had piss thrown at them, and have been kicked and slapped around. Some have been beaten up to within an inch of their lives just for other people's satisfaction. They have been kicked, beaten and stomped in the face, without being raped or having their possessions taken. That sounds like a joke but it is the reality for kathoei in our home in Cho-airong District.”
[Translators’ note: the Thai word kathoei is used with a number of different meanings, including gay men, transgender men and transvestites, making an accurate translation difficult]
This was in a message to Bussayamat Issadul. Youth in Yala refer to her as Mother Ann of Buntem Shelter. Ms. Issadul assists gender diverse people in the area when they encounter painful experiences in their lives because of their different gender.
In the southern border provinces (SBPs) of Thailand, the overlapping identities of being ethnic Malay, Patanian, and Muslim are intertwined in such a way that an outsider cannot decipher the complexity of identities. Identity politics has been extensively used in the struggle against the Siamese state, locally known as Siyae, a term also used to represent non-Muslims. I assumed that during the more than thirteen years of unrest that restarted in 2004, the Malay identity has been intensified to say ‘who I am’ and ’you are not like me’. Religious life has become stricter and tightening.
In reality, humans do not carry only one identity. If all identities in a single person were compatible, life would not be tough. But if two identities (or more) clash violently, it is hard to compromise. Sometimes tragedy is unavoidable. Anticha Sangchai, from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Prince of Songkla University, Pattani Campus, and the owner of the Buku Bookstore, agreed with the above assumption.
"In the Islamic scriptures, there is a strong and clear indication of the sin of being LGBT. When religious identity intensified, sex and gender issues immediately become sensitive and more important because if something in the scriptures is not given importance, it means that the scriptures are weak. People who are trying to establish a strong sense of being Muslim in the area push many things that are not accepted in the scriptures. "
In general, the holy texts of every religion are controversial. There are many interpretations, struggles, and negotiation of ideas in interpretations. In this regard, Anticha thought that this dimension, in recent years, has been missing in the SBPs because of the fundamentalist turn to a strict adherence to the scriptures, which has been monopolized by some people. There is no culture of dialogue to discuss these issues.
Anticha told me that the scriptures did not speak much about sexual diversity, yet there are abundant terms referring to mercy, love, fraternity. However, it turns out that these words were ignored. Personally, she does not think religion is the main cause of the phenomenon of alienation, discrimination, or misunderstanding of LGBTs. She remembers that social norms contributed to the phenomenon. She has experienced a progressive Muslim society bringing gender issues to society.
Ahmadkamae Waemusor, Vice President of the Islamic Council of Pattani Province and Director of Sasnupatam School said:
"Being a kathoei is acceptable in Islam, because in Islam there are religious practices. You are a man, you practice your religion through praying or different rites. How you practice must be clear. If a person is a kathoei, the fact is that he is a man, so he must be treated as a man and perform rituals like a man. But don’t do anything wrong; for example sexual relations with the same sex will be punished. But the individual has no problems and is accepted."
Ahmadkamae said being kathoei is acceptable to the extent that a kathoei must not have sexual relations with the same sex, which is considered a sin and is forbidden.
Islam has space for gender diversity, especially those who are kathoei. However, for toms [Translators’ note: lesbians who act like men] the thinking seems to be different. Ahmadkamae told me being a kathoei is the original 'condition' of the person, while being a tom is a 'behaviour' that comes about from the influence of the media, from the environment, and from unstable families.
"When I found out (meaning about students in the school), I called them in for a chat. We talked back and forth under my care and after a little over a year, this behaviour disappeared and there was no problem. Being a tom is not like being a kathoei. It is not their condition, it just arises from behaviour to show off or be sarcastic in a way about society or the family. That’s how it is. What there is a lot of bisexuality. Some days a person is a woman, some days a man. It does not come about from the original condition of a person, but is temporary. It is caused by feelings. If a person is a student, they can come to adjust their behaviour. We have methods."
I asked him if he had ever heard of LGBT assaults in the area.
"I know there are physical assaults. In the society of the school, there are physical assaults, but not many. There is bullying and psychological assaults. We try to monitor and prevent the situation from getting out of hand into action. We have to intercept it. They can live here and be accepted. They can express themselves. When there is a school show, there is a group of them who come out screaming. We give them an opportunity as long as they don’t go too far from the condition they are in. For example, they cannot dress up like a woman. Islam has a rule about that. We cannot compel their condition but we must keep watch on their actions. "
Ahmadkamae said that incidents like this were not many. However, he acknowledged that when they happened, LGBT groups were unlikely to make it known. They keep it in their group, making it impossible to know definitely the extent of physical assaults.
Ahmadkamae confirmed that attacking a kathoei or a tom is not right. Islamic principle insists that it is a sinful act to wash dirtiness in dirty water.
Likewise, it is forbidden for Muslims to harm others, even if that person is a member of LGBTs. Islam teaches that being LGBT is a sin, a personal sin. LGBTs can also perform religious duties according to their original biological sex.
"They must not marry the same sex," this is the iron rule.
Three years ago, Ae (not her real name) decided to run away from home in Yala to live in Bangkok. She could not live with the pressure from her the family anymore. Since she could remember, she considered herself a tom, despite at that time not knowing the name of her identity. She felt strange and unusual; in particular, she felt shy when close to a woman. She fooled herself into trying to date men but she could not resist her impulse.
Her family is strictly religious. Ae wore hijab head scarf when she was a child. While men wear anything they want, she asked her father why women have to wear a hijab.
"Father said God does not like women who are not covered. God commanded that not wearing one is a sin and women will go to hell. If a man sees a single strand of hair, a woman will be in hell for forty years. My dad always made claims about God. I then told him that it was hot, very hot. I even dared him to wear one to see. He replied that hell was hotter. For me at that time, it did not make sense at all. I thought that uncovering my hair did not cause anyone any trouble. Why should God hate me just for uncovering my hair for other people to see?
In addition to the difficulty of wearing a hijab, it is also a symbol of females. For Ae, it is harder to adjust to the hijab. Ae considers her/himself as a man; thus, Ae chose to cover the hair at home and take off the hijab outside.
"At that time I was a tom. I believed it was a sin. But one hundred percent sin? No. Balanced against that was the thought that it didn’t matter. I am like this. But I still believe in God, who is always merciful and forgiving. The iron rule of Islam is that as long as one still believes in God, all sin will be forgiven. I thought I still believe in God, so if I am a tom, God will forgive me. I also wondered what if God does not love me. God said the third sexes are hell-bound. Why? If I love God, will God still hate me? Can I not still be a good servant of God? I am just like this. If God hates me and calls us people of hell, why did God create me?
Ae lived with this discomfort until her parents pressured her to get married. Of course, to a man. That was the turning point when Ae decided to escape to Bangkok and slowly eased her/himself out of religious bondage. She questioned the existence of God and chose to walk out of Islam. It is a crucial issue, apart from her/his vulnerable relationship with her/his parents ... Crumbling is still a much lighter word to describe the relationship. Ae's choice of word is 'empty.'
Not all LGBTs have chosen to cut ties with their families like Ae. It was an expensive price to pay. Some people choose to compromise and negotiate when two identities collide in a religious framework so that they do not hurt themselves and their loved ones.
"The clashes between identities, I think, have their space and time. We have many identities, depending on time and place. LGBTs may put on clothes that conform to their sex at birth because it is colourful and a day to celebrate with their family. An LGBT person knows what s/he should do at any given time. Appropriateness is not a limit on rights and liberties; but it is an interaction with something that is different from us and how shall we live with that?" said Ekkarin Tuansiri of the Faculty of Political Science, Prince of Songkla University, Pattani Campus.
A young kathoei in Yala city, known as Nana Venus, a name she gave herself, chooses to express her gender identity to society. At the same time, she does not neglect the religious practices that a good Muslim follows. It is not easy, but is it unbearable to go into a mosque without make-up? She cannot. Forced to do that, her confidence would vanish before she reached the mosque.
Nana wears make-up when she goes to the mosque for prayers but she keeps her traditional outfits for the prayer session. The elders looked and some asked ‘Is this excessive?' Her peers of the same age chose to gossip and Nana heard them. She said being in a city her appearance was not serious and weakens the shock of being different.
"I have to look at the place for how I can dress. It’s not that I just wear something short. My parents know I am like this but I have never worn shorts. Whenever I go anywhere, I try to dress respectfully. I wear makeup and my hair is cropped, so people know what I am but I never overdo it."
"Do you feel sinful?" I asked.
"I do. I was born that way. I cannot choose. I try to be a good person so other people can see I am good. I'm not the kind that will be a woman all the way. Being what I am and being too much are not the same. The sins are not equal. I know I am sinful. Just this is a sin. I will try to stop at this."
"Have you ever wanted to have a sex change operation?"
“When I was in Grade 7 or 8, I saw older LGBTs in the media. They had long hair and breasts. I wanted to be like them. However, the reality is that I am in this religion. I am Muslim in a Muslim society. I have learned, I have grown up. I have studied. My parents did not prohibit me at all, yet they set a boundary for me. I do not want an operation. This is enough for me. Just this has already caused them enough worry."
"What if one day you want to change into a woman?"
"I have to restrain myself when I am like this. I have feelings but the feelings can disappear. When it comes again, it must disappear. Our feelings always change. I try to reduce my media consumption. I try to consume media that I have seen is appropriate for me. I have older peers who went to work in Bangkok. They are like this. They are beautiful. But I do not have to be beautiful, with long hair or breasts. I am happy with just this. It depends more on my happiness. If I do more than this, I feel that other people stare at me. I won't be happy. Doing this is enough."
The love of A and B (not their real names) crosses the religion line. A is a Muslim and B is a Buddhist. They identify themselves as gays. A is a kathoei and B is a man. They met through social media. Later, they decided to live together to help each other run a business. A came to the point where he underwent a lot of pain, negotiation and major changes in himself.
A told me that he spent some time as a kathoei. He went through almost all the procedures required for a man to be transformed into a woman, excepting only the sex-change operation. He is the only son of a well-known and respectable Muslim family in the area, which meant his parents could not tolerate his sexual identity. He was violently rebuked. He was cast out of their home. It went as far as beating him. It ended when he escaped to take up a life as a dancer in Bangkok. Since in the society he lived in he had only gay friends, he gradually changed into a gay. He could still preserve characteristics of being male, not like a kathoei. A's family found it is easier to accept. He started wearing a beard, playing football and dressing like a man with the heart of a gay.
"That's what the parents see on the outside. But inside I am still the same. They can accept me as their son. That's enough. "
After seven years in Bangkok, A returned to Yala as a gay man, unlike the kathoei who had left. His parents came to terms with this image. He started his own business with extensive experience and knowledge gained from life in Bangkok, as a makeup artist, hairdresser, and even a dance teacher.
After starting his own business, A wanted a companion to share his path, his life, and his business. Then came B. B had previously had a family and had children. A believes that his parents should know about his relationship with B, and should be able to accept it because they both help each other earn a living.
If one day, you are pressured to marry a woman, what will you do?
"If you ask if one day I will want it, I want it. But I have to stabilize my position first so that I can look after another person who is a woman. I want to have children. I want to have a family life. Yet, at this time, I am looking for a place where I stand. One day I want it. But I want by that day everything to be perfect, and that I can raise her child. Before that time, I have to choose for the family.
Would you be happy?
"I think we have to get to know each other"
"What if you still love B?" I asked.
"I think for love we do not need to separate because a shared life, I will have a wife. Do we need to separate? It is not necessary to go that far, because we live together today. We are together more like a family. We live like a family, relying on each other like life partners. If one day, we have to separate we'll both be glad. We have a different family. We have talked to each other that if one day we really have to separate from whatever reason, we want to part smiling. We don't want a noisy fight.
I turned to look at B. He was just quiet and smiling.
The question is: in what way can Muslims in the SBPs and LGBTs coexist?
The ongoing unrest in the SBPs increases the complexity of gender and LGBT issues. The marginalized are marginalized further amidst explosions and human rights abuses by officials and insurgents. The problems of marginalized people are not as significant as ending the unrest. With this priority, LGBTs live in eternal non-existence and an endless wait.
"If I look at the violence that occurs against LGBTs in the SBPs, I think it overlaps in multiple dimensions. When a person in the SBPs is Muslim and is LGBT, they suffer violence in many dimensions, in many forms not only because they are LGBT alone. They may be discriminated against in other dimensions from their overlapping identities," said Anticha.
"How does Islam deal with this?" Ekarin repeated my question. "First, one has to consider that they are people of the faith like us. Muslims must first understand that the LGBTs who are Muslim are servants of God. They have the same status as us. If we are people of the faith, we have to exchange with LGBTs. The problem that arises in Muslim society is when we think we are pious, are good servants of Allah, then we will not associate with people who we feel are not good servants.
"For me, we have no right to accuse or do anything to them at all. They and we have the same rights. What is an issue between these individuals and God, we do not have the right to judge their sin that they are good persons or bad persons. That's not our duty. "
In Malay, the word ponae means kathoei or a man who acts effeminately like a woman. The terms lesbian, gay, tom[boy], [la]dy, bi[sexual], queer or terms for other sexes are not yet established in Malay. In one way, it reflects that Malay has not caught up with changes to name or define things.
Local people commented that ponae cannot be interpreted to include other sexes those that are not kathoei. But some others said it can. It is not a little embarrassing when there is no language to call something. It is enough to say that apart from kathoei, other LGBTs have no place in Malay. The use of borrowed words is a way to help Muslims in the area who use Malay to know what to call people who are different.
It is really not easy to be ponae, tom, lesbian, bisexual, queer ...